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babies in world-building

One world building error that I find as often in SF as in fantasy:  many, many, many writers neglect to figure out Where Babies Come From and Why It Matters.

Now, in fantasy you can with suitable application of magic get yourself out of the situation where sky-high infant mortality and short life-expectancy.  This, however, merely gets you into the situation you often find in SF.  You still need the 2.1 children per couple to keep up with replacement rate.

Some writers weasel out of it with immortality.  And I do mean weasel out of it.  Though there are other reasons for immortality in fiction -- some aesthetically sound, others not -- I have read works in which it was blatantly obvious that the reason people were immortal was to justify draconian population control measures.  SF writers boasted of having foreseen the population crisis decades before it was taken seriously outside SF; SF writers not only did not foresee demographic collapse, they are not writing about it even now that it is not only taken seriously outside SF but actually occurring.

Indeed, some of them have population control measures in societies that would be suffering demographic collapse even without such measures.  Beta Colony, for instance, tracks most closely to a Western Europe welfare state minus the lumpenproletariat, which means it would, logically, have a sub-replacement birthrate.  Yet it forces people to attend classes to be licensed to have a child, and then you have to pay to have a second, and still more to have a third -- all of which, naturally, would depress the rate still farther.  This would only work if people have an obsessive desire to have babies.  Yet no one evinces such obsessive desire.  Cordelia's reflections on the possibility of having a child are not very certain about it, and she doesn't reflect that she's odd, that most other people structure their lives about the possibility.

And most people would structure their lives about it if desperately wanting to have babies was the condition of reproduction, and within very few generations.  Philoprogentiveness would be selected for, whether it was a genetic or cultural factor.  And selected for rather in the manner that hunger is selected for. When children can be accidents, sex drive will cope with a lack of desire for them, but when they have to be planned, it can't do it alone.  (Which will not be all good for children.  Battered children are more likely to be planned than non-battered children.  They have the kid to fulfill their desires, and if the kid doesn't fulfill them -- whap.)

This is why contraception does not completely change women's relationship to childbearing.  The children still have to be born, or society will collapse within -- well, within a lifetime.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this folly, age, and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.

To completely change it, you would have to have artificial conception and incubation and mandatory sterilization of everyone -- probably with mandatory abortions for the accidents.  And then there is the little question of how the children get raised. . . .

Update: I am now screening comments to this to prevent its going off on tangents.  Even non-tangential things will get unscreened as I have time to deal with them.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 8th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
By society? Whenever have new mothers and children been supported by "society"? Even in a welfare state, they get supported by the state, and that gets Very Ugly Indeed -- the children of widowed mothers do better, statistically, than those of never-married mothers.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - marycatelli - Jul. 8th, 2010 03:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Jul. 8th, 2010 03:54 am (UTC) - Expand
Beta Quibble: - carbonelle - Jul. 12th, 2010 06:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - marycatelli - Jul. 12th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - carbonelle - Jul. 15th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - marycatelli - Jul. 15th, 2010 02:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - carbonelle - Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:04 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - marycatelli - Jul. 23rd, 2010 01:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Beta Quibble: - mindstalk - Aug. 3rd, 2010 03:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mindstalk - Aug. 2nd, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 3rd, 2010 01:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 8th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
A few SF writers did have demographic collapse in their fiction, though usually for outside reasons, rather than the ones we're really seeing -- Philip K. Dick in The Gameplayers of Titan, for example, where there's been a precipitous drop in human fertility.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids -- okay, it's a post-holocaust setting, but population is still dropping because of anti-mutant hysteria.

World Without Women, by Day Keene and Leonard Pruyn -- a plague wipes out virtually all women and sterilizes most of the survivors.

I'm sure there have been others. Possibly including Five to Twelve, by Edmund Cooper, but the world-building and genetics and other science in that are so vague and so screamingly nonsensical that it's hard to be sure.

I acknowledge, though, that they all required some outside agency, not just wealth and readily-available contraception.

Jul. 8th, 2010 10:32 pm (UTC)
Well, if it's an outside agency, you can just remove it and go on. Without that, you have to consider how a society would ensure replacement rate fertility. Given some of the tactics SF has proposed to deal with overpopulation -- I suspect they may just not like babies.
(no subject) - mercyorbemoaned - Aug. 10th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 9th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
Actually there were two reliable forms of contraception:

1. Don't have sexual intercourse.
2. Have the woman be already pregnant.

The second one was, in various times, cited as a way a woman could be unfaithful and still ensure that her children were all her husband's. But not exactly preventing children as such.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:06 am (UTC)
Which writers are these? I haven't read much near future SF.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 3rd, 2010 04:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 5th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 2nd, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
Battered children are more likely to be planned than non-battered children.


The thing that gets to me is cyberpunk-- there doesn't seem to be enough safety to take care of infants or small children, and no one seems to notice it as a problem.
Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:20 am (UTC)
Professor Edward Lenoski (at the University of Southern California) studied abused children compared to a control group.

The percentages that were planned: 91% vs. compared to 63%.

Also, the battered children's mothers went into maternity clothes months earlier than the control group's.

Safety - marycatelli - Aug. 3rd, 2010 12:30 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Safety - nancylebov - Aug. 3rd, 2010 07:38 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Safety - marycatelli - Aug. 5th, 2010 03:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Safety - mercyorbemoaned - Aug. 10th, 2010 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:13 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 5th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 3rd, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
SF writers not only did not foresee demographic collapse, they are not writing about it even now that it is not only taken seriously outside SF but actually occurring

I partly disagree -- quite a few SF writers take "people want to have few to no children" for granted, but societies described invariably also have very long lifespans, so little or no demographic collapse occurs. Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and of course Larry Niven come to mind. I am not aware of any book besides "Saturn's Children" where demographic collapse is taken to its ultimate conclusion.
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
Like I said, "Some writers weasel out of it with immortality"
Aug. 4th, 2010 04:09 am (UTC)
Hi! I found this post via james_nicoll.

About Beta Colony's demographics, it's worth noting that the technology available to the Betans allows for significantly altered reproductive patterns. As Cordelia mentions after the soltoxin assassination attempt, the Betans would need only a acraping of cells to create perfectly viable sex cells, the uterine replicators providing after that better-than-natural environments for the young. These innovations, along with the vastly extended active lifespans of Betans--Kareen Koudelka thinks her 50-something parents look like Betans in their 70s--and you've got a vastly extended time period for biological parenthood, perhaps almost twice as long as the 15-45 window common in most developed countries with early 21st century reproductive technologies.

Too, Betans' gender equality will work to the society's favour. As mindstalk noted, the European societies with the highest fertility rates are France and the Nordics, places that have engineered their economies so as to let women be economically active and mothers at once. Combine this with the extended window for biological reproduction, and you've got ample space for a growing population.
Aug. 5th, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
"Highest" != "replacement."

And those techniques will also ensure that people put off having children because they think they can always do it, until they realize it's Too Late.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - marycatelli - Aug. 5th, 2010 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )


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