Today on Project Gutenberg #38

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Unbegotten Child by Winston Marks

The only thing scarier than being pregnant is being unwillingly pregnant. And the only thing scarier than being unwillingly pregnant is when you have no idea how you got that way.

Inexplicable or simply impossible pregnancies have been a trope in fiction for literally thousands of years. So author Winston Marks wasn’t exactly breaking new ground when he published this short story in the November 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. But the way he goes about it is rather interesting.

The setup is simple. Sara Caffey, a news reporter and “thirty-six-year-old spinster,” in her own words, is six months pregnant. Only she insists that it can’t be possible, and that other doctors have said her swollen belly is the result of an abdominal tumor. Our narrator, Dr. Foley, reacts in the typical fashion and assumes that Sara is lying. She must be trying to cover up some sort of shameful affair, he thinks, or maybe she’s just in denial about her mistake. But Sara remains adamant, and she insists that Foley contact Phillipe Sansome, a French surgeon who was the last person to treat her unusual condition. When Sansome learns where Sara is, he shows up in person, determined to help in any way he can. You see, he’s on the verge of a scientific breakthough. Years of researching cancerous tumors have led him to develop an extraordinary hypothesis. If Sara Caffey really is pregnant, then it means human evolution is about to take a major leap forward…

The ideas offered up by the story are way more interesting than the story itself. We don’t really get to the weird sci-fi stuff until close to the end, and getting to that point is kind of a slog. The narrator’s judgmental and sometimes creepy attitude is especially hard to swallow. This is him talking about his own patient:

Such protestations from unmarried mothers were not uncommon, but Sara Caffey’s cold convictions were unshakable. She sank back into her seven satin pillows and sighed mightily. Her wide-spaced, intelligent eyes glared at me from a handsome, if somewhat overly strong, face. Creamy white shoulders swept gracefully into gradually darkening neck skin and frankly tanned cheeks and broad forehead. Her straight, slender nose was sunburned.

As resident physician for over fifteen years, I had learned patience in these matters. But the thought that this lovely creature expected me to believe that she was an unfulfilled old maid got under my skin, particularly under the circumstances.

What about the central idea of the story? Is it interesting enough to overcome the tedium of the earlier sections? My answer to that is “Kind of.” The theory that Sansome poses to both Foley and the readers is certainly weird and provocative. Essentially, he believes that humanity is evolving the ability to asexually reproduce. Tumors and cancers aren’t just random internal growths, but the human body’s effort to create new life out of itself. Of course, virtually none of these tumors have successfully grown into viable babies — not until Sara came along.

“In a fit prolonged depression brought on by a foolishly strenuous research of histories, my mind stumbled into a stupid preoccupation with a few isolated cases of exogenic pregnancy. One which fascinated me was the young 17-year-old boy from whose lung a surgeon removed a live three-month foetus. Somehow the obvious explanation refused to satisfy me. It was, of course, concluded that the foetus was an undeveloped twin to the boy himself.

This could be so; but on what facts was this assumption based? None. Only the absence of any other theory justified the concept. The surgeon had expected to find a hard carcinoma.

“And it came to me suddenly that he had found his cancer!

“My interpolation was this: Mankind is suffering an evolutionary change in his reproductive procedure. The high incidence of various tumors evidences Nature’s experiments in developing a asexual reproduction.”

Foley and Sansome proceed to debate this a little more:

“This is a rather staggering notion, Dr. Sansome,” I said. “Have you been able to support it with—additional evidence?”

“Until Miss Caffey,” he said, “frankly, no. Not the kind of evidence that is acceptable. But the theory has much to defend it. In your own Journal of the A. M. A., May 7, 1932, Dr. Maud Slye published the first solid evidence that predisposition to so-called malignant tumor is hereditary. Is this not a better characteristic of a true mutation, rather than of a disease?”

“Perhaps,” I said. “But how does Mother Nature justify the desirability of a change from our present rather successful bisexual system? And isn’t she being rather cruel in her methods? Think of the millions she has made suffer in her experiments.”

“Mother Nature,” Sansome pronounced positively, “is neither kind nor cruel. She is manifestly indifferent to all but the goal of survival of the species. Our civilization has set out to thwart her with increasingly more effective methods of birth-control. In the light of survival, Nature is most justified in trying to bring millions of frustrated, childless humans to parenthood.

Both men have reasons for believing what they do, but which one is right? Marks is going to make you wait until the very last line to find out.

While this certainly isn’t the best thing I’ve read in a while, I can’t say I regret reading it. It’s not super deep and it’s very dated in some of its attitudes, but it’s not badly written. You could probably read it in about 15 to 20 minutes, so it won’t take up much of your time. Give it a look if it sounds interesting to you.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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