This book explains the elimination of maternal characters in American, British, French, and German literature before 1890 by examining motherless creations: Pygmalion’s statue, Frankenstein’s creature, homunculi, automata, androids, golems, and steam men. These beings typify what is now called artificial life, living systems made through manufactured means. Fantasies about creating life ex-utero were built upon misconceptions about how life began, sustaining pseudoscientific beliefs about the birthing body. Physicians, inventors, and authors of literature imagined generating life without women to control the process of reproduction and generate perfect progeny. Thus, some speculative fiction before 1890 belongs to the literary genealogy of transhumanism, the belief that technology will someday transform some humans into superior, immortal beings. Female motherless creations tend to operate as sexual companions. Male ones often emerge as subaltern figures analogous to enslaved beings, illustrating that reproductive rights inform readers’ sense of who counts as human in fictions of artificial life.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Fictionality and Artificial Life
Part One, The Rationale for Creating Life without Mothers, 1650-1800
Chapter 1, Fables about the Birthing Body in the Long Eighteenth Century
Chapter 2, Automaton: The Analogy of ‘Man a Machine’ in Descartes and Obstetrics
Chapter 3, Pygmalion as Creator of Artificial Life
Part Two, Motherless Children in Literature of the Romantic Era, 1800-1832
Chapter 4, Homunculus and the Search for Immortality in Goethe’s Faust
Chapter 5, Olympia and the Romance Scam in Hoffmann’s The Sandman
Chapter 6, The Creature, his Companion, and the Singularity in Shelley’s Frankenstein
Chapter 7, The Golem: A Reflection on the Purpose of Artificial Life
Part Three, Making Artificial Slaves in French and American Literature, 1850-1890
Chapter 8, The Sex Bot Hadaly in Villiers’s Tomorrow’s Eve
Chapter 9, Constructing Identity through the "Iron Slave" in Melville’s The Bell-Tower
Chapter 10, White Supremacy in Ellis’s The Steam Man
Wendy C. Nielsen is Associate Professor of English at Montclair State University, USA. She has published the book Women Warriors in Romantic Drama and scholarly essays on world literature, Romantic-era automata, theater, the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Olympe de Gouges, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Corday, and Boadicea.
"This fascinating exploration of the quest for mechanical life in the Western imagination is beautifully written, thought provoking, and riveting. By situating these fantasies of "motherless creations" within a cultural context of medicalized misogyny and slavery, Nielsen presents a deeply rich, timely study relevant for understanding today's transhumanist debates."
—Joanna Ebenstein, Founder of Morbid Anatomy