— José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity
THE CHILD is a kind of archive. Like an archive, it anticipates the future from a moment in the present. It is the archive of past and present that we send into the future as a guarantor of our continuity, of our immortality, of our extension into a time we cannot foresee. But where the archive implies a time that is always already past, the child enfolds futurity even as it incorporates us as the past. We invest in the child the way we would invest in an archive, sending it into the future just as we do our collections of ourselves. But the child is no dead letter — it will continue to write us anew, to renew us, even as it promises the continuity of the same.
Rebekah Sheldon’s The Child to Come is a brilliant meditation on the figure of the child as both the promise of the future and the focus of our anxiety regarding that future. The Child to Come examines the concept of “reproductive futurism,” the investment of all our hopes for the future in our children. At first it may seem counterintuitive, or downright perverse, to question the long-standing association of children with futurity, with the extension of the human in time, with “life-itself.” After all, as Michael Jackson put it in 1985, “[w]e are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day.” By refusing such a seductive promise, Sheldon extends the radical challenge to heterosexual genealogy of Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). Broadly, both Edelman and Sheldon effect a queer repositioning by refusing to take for granted the function of the child — as framed by reproductive necessity — to carry on the name of the Father. While Edelman’s No Future is less interested in the specificities of history, The Child to Come focuses specifically on American culture from the 1960s to the present.
Here is an ineluctable third frame, then, which we can name (however problematically) the Anthropocene; inevitably, in our own radically threatened present, The Child to Come is framed by the current eco-crisis. As Sheldon notes, “[f]rom the vantage of eco-catastrophe […] the child stands in the place of the species and coordinates its transit into the future.” She is particularly interested in how the child has been mobilized in response to “the burgeoning of forms-of-life made apprehensible in this period.” For one thing, the current threats to human survival resulting from the voracious technological drives of neoliberal capitalism — read as threats to “life-itself” — have made all too apparent a “liveliness” in the world that has nothing to do with the human. From this perspective, The Child to Come draws on contemporary theoretical positions such as New Materialism that seek to account for the liveliness of an object-world demonstrating the kind of agency we have conventionally associated only with the human. Think, for example, of the disastrous energies of floods, fires, and hurricanes. As Sheldon affirms, however, “those vibrant agents […] are our co-constituents in the real.”
The Child to Come mounts a cogent critique of our conception of the future solely in terms of heterosexual reproduction. That paradigm also entails, of course, the co-optation of the reproductive (woman’s) body and all the regulatory features of what Hannah Arendt, following Rudolf Kjellén, termed “biopolitics,” and which Sheldon reads as “the management of life-itself.” As she argues, both “the child” and “life-itself,” where the former is most often deployed as a figure for the latter, are metaphysical concepts underpinning ideological positions that have become thoroughly naturalized. Biopolitics, as developed after Arendt by Foucault, deploys the metaphysics of the child as one of the many ways governmentality in the broadest sense regulates populations. As Foucault notes in “Right of Death and Power over Life” (from his History of Sexuality, Vol. 1), biopolitics is a kind of power “that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.” This includes, crucially, the integration of the body “into systems of efficient and economic controls” that are tied, for both Foucault and Sheldon, “to the expansion of the productive forces and the differential allocation of profit.” Not for nothing is Sheldon’s preferred term for the biopolitics of reproduction “somatic capitalism.” The problem is, of course, that nonhuman agencies in this time of climate catastrophe threaten humanity’s transit into the future in ways that escape the control of all human governance.
Not surprisingly, many of the texts that Sheldon reads in the course of her study are examples of science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, and post-apocalyptic fiction. Her opening chapter, “Introduction: Face,” sets the scene through a discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), in which clone-children — representatives of nothing so much as Giorgio Agamben’s “bare life” — are raised as organ surrogates for, we assume, a more “natural” humanity. For Sheldon, this novel “elegizes the vulnerable child and stages in exemplary fashion the new mutation with which this book will be concerned: the slide from the child in need of saving to the child who saves.” While Sheldon aims to examine the child in contemporary, mostly apocalyptic, scenarios in fiction, film, advertising, and even political campaigns, she first inserts the child-as-figure into history during the 19th century by drawing on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), a text that famously struggles to ascertain the “truth” of childhood.
Following “Introduction: Face” — with its implied politics of (non)recognition — Sheldon’s chapters include “Future,” “Life,” “Planet,” “Birth,” “Labor,” and “Conclusion: Child.” “Future” touches on texts such as J. G. Ballard’s allegorical “The Garden of Time” (1962) to extend Edelman’s critique of “a heteronormative futurity in thrall to reproduction,” one that desperately attempts to control the future in order to reproduce the same. The child here functions as a symbol of that self-similarity: “[i]n the name of the future, we must be protected from the future.” This future threatens us with unstable, indeterminate difference, at the same time as it promises “the movements of life from out of which coalesce new relationships.” The predictable future is no longer predictable in the context of climate disaster, if it was ever predictable, and the child can no longer stand between us and that unknowable future, if it ever could.
“Life” opens up the politics of reproduction through a reading of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover Landfall (1972), a novel that deploys human reproduction to guarantee the survival of a castaway colony; it then turns to Joanna Russ’s repudiation of the reproductive futurism that drives Bradley’s novel in her own We Who Are About To… (1977). Russ’s novel exposes the deeply gendered nature of the discourse that surrounds the child-as-future: We Who Are About To… refuses both the entrapment of the reproductive body and the projection of the female child into that same reproductive futurity. Turning to the masculinist imaginary of fathers and sons, “Planet” undertakes a sustained reading of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) as an anxious narrative commitment to the idea of “the Sacred Child.” Here the endangered child-figure is the fragile promise of “life-itself” in the face of the novel’s apocalyptic swerve into a radically transformed world that is no longer the world-for-us.
Sheldon’s chapters “Birth” and “Labor” examine “the status of fertility under conditions of somatic capitalism.” Her claim here is an important one:
reproductive futurism in the neoliberal present is a response to the threat of nonhuman profusion that harnesses the associations of the child with the future to reconsolidate liveliness back into [the] human, at the same time that material practices in the life sciences make this sovereign fantasy harder and harder to maintain.
To further that examination, Sheldon looks closely at a series of “sterility apocalypses,” including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (2004–2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s film version of P. D. James’s Children of Men (2006), and the TV remake of Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009).
Each of Sheldon’s chapters brims with important ideas elegantly presented and developed. The Child to Come more than deserves its honorary mention for the 2017 Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Program book award, which is presented annually at the University of California, Riverside. While there are dense passages in the text, Sheldon is not trying to be easy; it is productive to slow down one’s readerly pace and attend carefully to what she has to say: “the child serves as a shard of the future. I am already your future, the child says. I am already in the future. Save me from the future. Make this a different future.” In other words, control the swerve in the future that is the Anthropocene; ensure us a future the same as the now. But that future looks less and less likely to be the future that actually unfolds. The cry for difference here is, in fact, the cry for the same. The child is at once the figure most at risk from a future that threatens to escape our control and, at the same time, the fragile figure that stands between us and apocalypse, our shield against a future swerve that seems increasingly assured.
Sheldon’s project, finally, can be framed by the work of a host of contemporary thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti, and Timothy Morton, who write within their own terms on behalf of futures of difference and against the futures of sameness that the child, once it has been properly domesticated, promises us:
Complex systems […] always contain catastrophe as their necessary corollary. The question, then, is not how to live in catastrophe as if it were a landscape awaiting us in the future but how to live with catastrophic causalities without attempting to reseal them behind the containment walls of management systems and predictive models — how to live, in other words, without the demand for safety and the pleading face of the child as its warrant.
I just saw Blade Runner 2049 and I’m gobsmacked by its passionate investment in the idea of natural reproduction. Having read The Child to Come, however, I’m not surprised.
Veronica Hollinger is emerita professor of Cultural Studies at Trent University in Ontario, and a long-time co-editor of Science Fiction Studies.