More Reality than Science Fiction: A review of the novel Mother of Invention

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on July 11, 2018

Mother of Invention book cover

by Hannah Ens

In the past few years, there has been a fair amount of publicity surrounding high-profile women who continued their demanding careers while pregnant. Scarlet Johansson discussed filming Avengers: Age of Ultron while pregnant, as did Gal Gadot for Wonder Woman. Netflix recently tweeted about how director Claire Scanlon had her second child a week after filming wrapped for “Set It Up.” Imagine how the family/career balance would shift if the physically hampering effects of pregnancy were lessened. Say . . . if it only took nine weeks instead of nine months.

In her novel Mother of Invention, author Caeli Wolfson Widger pushes the limits of “having it all” for mothers and career women. Biotech revolutionary Tessa Callahan is the founder and co-CEO of Seahorse Solutions, which explores technology that will ease the demands of pregnancy. The biggest breakthrough is TEAT: Targeted Embryonic Acceleration Technology. In simple terms, they’re accelerating pregnancy to nine weeks, and the book opens on the day the three women of Cohort One are set to begin the first human trial.

The beginning chapters are a bit slower; we get an info-dump on the main characters, their histories, and how they came to be implementing TEAT. It quickly becomes obvious that the “why” of accelerated gestation (AG) is more the focus of this book than the “how;” Widger does a decent job of setting up the logistics but it’s lacking in depth compared to the rest of the story.

She constructs a fictional incident where “several dozen American women in the late 1990s and early 2000s had experienced their pregnancies on fast-forward, birthing full-grown, healthy babies just nine weeks after they’d conceived.” There was a frenzy of interest, but it died away when no progress was made in uncovering why it happened, and by the book’s near-future 2021 it has all but faded from public memory.

Enter Luke Zimmerman, Tessa’s co-CEO, who obtained tissue samples of the AG mothers and babies and assembled a powerhouse team of scientists who used those cells as the basis for TEAT using CRISPR gene editing technology. We only get vague details about how CRISPR was used – there’s limited talk about “snipping away the risky stuff,” and enhancing the Cohort’s eggs with cells from AG individuals to “jump-start fetal growth.” It felt like CRISPR was dropped in as a buzzword rather than simply saying gene editing, especially since it’s never mentioned again.

In addition to following the Cohort’s pregnancies, Mother of Invention offers an ambitious secondary storyline that threatens to supersede the original focus, especially in the last half. The history of the original AG mothers is brought back to the forefront as we’re shown a secret social media group of the AG children, now in their late teens/early college years. They message about feeling like their parents are keeping information about their births from them, and wonder why the AG phenomenon isn’t discussed anymore.

AG child Vivian Bourne is ready to take her story public with a personal essay in a major online publication, and this is where things really explode. The earlier musings about motherhood seem positively docile compared to the multi-faceted web that unfolds and encompasses drug testing, digital privacy, cover-ups, medical consent and a secretive government-sanctioned group that silences people whose voices might raise uncomfortable, panic-inducing questions. It’s impossible to get specific without spoiling things, but it basically gives what starts as a Gattaca-style story a hefty dose of Jason Bourne.

I’d recommend Mother of Invention more for the discussion possibilities than the writing itself. Widger’s prose is neither a detraction nor particularly outstanding, and Tessa’s character was a struggle to connect with at times. I think her mindset is intended to be complex – child-free by choice, yet ferociously invested in the fertility arena, connecting with the Cohort as a confidant, yet unable to connect deeply with her husband – but her voice didn’t always come through. One woman from the Cohort, Gwen, stood out far above the other two; her caustic personality and fears about attempting TEAT when she’s nearly 50 make her one of the most well-developed and believable characters.

The action sections were suspenseful and entertaining, and the story threads pulled together with flair and precision, but I was glad when things wrapped up with the focus back on the Cohort women as their nine-week pregnancies draw to a dramatic finish.

In the end, the circumstances surrounding TEAT don’t lead the reader to believe the author thinks accelerated gestation is necessarily a good idea, but the story does present many interesting trains of thought that are more reality than science fiction. If we’ve decided nature shouldn’t be changed to meet society’s ramped-up expectations of mothers, how might we shift society to come back in line with nature?

The book offers other ways science might help improve pregnancy in a less dramatic fashion than TEAT, including a breast prosthetic that mimics the mother’s scent and milk biochemistry, a NauseAway drug, and a portable, handheld ultrasound device. When you combine questions of bioethics and maternity with the unsettling threads about privacy, First Amendment rights, Big Pharma, and the delicate balance between personal freedom and community security, Mother of Invention delves into far more thorny issues than I originally anticipated, and readers won’t be able to walk away without mulling them over.

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