If you want to read just one book on sex and conception, let it be this. This is all there is. Period.
Actually, even if you do not want to read a book on sex and conception, you must read Like A Virgin. Because, it is the kind of book that sets off orgasms — in the brain. As Prasad peels off layers, chapter by chapter, page by page, tiny frissons go off in the brain at periodic intervals as the mind grapples with the scene behind the curtain — the very secret of life. Sperm meets egg in union, and there is life.
Reading the book is like watching one of those well-produced documentaries on Discovery channel. Only, Prasad has none of the benefits of the television medium, not those 3D ultrasound incursions into the womb, nor the stunning graphics. But she has her super skill — her felicity with words, the ability to breathe life into them outside labs. Having worked previously as a cancer genetics researcher at Imperial College London, she moved on to the field of Science Communication and policy. Not very unlike how the sperm worms its way in its purpose to seek and join in union with that single egg, to create life.
This story begins, as Prasad says, with sex, 850 million years ago. But she begins in media res, in the bedroom of Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France. For 10 long years, Catherine was unable to produce an heir for the French throne, possibly because a physiological deformity in her husband, but nevertheless, bore the blame for it. (History records that subsequently she had 10 children).
Over the centuries, the situation has been quite the same for women. The past century, Prasad argues, every innovation in reproductive technology, from using anaesthesia during child birth to ovarian transplantation, has been met with criticism. Most have been seen as a threat to the traditional family — a change in the roles of men and women. However, that is not the central theme of the book. “Male plus female equals baby will not be our only path forward. As we conceive the inconceivable and take full control of how and when we bring the next generation into the world, we are sure to dislodge many notions of sex and gender along the way.”
In this future, it would be possible to create functional eggs and sperms in a petridish, as it were. Then, the ultimate solo parent would probably be a woman who might use two of her eggs, converting one into a pseudo sperm to fuse with the other egg. Enter the artificial womb, allowing ideal conditions for the foetus to thrive in. Then the woman can even keep working until the moment the baby is born. In the words of William Harvey, Ex Ova Omnia (Out of the egg, all things). Goodbye, man. Yes, that is how Prasad blows your mind. And, provokes too. That is probably what happens when a writer drags futuristic ideas out of the heads of crazy scientists onto the pages of a book.
A very well-written book, as you discover, again and again. For someone who has to deal out long strings of letters, the simplest being XX, XY, by way of explanation, Prasad’s way with words stands her in good stead. Look, for instance, at the way she explains genetic mutations: Mutations are mistakes that occur while copying the DNA when the cells are dividing. Much like Chinese Whispers — the more a message passes around, the more distortion occurs. An excellent raconteur, she weaves these strings of letters through the fascinating stories of the “virgin mother” Emmimarie Jones, and her daughter Monica; the world’s first test tube baby Louise Brown; the boy FD who had two X chromosomes, one too many for a boy, Jane from Boston who was told two of her three sons (all conceived naturally) were not her kin. Just as interesting are her attempts to explain the role of the placenta; what happens in the womb post conception; infertility; the various approaches to making babies — you don’t even wrinkle your nose at the part that deals with parthogenesis (where the female gives birth untouched by a male, or virgin birth) of komodo dragons.
Indeed, going by Aarathi Prasad’s book, human reproduction might too go that way. “The reproduction of the future is set to rewrite much of the fabric of human society.” Like a Virgin is a little prelude to that revolution.
LIKE A VIRGIN — How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex: Aarathi Prasad; Oneworld Publications, 185 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 7AR, London. £ 12.99.