Authors of speculative fiction
have long pondered the making and marketing of tools that could
re-engineer future human generations. Fortunately for those
of us wishing to enrich our collective consideration of this
troubling prospect, they are still mulling over its many implications.
Also fortunately, they are now being joined by some of the finest
writers and thinkers working in other genres. The mini-reviews
here represent a sampling of recent works focused on the technologies
and ideologies that could push us into a "post-human"
Enough: Staying Human
in an Engineered Age, Bill McKibben (2003)
Regular readers of Genetic
Crossroads are already aware of Bill McKibben's landmark
Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. McKibben's
project is an exploration of the ways in which species-altering
technologies might reshape not just individuals and social arrangements,
but also the meaning and experience of being human. Enough
is essential reading. Happily, it is every bit as thought-provoking
and "summer-readable" as the best of the fiction works
on our list. (For more on Enough, see http://www.genetics-and-society.org/mckibben.)
The Future of Human Nature,
Jurgen Habermas (2003)
The core preoccupations of
The Future of Human Nature by Jurgen Habermas are similar
to those of Enough, though of course in a much more theoretical
register. Habermas is often identified as the most influential
philosopher and social thinker in Germany today; his erudite
attention to "the biopolitical future prophesied by liberal
eugenicists" and the meaning of genetic manipulation "for
our self-understanding as moral beings" is understood there
as a significant political intervention. The Future of Human
Nature was released in the US in April, and so far seems
to have attracted surprisingly little attention here even among
progressive intellectuals. Perhaps that will change as those
inclined to critical social theory encounter Habermas' slim
volume, take to heart his urgent call for broader public discourse
about the human biotechnologies, and rise to his challenge:
"Philosophers no longer have any good reasons for leaving
such a dispute to biologists and engineers intoxicated by science
Oryx and Crake, Margaret
Margaret Atwood is one of the
outstanding literary talents of our time. Her new novel, Oryx
and Crake, begins shortly after a catastrophe triggered
by a combination of genetic manipulation, climate change, corporate
excess, and popular complacency. Jimmy, who may be the sole
survivor of a global pandemic caused by a biotech marketing
scheme gone awry, shares the ruined landscape with the Crakers,
a tribe of human-like folk from whom impulses to hierarchy,
competition, territoriality, and sex out of season have been
As this partial synopsis hints,
Atwood's political sensibilities are piercing and caustic. Their
effect is simultaneously heightened and relieved by her hilariously
florid linguistic inventions: Young elites in pre-collapse gated
communities play Extinctathon and Kwiktime Osama, while their
parents labor at biotech companies called OrganInc and Helth
Wyzer making wolvogs, pigoons, and other lucrative transgenics.
Atwood's anthropological imagination is both droll and provocative:
Her story begins with Jimmy literally coming down from the trees;
as it ends, we are left to wonder whether and where humanity
will pull through. Will it be through Jimmy's discovery of a
handful of other human survivors? Or as an evolutionary development
of the Crakers' tentative dabbling in art and religion?
Critical reaction to Oryx
and Crake has been strangely polarized. Lisa Appignanesi
expresses what seems to be the majority view (and mine) when
she writes in The Independent (UK) that "Oryx
and Crake is Atwood at her best-dark, dry, scabrously witty,
yet moving and studded with flashes of pure poetry."
That a couple reviewers sharply
disagree with this assessment is not in itself remarkable. But
it may be significant that these critics seem reluctant to contemplate
the future that Atwood extrapolates. Thus Deborah Blum (MinneapolisStar-Tribune) complains that Oryx and Crake "is
preachy, and its apocalyptic catastrophe is unbelievable"
and Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) calls it "didactic,
at times intriguing but in the end thoroughly unpersuasive."
On the other hand, Atwood's
chilling futurology is unreservedly appreciated by The Economist:
"The scary thing is that this latest book seems less contrived,
less invented than [The Handmaid's Tale]." Ronald
Wright uses nearly the same phrase in the Times Literary
Supplement: "The truly frightening thing about Atwood's
dystopia is that so little of it is far-fetched." Wright's
one quibble with the book serves also as a telling comment on
our collective predicament: "If Oryx and Crake has
a failing," he writes, "it is that too little is left
to the reader's imagination, but this is also a strength: most
of our troubles as a culture stem from failure to imagine the
worst." (For links to these and other reviews, see http://www.reviewsofbooks.com/oryx_and_crake/.)
Feed, M. T. Anderson
Babies are gestated and born
in conceptaria, in part because ambient radiation levels have
made the old-fashioned way too risky. Cyborgian adolescents
spend their time accessorizing the mysterious lesions that everyone
is suddenly sprouting. One of the teenagers, Link, is a clone
produced from the dried blood on Mary Todd Lincoln's dress.
But reprogenetics and environmental
collapse are, in a sense, just background details. The teen
protagonists--like everyone else in the world of Feed--literally
have computer chips where their brains should be. Their implants
bombard them nonstop with individually tailored commercial incitements,
rendering them almost incapable of utterances beyond an instant-messaging
/ Valley-speak pidgin. ("Omigod! Like big thanks to everyone
for not telling me that my lesion is like meg completely spreading.")
Feed pits frenetic technology-enhanced
consumerism and heartless corporate logic against a few very
ragged remnants of human caring. The outcome, as in several
of the other books on this list, is uncertain.
M. T. Anderson's novel is ominous,
tender, and savagely funny. It is categorized as "young
adult" literature, but is also suitable for adults mature
enough to contemplate the possible futures of today's teenagers.
The Secret, Eva Hoffman
The Secret is a beautifully
rendered literary speculation about reproductive cloning: about
the new puzzles it would splice onto venerable existential quandaries
about human agency and identity; about the unfamiliar twists
it would bring to enduring emotional issues about family secrets
and the proper limits of parental control. A first novel by
an acclaimed British author of memoir and history, The Secret
combines coming-of-age story and cautionary tale.
Iris is a teenager when she
discovers that she is her mother's clone. Her first reactions
clearly echo the ordinary angst of adolescent struggles for
autonomy, and clearly depart from them: "I was a replica,
an artificial mechanism, a manufactured thing. I was unnatural.
My sense of myself as a young girl with her very own, unique
self-an illusion. My feelings, my precious feelings-an illusion.
A sleight of hand. I was nothing more than a Xerox of her cellular
matter, an offprint of her genetic code."
In a later scene, Iris confronts
the scientist who cloned her. He is at first smugly proud of
his handiwork--"I'd say you're practically perfect"--and
then baffled by her accusations. "[W]e had lots of discussions,"
he tells her defensively. "Lots of American-style talk.
We had ethics panels, with the best experts. We followed all
The exchange soon becomes openly
hostile. It ends with the cloner playing the cards that he believes
trump all--cards that will be familiar to those following the
ongoing debates about human genetic manipulation. "I am
a scientist…I can't hold back change," he asserts.
And in any case, the cloning procedure was "what your mother
wanted." Iris' mother, he says, gave her informed consent,
and she is the party with standing in the matter. "She
was my customer, not you."
Beggars in Spain
(1994), Beggars Ride (1996), Beggars and Choosers
(1997), Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress' Beggars
trilogy begins with a designer-baby experiment. The good news
is that the child surpasses the design specs laid out by her
corporate mogul father: She not only needs no sleep, but is
hyper-intelligent and practically immortal as well. Unfortunately,
the fertility doctor has made one small mistake. Somehow he
has implanted a second embryo--undesired and unenhanced--into
the womb of the uneasy but submissive mother.
The relationship between the
decidedly non-identical twin sisters provides an intimate launching
point for this "hard sci-fi" epic that spans several
hundred years and more than a thousand pages. Kress' story moves
from discrimination and mob violence against the Sleepless,
to the machinations of the next-generation (or rather, new-release)
SuperSleepless, to a nuclear exchange between the now radically
divided human subspecies, to an almost-happy ending in which
altruistically motivated genetic enhancement gives the normals
the ability to photosynthesize.
Kress is well attuned to the
dire social and political risks of human genetic enhancement.
And she is clearly aware of--and often unabashedly didactic
about--the divergent political values and visions in play. Her
plot is driven, and at times bogged down, by the irresolvable
conflict between radical libertarianism and a commitment to
At the end of it all, Kress
seems unable to make up her own mind about either the political
theory or the technological path she prefers. But she raises
key questions about the possible social consequences of future
human redesign. She also poses an urgent challenge that too
many of us manage to dodge: What do we make of the fact that
human beings today live in biologically distinct realities?
(Think life span, infant mortality, access to clean water, caloric
intake.) What are the responsibilities of "choosers"
when social structures and power arrangements consign billions
to be "beggars?" Will we dismantle the walls that
enforce those divisions, or head toward a world in which they're
inscribed in our genes?