Biology

Tagged: Theme

The growth of knowledge in the biological sciences has lagged behind that in the physical sciences; Newton's synthesis of Physics and Astronomy anticipated the linking of biology and chemistry by 200 years. The age of mechanical inventions began in the early nineteenth century, that of biological inventions is only just beginning, in the wake of the elucidation (during the 1960s) of the "genetic code" which controls naturally occurring biological processes of manufacture. Writers of speculative fiction have always been interested in biological hypotheses but, while the fundamentals of the science still remained mysterious, their handling of them was of necessity markedly different from their deployment of ideas borrowed from physical science. It is only in the later part of the twentieth century that sf writers began to begun think seriously about biotechnology (see Technology), and the prospect of a usurpation of those mechanisms of organic production previously the sole prerogative of natural species has not been universally welcomed. As speculative writers have awakened to the awesome possibilities inherent in the notion of Genetic Engineering there has been a compensating investment of concepts like Ecology and the biosphere with a quasireligious significance. James Lovelock's observations regarding the existence of long-term homeostatic mechanisms (see Homeostatic Systems) in the biosphere have helped to re-personify the biosphere as Gaia, whose suitability as an object of worship seems to be taken seriously by many. There is in modern sf an evident dialectical tension between opposing trends towards the demystification and remystification of biological ideas.

Early works of Proto SF which feature biological speculations include Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634), which concludes with an interesting attempt to design a lunar biology (see Moon), and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap), which foresees significant advances in Medicine and agronomy. The positive outlook of the latter was, however, rarely found in works more obviously fictional. Even the anticipation of progress in medicine was capable of generating a particularly intimate kind of anxiety. Where experiments in physical science tended to be seen, even by cynics who thought no good could come of them, as perfectly legitimate adventures of human inquiry, those in human biology frequently seemed blasphemous. The undeniable fascination which many writers found in the possibilities of biological science is characteristically tinged with a sense of threat, if not an attitude of horror. This is very evident in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), whose eponymous hero is led to despair and destruction by the monster he creates, and in several of Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical stories, particularly "The Birthmark" (March 1843 The Pioneer) and "Rappaccini's Daughter" (December 1844 United States Magazine and Democratic Review), where experiments on people have tragic results. Later examples of the same reactionary response include Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Harriet Stark's The Bacillus of Beauty (1900). This suggestion of blasphemy is one of the reasons why envisaged technologies that produce such at least superficially desirable effects as Immortality get such a bad press in fiction.

The biological idea most widely discussed in the late nineteenth century was, of course, Evolution, and the conflict of ideas provoked by that subject was an important stimulus to the development of sf. The response to the controversy took several forms. Evolutionary speculation turned towards both the Far Future and the distant past (see Anthropology; Origin of Man). The notion of evolution as an adaptive process inspired several attempts to imagine life adapted to circumstances different from those on Earth (see Aliens; Life on Other Worlds). A rather more modest version of this same inspiration encouraged a number of fantasies about exotic Earthly creatures, of which the most notable are the sea stories of William Hope Hodgson and the stories in In Search of the Unknown (coll 1904) by Robert W Chambers. Exotic survivals from prehistory (usually Dinosaurs) became a common feature of exploratory melodramas, most notably in Jules Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre (1864; trans as Journey to the Centre of the Earth 1872) and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912). Other early sf writers who made prolific use of biological speculations in their work include H G Wells, J-H Rosny âiné and J D Beresford.

Evolutionary fantasy remained the dominant species of biological sf for many years, overshadowing fiction dealing with experimental biology. Speculations related to medical science tended to engage increasingly well-defined Clichés: new plagues and cures for all diseases. The notion of biological engineering did appear in such novels as Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), but the methods involved were either crude or very vague. One real-world development which provoked a considerable response was the discovery of the mutagenic properties of radiation. The idea of mutation was implicitly intriguing (see Mutants), and was made important by its crucial role in evolutionary theory. Sf writers were already entranced with Rays for a variety of melodramatic reasons (see Power Sources; Weapons) and their recruitment to biological speculation resulted in the swift growth of the "mutagenic romance". John Taine was a prolific author of such romances.

Few of the early pulp-sf writers had any knowledge of the biological sciences, and for the most part they handled biological ideas – when they did at all – in a careless and cavalier fashion. The principal exceptions were Taine, Stanley G Weinbaum, who employed his expertise mainly in connection with designing exotic life-systems for alien worlds, and David H Keller, a doctor who became a psychiatrist yet whose medical training did nothing to render his accounts of biological experiments – including the graphic Eugenic fantasy "Stenographer's Hands" (Fall 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly) – less negative. In 1927 Amazing Stories reprinted "The Tissue-Culture King" (April 1926 Yale Review) by biologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975), but biological sf in the pulps very rarely transcended the deployment of standardized clichés: loathsome alien invaders, man-eating plants, people driven horribly mad by attempts to save them from death via brain-transplantation. Contemporary UK material, though much more sober in tone and serious in intent, was hardly less negative. The ideas in J B S Haldane's prophetic manifesto for biotechnology, Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924) were transformed by Aldous Huxley into the nightmarishly satirical substance of Brave New World (1932), and there are several horrific stories of the "no good will come of it all" school in S Fowler Wright's The New Gods Lead (coll 1932). Neil Bell and John Gloag also dealt extensively with biological inventions in their sf, but their approach was determinedly cautionary. UK scientific romance from the period between the wars could find hope for the future only in a radical transformation of human nature, but even Wells had lost whatever faith he had had in the ability of twentieth-century mankind to begin the work of remaking its own nature in a planned and profitable manner. In the eyes of the sf writers of the 1930s the real Superman-to-come was destined to be a freak of benevolent nature; his time was not yet, and attempts to hurry it by scientific endeavour were invariably disastrous.

Genre SF's handling of biological ideas improved dramatically after World War Two. Several new writers of the 1940s were trained in biology, most notably Isaac Asimov, who held an academic post in biochemistry, and (although he did not begin to publish prolifically until the 1950s) James Blish, who had studied zoology at college and worked for a while as a medical technician. Blish was the first genre-sf writer to import biological ideas on a considerable scale and apply them with real ingenuity. A significant early attempt was "There Shall Be No Darkness" (April 1950 Thrilling Wonder), about a kind of Werewolf, one of a group of stories which attempted to recruit biological ideas to the rationalization of symbols borrowed from the supernatural imagination (see Supernatural Creatures); other examples include Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think (December 1940 Unknown; exp 1948) – more lycanthropy – and Richard Matheson's I am Legend (1954), about Vampires. It was Blish's Pantropy series, ultimately collected in The Seedling Stars (fixup 1957), which first treated the idea of man-remade-by-Man seriously and sympathetically.

As Genre SF matured in the 1950s there was a gradual increase in the sophistication of biological analogies. Alien beings were still characteristically described and defined by reference to the diversity of Earthly lifeforms, but the subtlety with which this was done increased dramatically in the 1950s. Many stories appeared which used the strange reproductive habits of the lower organisms as models for the construction of exotic situations involving humans and aliens. Authors who made fruitful use of this kind of analogy included Philip José Farmer, notably in The Lovers (August 1952 Startling; exp 1961), "Open to Me, My Sister" (May 1960 F&SF; vt "My Sister's Brother" in Strange Relations, coll 1960) and "Strange Compulsion" (October 1953 Science-Fiction Plus; vt "The Captain's Daughter" in The Alley God, coll 1962), and Theodore Sturgeon, especially in "The Perfect Host" (November 1948 Weird Tales), "The Sex Opposite" (Fall 1952 Fantastic) and "The Wages of Synergy" (August 1953 Startling). More recent users of the same strategy include James Tiptree Jr, in "Your Haploid Heart" (September 1969 Analog) and "A Momentary Taste of Being" (in The New Atlantis, anth 1975, ed Robert Silverberg). This kind of analogical device illustrates the manner in which biological ideas are usually deployed in sf. In all these stories exotic biological relationships are transformed into metaphors applicable to social relationships (or vice versa), relationships between humans and other intelligent beings or even, in a psychological sense, relationships between humans and their environment. This is, of course, a totally unscientific use of scientific ideas, but it can be very effective as a literary device. It is applied not only to such hypothetical biological ideas as Living Worlds but also to such concepts as Hive Minds, Ecology (see also Colonization of Other Worlds) and Parasitism and Symbiosis. Thus, for example, the hive-mind becomes in sf not so much a mode of social organization pertaining to insect species as a metaphor for considering possible states of human society. Similarly, symbiosis becomes symbolic of an idealized relationship between humans, or between human and other beings. This misapplication of ideas extends into the real world where, in common usage as in much sf, terms like "ecology" have come to be symbolic of some abstract and quasimetaphysical notion of harmony between humanity and environment.

This constant quest to find biological metaphors has always tended to sidetrack or pervert realistic speculation about likely developments in the biological sciences. Symbolism, metaphor and crude analogical thinking dominate exploration in sf of such notions as Androids, Clones, Cyborgs, Genetic Engineering, Immortality and Sex. Although much contemporary sf seems to be intimately concerned with current trends in biology, hardly any of this speculation can be said to be extrapolative in a purely rational fashion. These observations should not be taken as altogether pejorative: this method of using ideas is certainly not uninteresting and is often applied with considerable artistry. But one can certainly argue that sf's enduring inability to get to grips with the real possibilities of biotechnology, and to explore those possibilities in a reasonably scrupulous fashion, is a lamentable failure of the science-fictional imagination.

The 1980s and 1990s produced a number of attempts to be more positive about the possible rewards of biotechnology (many are noted in the entry on Immortality), but there remains an excessive reliance on the benevolence of chance. Such works as Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985), in which the apocalyptic consequences of a biotechnologist's recklessness are declared by the author to be happy ones (though many readers remain unconvinced), cannot reasonably be said to constitute sensible apologias. Paul Preuss's Human Error (1985) and Charles Sheffield's Sight of Proteus (fixup 1978) and Proteus Unbound (1989) are other works which rely heavily on unplanned ecocatastrophes to generate optimistic outcomes. An enthusiastic propagandist for biotechnology like Brian M Stableford finds it easier to produce sarcastic fantasies of biotechnological experiments gone awry than utopian accounts of future humanity redeemed by careful effort, as evidenced by Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution (coll 1991); and even a calculatedly optimistic writer like David Brin awards a minor and relatively ineffectual role to biological science in describing responses to ecological crisis in his bold and extravagant novel Earth (1990).

The recent boom in Horror fiction has involved a massive borrowing of ideas from sf, many of which involve extrapolations of biological science; writers like Robin Cook and Dean R Koontz have produced very effective thrillers in this vein. The overwhelmingly negative image of biological experimentation conveyed by such fiction is only to be expected; it is the task of horror writers to horrify. It is perhaps surprising, though, that so little genre sf counterbalances that negative image with a more evenhanded investigation of the possible benefits of such experiments. One horror novel which regards its depicted biotechnological breakthrough – a potential cure for AIDS using a virus found in Vampires' blood – with optimism is Dan Simmons's Children of the Night (1992).

The use of biological ideas as metaphors to apply to specifically human situations is inevitable, and the particular anxiety which attends speculation about experiments in human biology is entirely appropriate, but a too-ready acceptance of the horrified conviction that all biological experimentation is a sin against God or Gaia which will inevitably be punished by dire misfortune is a kind of intellectual cowardice. In its handling of biological ideas, then, sf has not yet attained a true maturity.

A related theme anthology is Caught in the Organ Draft: Biology in Science Fiction (anth 1983) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh. [BS]

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