Genetic Engineering

Tagged: Theme

In his remarkable prophetic essay Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924) J B S Haldane looked forward optimistically to a day when biologists have "invented" a new species of alga to solve the world's food problem, and in which "ectogenetic" children born from artificial wombs can be strategically modified by Eugenic selection. Nothing was known in 1924 about the biochemistry of genetics, so Haldane spoke mainly in terms of "selective breeding", but he nevertheless anticipated not merely some of the possible practical applications of direct genetic manipulation but also the likely response of the popular imagination. He observed that there is always extreme resistance against "biological inventions" because they are initially perceived as blasphemous perversions. Following the decipherment, in the late 1950s, of the genetic code carried by DNA molecules, the genetic engineering of bacteria has become commonplace, and contemporary sf reflects the strength of this resistance in no uncertain terms. Despite the strong tradition of technophilia which exists in Hard SF, there is still relatively little sf championing the cause of genetic engineering.

The careful "engineering" of living creatures by surgery is featured in a few early sf stories, most notably H G Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), but it was not until Haldane wrote his essay that more ambitious projects of human engineering were featured – in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), and in Aldous Huxley's satirical development of ideas from Daedalus in Brave New World (1932), in which ectogenetic embryos are nutritionally and environmentally controlled to fit them for life as "alphas", "betas" or "gammas". Julian Huxley (1887-1975), brother of Aldous and friend of Haldane and Wells, wrote a notable horror-sf story along the same lines: "The Tissue-Culture King" (April 1926 Yale Review). Haldane's sister, Naomi Mitchison, later extrapolated ideas from Daedalus in a sceptical way in Not by Bread Alone (1983). An early pulp-sf story involving true genetic engineering was "Proteus Island" (August 1936 Astounding) by Stanley G Weinbaum, which echoes its model, The Island of Dr Moreau, in presuming that "the nature of the beast" cannot be changed as easily as its physical form. Artificial organisms designed for particular purposes appear in minor roles in several stories, a notable example being the "familiars" employed by the fake witches in Fritz Leiber's Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950). A E van Vogt invoked "gene transformation" in Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946), where the original superhuman slans – a spontaneous mutation – have modified themselves to remove the betraying tendrils from many generations of their descendants. Following this, vague and unspecified forms of genetic engineering became standard methods of creating the pulp-sf Superman. The most adventurous use of genetic engineering in 1940s sf was in Robert A Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon (April-May 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1948), the first story to describe (not altogether convincingly) a society which routinely uses both Eugenics and genetic engineering to ensure the physical and mental fitness of the population, and to address the moral questions thus raised.

The first sf writer to cultivate a more accurate understanding of possible genetic engineering techniques, and the first to confront these possibilities with a far-reaching but disciplined imagination, was James Blish. Titan's Daughter (in Future Tense, anth 1952, ed Kendell Foster Crossen, as "Beanstalk"; exp 1961) features a race of giant humans created by stimulated polyploidy (spontaneous polyploidy – doubling of the chromosome complement – is not uncommon in plants, and usually results in giantism) and echoes Wells's The Food of the Gods (1904). Blish moved on to consider the possible utility of genetic engineering in adapting humans for the Colonization of Other Worlds in his Pantropy series, written around the novelette "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy) – about microscopic humans engineered for life in small pools of water – and collected in The Seedling Stars (fixup 1956). The final by time, will itself become an alien environment to be re-seeded with "adapted men". This idea, of specially engineering individuals to "conquer" alien worlds, was taken up by other writers of the period, including Philip K Dick in The World Jones Made (1956) and Poul Anderson in "Call Me Joe" (April 1957 Astounding). The idea that an engineered race might be necessary to undertake Space Flight itself was later developed by Samuel R Delany in "Aye, and Gomorrah ..." (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison). Other stories from the 1950s dealing with experiments in genetic engineering are Masters of Evolution (January 1954 Galaxy as "Natural State"; exp 1959) by Damon Knight – in which enhanced animals are not only substantially cheaper than high-tech Transportation but approach or equal its speed – and "They Shall Inherit" (July 1958 Nebula) by Brian W Aldiss. The notion of modifying animals into human form was developed extensively by Cordwainer Smith in his stories of the Underpeople, who cannot breed true, having been modified by somatic engineering – a modification of the genes in the specialized cells of a differentiated embryo or an adult organism which does not affect the germ plasm. (The different implications of somatic engineering and the engineering of egg cells are not always appreciated by users of the theme.)

Interest in genetic engineering was inevitably renewed in the 1960s, although many early stories concentrated on the very modest notion of producing Clones (which see). Alarmism was rife: the UK television series Doomwatch, whose purpose was overtly propagandistic, helped to awaken many people to some of the implications of biological engineering. Its first episode became the basis for the novel Mutant 59: The Plastic-Eater (1972) by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, about the "escape" of a bacterium engineered to metabolize plastic, and many other episodes also featured biological engineering of various kinds. The idiosyncratic note of Horror struck by many of the scripts recurs in many subsequent television plays, including two about the possibility of creating "transgenic" hybrids of human and ape (see Apes as Human): First Born (1989), notionally based on Maureen Duffy's satire Gor Saga (1981), and Chimera (1991), adapted by Stephen Gallagher from his own novel Chimera (1982).

The first attempts to use genetic-engineering techniques to cure genetic deficiency diseases have already been made, and the possibility of eliminating such diseases has become a commonplace background element in sf. The notion that a radiation-affected world might desperately require such processes of repair is ironically developed in David J Skal's When We were Good (1981) and Christopher Hodder-Williams's Post-Holocaust The Chromosome Game (1984). The use of somatic engineering for cosmetic purposes is the focus of such stories as "Cinderella's Sisters" (1989 Gate #1) and "Skin Deep" (October 1991 Amazing) by Brian M Stableford. The possibility of further altering the human condition by genetic engineering remains much more controversial. The plight of ordinary humans growing old in a world already inherited by their engineered superchildren is explored in Anvil of the Heart (1983) by Bruce T Holmes. Other alarmist tales in a similar vein include Robin Cook's Mutation (1989) and Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden (1989), which feature very different developments of the assumption that programmes of improvement involving genetic-engineering techniques might have unforeseen and unfortunate side-effects. Relatively modest functional modifications of humans include adaptation for aquatic life and for life in low gravity: Inter Ice Age 4 (1959; trans 1970) by Kōbō Abe is the most notable novel dealing with the former theme, Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (December 1987-February 1988 Analog; 1988) the most notable dealing with the latter (and also raises interesting questions about the eventual obsolescence of functional modifications). Frank Herbert was consistently interested in the more bizarre variations of the theme, as displayed in The Eyes of Heisenberg (1966) and Hellstrom's Hive (November 1972-March 1973 Galaxy as "Project 40"; 1973), although the Superman-breeding programme in Dune (fixup 1965) is a pedestrian affair of long-range Eugenics. Genetic-engineering techniques are fundamental to the Protean futures of many stories by John Varley, including The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977) and "Options" (in Universe 9, anth 1979, ed Terry Carr), a story of promiscuous sex-changes. The widespread use of such techniques is also a premise of Bruce Sterling's Shaper & Mechanist stories, culminating in the novel Schismatrix (1985), and of C J Cherryh's monumental Cyteen (1988). Charles Sheffield's series begun with Sight of Proteus (1978) is more extravagant, and the technology involved is highly fanciful.

Exotically engineered human societies established on other worlds are featured in several sf novels, the most notable being the hermaphrodite society in Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). More recent Colonization stories involving genetic engineering include The Warriors of Dawn (1975) and The Gameplayers of Zan (1977) by M A Foster, Manseed (1982) by Jack Williamson, and The Garden of the Shaped (1987) by Sheila Finch. The pulp tradition of the genetically engineered Superman has inevitably resurfaced in media sf, a well-known example being Khan Noonien Singh of Star Trek: this relic of the long-gone "Eugenics Wars" stole the show in the original-series episode Space Seed (1967) and reappeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

As real-world genetic engineering makes rapid progress, sf writers have acquired a better sense of what actually goes on in the laboratory, reflected in such stories as Richard S Weinstein's "Oceans Away" (in Stellar Short Novels, anth 1976, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey), which deals with the creation of intelligent cephalopods, and John Gribbin's Father to the Man (1989), one of the most intelligent stories about an artificial half-human being. In Frank Herbert's Disaster novel The White Plague (1982), an insane misogynist uses home-labs bioengineering techniques to create a gender-specific plague which destroys almost all women. The achievements of ecological engineer Haviland Tuf in George R R Martin's Tuf Voyaging (coll of linked stories 1986) are likewise plausible despite occasional extravagance. There is still, however, a marked tendency for the strategic endeavours of Scientists to be unceremoniously set aside in favour of the miracles of Mutation, as they are in Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985). More plausible are the "quaddies" – humans adapted to free-fall existence by the replacement of legs with additional arms – in Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (December 1987-February 1988 Analog; 1988). It cannot be said that many sf writers prior to the 1990s explored the real potential which genetic-engineering technologies hold for the radical remaking of the human world, but a beginning of sorts was made by the speculative future history The Third Millennium (1985) by Brian Stableford and David Langford, and by Stableford's various spinoff short stories, some of which are collected in Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution (coll 1991). Dougal Dixon's Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future (1990) also explores some relevant options.

Among the novels of the 1990s which tackle "gengineering" issues are Elizabeth Hand's Winterlong (1990), featuring baroque excesses of genetic whimsy; Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain (April 1991 Asimov's; 1991), featuring specially bred super-children (see Children in SF) who need no sleep and are soon regarded by unmodified humanity as a threat; and Paul McAuley's Fairyland (1995), in which a slave underclass of "dolls" or Uplifted apes is liberated to become an autonomous feral species.

Twenty-first-century tales dealing with such issues include Orson Scott Card's Shadow of the Hegemon (2000), a book in his extended Ender series revealing that one of its many ultra-gifted children (see Intelligence) is supremely so owing to a genetic tweak that also leads to giantism and early death; Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), whose Post-Holocaust setting comes after a bioengineered plague and is littered with genetic hybrids; Justina Robson's Natural History (2003), offering a somewhat more Utopian though not flawless future where humanity has diversified via genetic engineering and Cyborg technology into numerous form-follows-function niches including organic Spaceships and Hive Mind gestalts; Gwyneth Jones's Life (2004), exploring the positive and negative impact of gene-tweaking on Gender issues; Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) features non-supernatural Vampires possessed of vast Intelligence, ancient natural predators of humanity who have been recreated by genetic manipulation; Michael Swanwick's Dancing with Bears: The Postutopian Adventures of Darger & Surplus (2010), one of whose title characters is an genetically Uplifted dog; and Jeff VanderMeer's Borne (2017), set in a City troubled by failed and (perhaps worse) successful products of a Company devoted to "biotech". [BS/DRL]

see also: Biology; Medicine.

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.