Who says the world of the Jetsons never materialized? There is now a technique for implanting human stem cells into early pig embryos, creating a chimera (an animal with two different genomes) in order to generate- within the growing pig- human organs suitable for transplantation. Only one example of the many potential risks is that human cells may migrate into the pig’s brain, giving the pig partial human intelligence. And from this self-aware pig we would harvest the desired organs! It sounds monstrous, doesn’t it, sort of like The Island of Dr. Moreau; but the goal is to meet the huge need for transplant organs, and to save lives. Nevertheless, a little voice somewhere in our minds is shouting out a warning.
Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Fourth World, written several years ago:
Dr. Neelin glanced at Benn, then went on, “Now we enter the thorax. We see Bob’s lungs, his heart, an atrophied thymus gland. And here is the esophagus… the hilum… some rather enlarged lymph nodes… ah. Can anyone tell me what this is?” He was holding the heart, in its glistening gray pericardium, off to one side- and there, in the back of the chest cavity, continuous with the left lung, was a kidney!
“Come now, speak up- it’s just what it looks like. That’s right- a kidney, in Bob’s chest! Poor old Bob also suffered from hypertensive renal failure, and this was an attempt to generate a new kidney for him. But given the early stage of technology, there was no guaranteeing where those wandering stem cells- those naughty rascals- would end up, was there? Searching for their home in the retro-peritoneum, they settled and vascularized instead at the back of the thorax- which, by the way, looks remarkably similar, to a seeker molecule. In this case, to Bob’s extreme chagrin, the little kidney actually put out a small daily amount of urine into Bob’s lung! This gave him a productive cough, confused his doctors, and …”- Neelin threw another quick glance in Benn’s direction- “…probably didn’t help with Bob’s halitosis, either!”
This inspires me as a science fiction writer, imagining a dystopian world of the not-so-distant future. Protests- and, in Fourth World, rebellion– against an authoritarian government are inevitable, even essential.
Yesterday, under threatening skies, we stood with the Women’s March rally at the Civic Center in San Francisco, while our daughter was marching with half a million women in Washington, D.C. The passion, angst and anger were palpable, sometimes straining the sense of solidarity, as so many different agendas, pre-existing attitudes and goals were funneled into a few city blocks jam-packed with a hundred thousand people. Many women had brought their children to learn the value of participation, while others emphasized personal and political power, or immigration, or sexual freedom. All of these were important, but women’s rights remained at the core, and that focus allowed the first real glimmer of hope we’ve sensed since Friday’s inauguration. Everything from the tide of history and hard-won progress, to the moral power of fighting injustice, and even the genetic reality of being women, were impossible to deny. The president and his advisers may be able to put a D.C. spin on jobs, taxes, trade, alliances, border walls and carbon dioxide emissions, but the unforgettable Women’s Marches that took place across the country and worldwide will not yield so readily to spin.
On New Year’s Eve morning, running for a ball on a damp tennis court, I slipped, fell and broke my left wrist! Still had a wonderful time that evening with old friends, but now the reality of hunt-and-peck typing is settling in. And thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t want to be a dictator. In Benn Marr’s world of 2196, a computer would simply recombine DNA from multiple species (rhinoceros? A chunk of coral reef?) in order to generate a therapeptide promoting rapid bone growth, but alas, in 2017 all we have is Norco and an icebag. Actually, I wouldn’t mind a recombinant psychopeptide that would stop me from chasing after every ball. Happy New Year to current and future readers!
After reading Fourth World, some folks have asked me how much of it is autobiographical. “Are you kidding?” I reply. “It’s science fiction!”
But on reflection, there is plenty of autobiography in it; it’s hard to resist pulling some characters in from my own life, for better or worse. The competitive colleague, the snooty wine taster, the abrasive professor- all these are reducible to caricature, but I try to refrain from that extreme. There are personal heroes and, I’ll admit, family members represented as well. Besides the characters, real life is also reflected in my fictional world of 2196: Big Pharma, colonialism, authoritarian governments, genomic manipulations and their ethical quandaries, and of course upcoming missions to Mars. Painting these current concerns and aspects of my real world- things that I think about- into science fiction is, in a sense, autobiographical. Science fiction is often lumped together with fantasy, but they lie on a very wide spectrum. At one end, pure fantasy would have less autobiographical content, I suppose; my writing, lying at the opposite end of that spectrum, is based more on my own experience.
Consider the flip side of the coin. I was at a reading of Moonglow (a very enjoyable read; get the book!) at Diesel Books in Oakland recently, and Michael Chabon addressed the question of the interface between novel and memoir. Moonglow is written in the form of a memoir, but it is actually a novel, as stated on the cover. Even “facts” passed down from one generation to the next within the plot of the novel turn out to be distorted or just plain made up by the characters. But the author admits that much in the book is historically true, or true to memory. Then he adds the caveat that all memories, to some degree, are fiction.
I agree: Some of my memories may even be science fiction.