February 2013

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research edited by Ra Page

There's a long history of literary interventions in the sciences, from Coleridge, who proclaimed he "shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark," to Richard Powers's DNA-as-leitmotif in The Gold Bug Variations. Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research promises to add to this conversation, inviting scientists and "bio-ethicists" to offer comment on fourteen short fictions that consider the "far side" of bio-technological research. Bio-Punk promises not only that writers will explore scientific themes, but also that scientists will consider the ways in which literature reckons with the consequences of research.

The best stories in this collection present such consequences in scenes both profound and funny. Adam Marek's "An Industrial Evolution" follows a journalist into the Sumatran interior to visit a palm plantation. This plantation's laborers are not human; they are orangutans, the products of one conservationist's attempts to use cloning to preserve a species going extinct. Marek's anti-Heart of Darkness captures the creepy cuteness of the almost-human orangs:

Eleanor comes to life in the nursery, as soon as she sees the little ones, three of them, sat on a fleece jumper in a wooden crate together. And they are impossibly cute. Their big black eyes and their dopey wide grins. Their wild orange hair that sticks up all over the place. Their lovely fat bellies. Their comical inquisitiveness. Cute in a way that makes human babies look boring.

"An Industrial Evolution" stages the tragedy of extinction as black comedy. Molecular geneticist Bruce Whitelaw offers the scientific afterword, a discussion of Dolly the sheep and other experiments in cloning. His evaluation? "Thought provoking science fiction, but a story that builds from what is currently an area of active scientific research." Well, obviously. What the story does, much better than its afterword, is investigate the matrix of emotion, economics, and ecology involved in such an effort. While cloning has been a subject of science fiction writing for a long time, Marek's story incorporates the ways in which humanlike animals can inspire an excess of affection. The short story also raises the specter of slavery, yet this subject seems to pass completely over Whitelaw's head. While Whitelaw observes that the story is thought-provoking, he fails to really consider what thoughts it provokes.

Justina Robson's "Madswitch" invokes Frankenstein, that grandaddy of science-fictions, in a decidedly twenty-first-century way. Her protagonist, the caretaker of a mother with advanced dementia and a brother with autism, experiments in a backyard toolshed with growing bacterial cultures that produce SSRIs, that is, homegrown antidepressants:

Centrifuge, beakers, tubes, Petri dishes, oh you beautiful objects! Let us see what you have grown today. A beard of mould it seems. That's disappointing. My cultures have died and been taken over by the more robust contaminants from the shed itself.

After dumping this batch down the drain, she tries another route, "Serotonin precursors look more hopeful. I could still conceivably create bacteria which will produce L-Tryptophan. Or MDMA, but legal, in yoghurt." Robson hints at, and her afterword commenters Professor Martyn Amos and Dr. Jane Calvert, point out a reference to a recent YouTube video in which biotech designer Tuur Van Balen "hacks" Prozac by growing it in yogurt cultures. Of the scientist-commenters, Amos and Calvert make the most substantive engagement with their story. "Carol's care-free disposal of experimental detritus down the drain (thus releasing it into the wild) is a much more plausible (and perhaps common) scenario than a bunch of bio-terrorists cooking up a deadly new superbug. We should worry about bio-eror more than bio-terror." Robson's story also obliquely engages the "bioethical" theme of the book, yet her account has more immediacy than almost any of the bio-ethicists included in the book's commenters -- with the exception of a refusal of commission discussed by Ra Page in the introduction.

In the introduction, Page describes a response from one potential contributor. "Bio-ethics" this anonymous author argues, "often poses a series of 'ethical concerns,' the answers to which are trivially obvious." Ethical problems only arise, he goes on to say, "if the problem is posed in terms of much more controversial, and much less widely held, positions such as animal rights or Roman Catholicism." There is, in other words, no public discourse of bioethics, despite Page's description of it as a "growth industry." "Trivial" and "obvious" unfortunately characterize the less successful stories and afterwords included here, and this contributor's criticisms of the field display a vigor missing from many bioethical engagements. Put another way, there's not much punk in Bio-Punk; there's not even the kind of countercultural cynicism that characterized its namesake, the cyberpunk fiction of the 1990s. Although the editor's introduction attempts to draw a line between a Bio-Punk ideology and "an enemy far more powerful, these days, than states or individuals. I speak, of course, of corporations," not one of these stories depicts the evils of some real-world Skynet or Yoyodyne. Editor Ra Page may want to speak of corporations, but the best fictions in this uneven collection represent creepy and comical consequences of research, and do what good short fiction always does: tell good stories with meticulous specificity that at the same time echo with larger significances.

In fact, the language of literature has permeated science at least since Watson and Crick described DNA as a code. In computer and genetic science, it is codes, words, texts that offer an intelligible form for discoveries on the far side of research. Literature, therefore, does not come to science as an afterthought. Rather, it vitally shapes our understanding of, and especially our ambitions for, scientific discovery. While many of the authors collected here understand this, the editor, and the scientists themselves, lack the sense of vitality present in Coleridge's pronouncement on chemistry, or in the questions raised by Frankenstein's creature.

Bio-Punk: Stories from the Far Side of Research edited by Ra Page
Carcanet Press
ISBN: 978-1905583409
244 pages