Biotechnology and Speculative Fiction

Brian Stableford

Although Charlotte Perkins Gilman was content to rely on a whim of chance to allow the inhabitants of Herland to reproduce parthenogenetically, writers constructing all-female Utopias were among the first speculators to be forced to contemplate the possibilities of new biotechnologies. The most notable example of early speculative fiction in which biotechnology plays a crucial role is Mizora, published in 1890 under the pseudonym of Princess Vera Zaronovitch, copyrighted in the name of Mary E. Bradley and reprinted by the Gregg Press under the by-line Mary E. Bradley Lane.

Like Herland, Mizora is an all-female society, but here the male of the species has become extinct, having been made redundant by new reproductive technologies. Related technologies have freed the Mizorans from dependence on crop plants and animal husbandry, all food being synthetic. Advanced medical technology has resulted in the conquest of disease and the extension of the human lifespan. The author takes it for granted that all these advances are implicitly good, perfect foundation-stones for a Utopian society. She might, therefore, have been surprised by the dark suspicions which more recent writers have entertained as to the manner of their fulfilment.

The notions of synthetic food, the conquest of disease and longevity all recur in the speculative fiction of the early 20th century, but they are usually presented as distinct developments rather than particular applications of a more general technological competence. Even those writers who considered them in isolation, however, rarely greeted them with the same reflexive enthusiasm as Princess Zaronovitch.

Stories in which new inventions go spectacularly wrong are, of course, far more common than ones in which everything goes right, because that is what narrative tension requires, but even if one takes that into account, the uniformly bad press given to biological inventions is remarkable.

Even a writer as intensely interested in both biology and Utopia as H.G.Wells hardly ever mentions biotechnology in a Utopian context; it plays no significant part in the societies described in A Modern Utopia or Men Like Gods. A hypothetical biotechnology serves as a facilitating device in The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth (1904) but it is employed there as an arbitrary magical device closely akin to the miraculous green vapour visited upon the Earth by the comet in In the Days of the Comet (1906). The society of surgically-enhanced beast-men temporarily established on The Island of Dr Moreau (1897) disintegrates spectacularly, its fate serving as a salutary lesson for its observer, who learns therefrom to see all morality as an arbitrary and fragile imposition on beings whose underlying bestiality is unalterable by any mere technology.

Two scientific advances made in the first quarter of the 20th century provided important stimuli to speculative thought. These were the tissue culture experiments carried out by Alexis Carrel, Ross Harrison and others, and experiments employing X-rays to induce mutations in fruit-flies carried out by H.J.Muller and others. It is not surprising that Muller's revelations became the parent of vast numbers of stories in which animals and humans were mutated into monsters, but there is some cause for surprise in the fact that the speculative spinoff of the tissue-culture experiments was also uniformly anxious.

Although Harrison was the American expert on tissue-cultures it was the Nobel Prize-wining Frenchman Carrel who was more widely cited as an inspiration. The implications of his work were first translated into speculative fiction by Clement Fzandie, who extrapolated them in the first of the ''Doctor Hackensaw'' stories in the May 1921 issue of Hugo Gernsback's Science & Invention. According to Everett Bleiler, the story ''offers a very clear statement of cloning and genetic engineering'' and discusses the creation of superior farm animals and interspecific hybrids as well as the possibility of bringing a human embryo to term in a bovine uterus. The extrapolation which attracted far more attention, however was J.B.S. Haldane's speculative essay Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, first presented as a lecture at Cambridge University on 4 February 1923. It was reprinted as a pamphlet by Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, who followed it in the next seven years with more than a hundred other speculative essays, advertised as the ''Today and Tomorrow'' series.

In Daedalus, Haldane proposes that the technologies that will remake human society in the second half of the 20th century will be ''biological inventions'', the most important of which will be synthetic food. He states, confidently, that advances in the understanding of basic biological processes will produce many technological applications of which the world stands in dire need -- but he is careful to sound a cautionary note about the manner in which they are likely to be received by the public. Of the biological inventions of the past, he writes,

Four were made before the dawn of history. I refer to the the domestication of animals, the domestication of plants, the domestication of fungi for the production of alcohol, and to a fourth invention, which I believe was of more ultimate and far-reaching importance than any of these, since it altered the path of sexual selection [...] In our own day, two more have been made, namely bactericide and the artificial control of contraception.

The first point we may notice about these inventions is that they have all had a profound emotional and ethical effect. Of the four earlier there is not one which has not formed the basis of a religion [...]

The second point is perhaps harder to express. The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which has not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.Haldane, J.B.S., Daedalus; or, Science and the Future London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1923. pp. 42-44.

Haldane goes on to expand on this point, cleverly and wittily, summarizing thus:

The biological invention then tends to begin as a perversion and end as a ritual supported by unquestioned beliefs and prejudices. . . . With the above facts in your minds I would ask you to excuse what at first sight might appear improbable or indecent in any speculations which appear below.ibid. pp. 49-50.

The brief speculative history of the 20th century included in the essay remains somewhat ahead of its time, although we are now beginning to catch up with it. In Haldane's speculative future history food produced by synthetic algae causes a glut in the 1940s. The first ectogenetic child is born in 1951 and in spite of a condemnatory Papal bull and a fatwa issued by the spiritual leader of Islam artificial wombs are officially licensed for use in France in 1968, becoming universal in the early 21st century.

Haldane's tone remains conscientiously light as he adds some further observations. He suggests that future elections might be fought on such issues of human genetic engineering as whether to equip a new generation of children with prehensile tails, and looks forward to the day when

we may be able [...] to control our passions by some more direct way than fasting and flagellation, to stimulate our imagination by some reagent with less after-effects than alcohol, to deal with perverted instincts by physiology rather than prison.
He conscientiously adds the rider that:
Conversely, there will inevitably arise possibilities of new vices similar to but even more profound than those opened up by the pharmacological discoveries of the 19th century.ibid. p. 71.

Haldane deserves congratulation not so much for his extrapolation of the potentialities of biotechnology, which should have been obvious to any thinking person, but for his anticipation of the kind of response such innovations as cloning and the genetic engineering of food crops would generate. He was the first person to recognise and call attention to the great irony of biotechnological progress -- the irony which has comprehensively blighted all but a few examples of speculative fiction dealing with such innovations.

One can quarrel with the details of Haldane's catalogue of great biological inventions, omitting as it does the two most fundamental and most crucial of all: cooking and clothing, which between them necessitated the domestication of fire and the development of all the tools whose use perfected the association of hand, eye and brain. The gist of his argument is, however, unchallengeable. Everything that we think of as ''human nature'' -- and, indeed, almost everything we nowadays think of as ''nature'' -- is in fact the product of biotechnological invention. Everything that we think of as good, every worthwhile human achievement and every Utopian dream of the past that has ever come to fruition owes its existence to biotechnology. That is the simple truth -- and yet, paradoxical as it may seem, one of the corollaries of the grateful awe with which we cling to the produce of the biotechnological discoveries of the past is that we are bound thereby to regard with the deepest suspicion the biotechnological discoveries of our own day.

Haldane's chief rival as a scientific essayist in the early 1920s was his close friend Julian Huxley, who extrapolated the ideas contained in Daedalus in a brief satirical parable, ''The Tissue-Culture King'' (1926). In this story a Western biotechnologist places his skill at the service of a tribal king in Central Africa, developing a whole series of production lines. Within the Factory of Kingship -- also known as the Wellspring of Ancestral Immortality -- the scientist grows tissue cultures of the tribal King and his favoured subjects which are revered by the tribe, whose religious beliefs assign considerable virtue to the principle of symbolic renewal. In the Factory of the Ministers to the Shrines, research into endocrine secretions has enabled the production of giants for the king's bodyguard and many monstrosities which have also become objects of considerable reverence within the tribal religion. Animal monstrosities are mass-produced in the third part of the complex, the Home of the Living Fetishes, three-headed snakes and two-headed toads being the items in greatest demand among the tribesmen.

The question raised by Huxley's tale is whether the application of such new biotechnologies in the developed nations would be any less perverted by fetishes and taboos than they would be in the dark heart of Africa -- but the author was happy to leave it to his younger brother Aldous to develop that line of thought further in Brave New World (1932). The most eloquent testimony to the accuracy and force of Haldane's argument is that this magnificently cynical and brutally sarcastic comedy has never been supplemented, let alone surpassed, by any similarly-comprehensive account of a biotechnologically sophisticated society. There seems to have been a tacit admission by all subsequent writers that this one novel -- which does indeed claim in its subtitle to be a novel, although it might better be regarded as a cleverly extended and calculatedly sick joke -- has said all that needs to be said on the subject. Its substance has entered modern consciousness to such an extent that it is one of those rare books which seems perfectly familiar even to that vast majority of readers whose members have never bothered to open it.

Although modern critics sometimes attempt to claim Brave New World as an item of science fiction, it needs to be borne in mind that no such novel could possibly have appeared under the science fiction label in the 1930s or 1940s. In 1951, when James Blish wrote a series of articles on ''The Science in Science Fiction'' for Science Fiction Quarterly, he had no difficulty at all in finding examples of stories dealing more-or-less intelligently with mathematics and astronomy, and he was even able to find something interesting in sciencefictional applications of psychology, but his essay on ''The Biological Story'' in the May 1951 issue begins with the lament that he had only been able to find one solitary example of a sensible application of biotechnology, in Norman L. Knight's novella ''Crisis in Utopia'' (Astounding Science-Fiction July-August 1940). Blish -- who was educated in biology and fervently desired to remedy this omission -- was inspired by this discovery to borrow an idea from Norman Knight which he deployed much more extravagantly in stories of his own, and eventually to write a novel in collaboration with him.

''Crisis in Utopia'' describes how two 42nd century yachtsmen who have been allowed into a region of the Pacific normally proscribed to tourists encounter two ''tritons'': humans modified for life in the sea. The tritons reveal that they are members of a ''tectogenetic species'', whereupon one of the yachtsmen observes that most of the world's crop plants and domestic animals have been derived by this kind of artifice:

You take living chromosomes, break them down into their separate genes and preserve the genes alive in pure culture [...] Then you rebuild the chromosomes into a new pattern and implant them in denucleated germ cells. From then on it's a simple matter of gestation -- or seed formation if you're working with plants -- in vitro.Knight, Norman L. ''Crisis in Utopia'', Astounding Science-Fiction July 1940. p.22.

This is the only paragraph of scientific explanation in the novella, which goes on to explain how the tritons have had to be developed in the utmost secrecy lest the knowledge that human genetic engineering is possible should disrupt and destroy the Utopian existence that unmodified humankind has contrived. Although the end of the story suggests that the tritons might yet be accepted into human society -- except, of course, for the mad one whose attempts to destroy that society provide the typically pulpish plot -- the fundamental assumption is that the taboo to which such notions are subject will not be easily broken.

The remainder of pulp science fiction bears out this assumption in no uncertain terms. Blish's essay on biological sf calls the vast majority of its examples exercises in teratology: the making of monsters. The vast majority of pulp sf stories about biotechnology are Frankensteinian fables in which the products of induced mutation and other interventions, however well-intended, invariably run amok and have to be destroyed. Even those stories which narrow their focus to such seemingly-benign innovations as the conquest of disease and ageing routinely insist on finding some crucial fly in the ointment.

The most prolific writer of biotechnological stories in the first fifteen years of the sf pulps, country doctor and psychiatrist David H. Keller, could find nothing good to say about biotechnology at all; his accounts range from ''The Feminine Metamorphosis'' (1929), in which the American women who boost their ambition and business acumen with the aid of transplanted testicles imported from the Far East come to a sticky end because all the donors turn out to have been infected with syphilis, to ''Life Everlasting'' (1934), in which the recipients of a drug which cures all their physical afflictions and offers the possibility of eternal youth refuse its gifts because they cannot tolerate the thought of a world without children. Stories by other hands include ''The Murgatroyd Experiment'' (1929) by Capt Sterner P. Meek, in which a project to incorporate a photosynthetic pigment in human blood so that people can draw nourishment directly from the sun, goes awry because -- for no apparent reason -- the experimental subjects all go mad and become violent.

So far as I can ascertain, the only significant example offered by pre-war pulp sf of a future society in which a multifunctional biotechnology is routinely and constructively applied on any scale is Beyond This Horizon (1942) by Robert A. Heinlein. It is not an important element of the story background and fades from view as the story progresses. (Heinlein originally intended Beyond This Horizon to be a serious exercise in futuristic speculation, but he was so disappointed by his performance when he actually came to write it that his letters soon began referring to it as a ''hunk of hack''.) Heinlein never returned to the theme in his later work.

James Blish made a conscientious attempt to oppose this trend in the early 1950s. His novella ''Beanstalk'' (1952), expanded into the novel Titan's Daughter (1961), borrows a good deal from Wells's Food of the Gods in featuring the development of a race of ''tetraploid'' humans whose general superiority is symbolized by increased stature. The early part of the story focuses on the vicious prejudice experienced by members of the new race, which it deplores, although the latter part bows to the necessity of adding a pulp-fiction plot in exactly the same fashion as Norman L. Knight. The stories collected in the mosaic novel The Seedling Stars (1956) take it for granted that the only human genetic engineering that will be tolerated on Earth in the foreseeable future is the adaptation of colonists to the alien environments of distant worlds -- although the heavily ironic final story in the series mocks the insanely stubborn prejudices of the unadapted human spacefarers transporting the adapted men whose task it will be to recolonize a comprehensively-ruined post-holocaust Earth. The depth and uncompromising fervour of anti-biotechnological prejudice is the subject of several other notable sf stories of the 1950s, including Katherine MacLean's provocatively-intended ''Syndrome Johnny'' (1951) and Damon Knight's Utopian satire ''Natural State'' (1954; aka Masters of Evolution).

Haldane probably could not have imagined, when he wrote Daedalus, how uncompromising the negative reaction he had prophesied would be, but he presumably found out before he died in 1964. Perhaps mindful of the disappointment caused by his best friend, however, his sister Naomi Mitchison waited until Haldane was safely in the grave before writing her own deeply sceptical cautionary tales based in hypotheses drawn from Daedalus. Solution Three (1975) and Not By Bread Alone (1983) both feature well-intentioned applications of biotechnology which go sadly awry.

The attempts pioneered by James Blish to examine biotechnological innovations more even-handedly than the prolific exercises in teratology which remained in a huge majority received a massive setback shortly after Haldane's death when Gordon Rattray Taylor published The Biological Time-Bomb (1968). This frantically alarmist work declared that a new era of biotechnology was about to begin, and that its consequences would be utterly horrific. Although Taylor was British and the most obvious fictional spinoff from his work, the TV series Doomwatch, remained confined to the UK, the apocalyptic fervour of The Biological Time-Bomb was imported into the USA by the best-selling Vance Packard in The People Shapers (1978) -- a book which reached a far wider audience than the handful of contemporary science fiction stories which moved beyond the tentative interrogation of reflexive prejudices to imagine future societies that had enthusiastically embraced life-enhancing biotechnologies.

Where John Varley tentatively led in the late 1970s Bruce Sterling followed in the 1980s, most notably in the Shaper/Mechanist series culminating in Schismatrix (1985) -- but these graphic and sometimes gruesome works hardly qualified as a glowing advertisement for any of the conflicting mini-Utopias with which the post-human solar system is imagined to be replete. Ironically, and perhaps perversely, those images of post-humanity which involve radical cyborgization and the uploading of mental software to an inorganic matrix seemed far more glamorous and comforting to the cyberpunk-loving audience than images based in speculative biotechnology. The strident alarmism of such anti-cyborgization parables as those collected in David R. Bunch's Moderan (1971) were always balanced by apologetic accounts in which the fusion of flesh -- especially the human brain -- with inorganic structures was elevated as a desirable end. Such apologias have not only been offered by technofetishist males who might be expected to get a buzz from the idea of being hotwired to their cars and guns, but also by such female writers as C. L. Moore, in ''No Woman Born'' (1944), and Anne McCaffrey, in ''The Ship Who Sang'' (1961) -- stories whose train of thought has ben spectacularly carried forward by sexual-political theorists like Donna Haraway. There is no trace of any similar even-handedness in speculative fiction about biotechnology before 1980, and little enough thereafter.

My own involvement with this issue began in 1983, when a considerable number of British publishers and book-packagers decided that 1984 would be a propitious year in which to market futurology books. I worked on three of them, although two of them did not appear until 1985 because the publishing industry is such a poor timekeeper. The first, which I intended to call The Final Phase -- because the era of genetic engineering would be the final phase of human evolution -- was extensively rewritten in house because the packager did not consider it sufficiently melodramatic. The painter commissioned to the original illustrations dropped out at an early phase after telephoning me to explain at great length his conscientious objections to do anything that might be construed as favouring the cause of genetic engineering. The book eventually appeared under a title of which I strongly disapproved: Future Man: Brave New World or Genetic Nightmare? (1984).

Perhaps surprisingly, the ghost-written chapters on biotechnology that I provided for The 2024 Report by Norman Macrae fared rather better, most of the rewriting that was done being undertaken to ensure that the arguments fitted in with the cavalier libertarian economics which the book was intended to promote. The result was slightly confused by the fact that that Norman's zeal for the principle of laissez faire did not extend quite as far as religion, but the need to flatter the Christian prejudices of the American Foundation which had funded the book did not result in overmuch censorship of my suggestions as to the most profitable ways in which biotechnology might be applied in the next fifty years.

My experiences in writing Future Man coloured my determination to make The Third Millennium, which I wrote in collaboration with David Langford, as extravagantly Utopian as I possibly could, and to make advances in biotechnology the foundation-stones of the Utopian society established in the year 3000. Although the packager carefully cut out every explanation in the book and demanded 23 extra jokes to make up the lost wordage, the underlying argument remained relatively unimpaired, but my long-held admiration for Haldane's Daedalus left me somewhat unprepared for the response the book evoked from the interviewers who questioned David and myself during the publicity tour organized by the book's publishers, every single one of whom seemed utterly unable to grasp the contention that we had intended the society that emerged at the end of the book to be a good one, far better in every respect than ours. The idea that anyone might seriously advocate the use of such technologies as artificial photosynthesis, let alone ectogenesis, seemed to be literally beyond their comprehension. Even the idea that human longevity was a desirable end of research met with what seemed to me to be astonishing resistance. I had always known that Haldane was right about the reception of biological inventions, but I was amazed and appalled -- as I suspect that he would have been -- to discover the extent of his rightness.

Everything that has happened in the field of biotechnology since 1985, up to and including the current controversies regarding cloning and genetically modified food, provides conclusive evidence that Haldane was a far better prophet than he could possibly have wished. The vast majority of civilized human beings, who are in every respect the products of biotechnology and who consider the biotechnologies of the past to be entirely and definitively natural, seemingly cannot contemplate the biotechnologies of the present -- let alone those of the future -- without a suffering a reflexive tidal-wave of neurotic anxiety and blind, unreasoning terror.

Although biotechnology has few enough apologists, blind and unreasoning terror does not. An intriguing argument in favour of paranoid speculative fiction was provided by the short-lived magazine, Today and Tomorrow, launched by Fleet Publications after Kegan Paul, Trench and Trubner administered the coup de grace to their ailing pamphlet series. The first of its three issues featured an essay on alarmist fiction by the philosopher C.E.M. Joad, entitled ''Is Civilisation Doomed?'' While admitting that neither he or anyone else could provide a sensible answer to this question, Joad unhesitatingly offered a deeply pessimistic prognosis, excusing himself in the following casual manner:

I have made this article a gloomy one, because I conceive it to be the duty of a writer about the future to be as pessimistic as possible. By this method he may hope to irritate his readers sufficiently to provoke them to make the efforts necessary to prove his predictions false.Joad, C.E.M., ''Is Civilisation Doomed?'', Today and Tomorrow vol. 1 no. 1 (October 1930). p. 48.

This is an admirably ingenious argument, and there are some grounds for thinking that it may be justified, at least within a limited scope. Those writers who fulfilled this kind of moral duty in writing about futures devastated by nuclear warfare may indeed have played some small part in ensuring that nuclear warfare has so far been avoided. We must admit, however, that in respect of biotechnology, the strategy has not merely failed but failed dismally.

Prediction after prediction has issued forth during these last 75 years, all but a fugitive few couched in the most fervent apocalyptic terms, to inform us that the world will not tolerate future advances in biotechnology. Alas, they have not provoked any effort at all to prove them false. If anything, anticipations of futures in which there is a near-universal hostility to the most benign of new biotechnologies have actually helped to bring about the appalling world in which we now live: a world in which there is, indeed a near-universal hostility even to the most benign of new biotechnologies.

I think, therefore, that we must now conclude that it is high time to set aside the moral duty prescribed by Professor Joad. We must accept that the time has come for at least some -- and perhaps all -- writers about the future to abandon their moral commitment to pessimism in this particular instance and embrace in its stead a moral commitment to optimism: a duty to construct hypothetical societies in which biotechnologies are boldly and promiscuously deployed to the benefit and betterment of human individuals and whole human societies.

As a writer, I am perfectly prepared to lead the way by example, and I have tried as hard as I can to do so since 1987, when I abandoned scholarship and returned to fiction writing. The novel about future biotechnology that I began to write in that year was turned down by every publisher to which it was submitted, in outline or -- eventually -- as a complete manuscript. Not until a ruthlessly cut version had appeared as a novella in 1994 was the re-expanded work accepted for publication, and then only in the USA, where it will appear in September as Architects of Emortality. Two other novels, Inherit the Earth and Living in the Future, have been published or scheduled for publication in the USA but have been rejected by every British publisher of science fiction. My first collection of short stories dealing with biotechnological themes, Sexual Chemistry, only exists because an editor condescended to add it as a ''sweetener'' to a contract for three historical horror novels. The second has yet to find a market anywhere, but I remain hopeful. We shall not attain Utopia unless and until the reactionary attitude of mind observed by J.B.S. Haldane can be conclusively shattered, and if I were not trying to do that, I would be failing in my moral duty.

By way of conclusion, I should like to point out that people who are not writers have their moral duties too. As citizens of a nation whose parliament will have to spend much of the next century producing legislation to determine the scope of biotechnological research and regulate the dissemination of new biotechnologies, your clear and obvious duty is to become fervent and uncompromisingly extravagant propagandists for the only kind of activity that is truly, fundamentally and definitively human: the last best hope for the future improvement of our lot in life, the Cinderella of speculative thought, biotechnology.


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