Genetic Modification in Science Fiction
Well, the title may be a bit misleading. I’d like to focus on two novels in particular: one, we are reading in this class (Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood) and the other in my Medicine and Literature class (Dawn by Octavia Butler). What’s interesting to me is that both of my classes have converged on genetic modification. In Oryx and Crake, the genetic modification came before the apocalypse and after in Dawn.
Why do I find these two novels to be interesting enough to address within the same blog post? Well, even though they were written decades apart (Dawn was published in 1987 and Oryx and Crake was published in 2003), I think they speak of the same themes and make the same commentary on humans, political climates, and scientific experimentation.
A quick summary of what I’ve read so far of Dawn:
- There was a nuclear war on Earth that devastated the planet and its resources.
- The main character, Lilith, has been saved by aliens who have kept in her in stasis for hundreds of years with a few years of Awakening in order to question her about herself and human culture.
- The aliens do this sort of “exchange” where they can read DNA, modify it, and learn to retrieve aspects and harness it for themselves (for example, the aliens fixed the cancer in Lilith’s body and has now harnessed it to help with the speed of their production of materials).
- Everything that the aliens use/interact with/build is biological, and thus can be controlled by the aliens.
Dawn really discusses the ethics of experimentation on animals that we deem below us, and I think that Oryx and Crake is venturing down that road too. In Dawn, the aliens believe they are helping Lilith, but she resists their efforts because they don’t really understand her (or humans, for that matter)–what she wants, why she wants it, and how she wants to get it.
It seems that Crake managed to use his strange charisma to become an almost higher being that could control the fate (and genetics) of the other humans around him to change them to be the best of what he thinks they should be. But both Lilith and Snowman/Jimmy are rebelling against this higher order. What are these authors trying to tell us about the road that we’re traveling down, in regards to genetic research? Why do these two extremely different stories from entirely different political contexts and cultures ask the same question?
TL;DR Genetic modification becomes much more terrifying when it’s on humans and someone else is in control of what you will become.