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Sociology, Genomics and Science Fiction



The Genomics Forum's Writer in Residence, Ken MacLeod discusses the relationship between Sociology, Genomics and Science Fiction:


Scientists working in genomics and biotechnology could well blame science fiction for public suspicion of their work. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is a founding text of science fiction, and its effect – particularly through film – on public perception of scientists tampering with ‘life itself’ can hardly have been reassuring.

On the other hand, science fiction has dramatized and popularized the promises as well as the perils of biological science. Biological themes – evolution, ecology, sex, cloning, genetic engineering and others – are deeply rooted in SF, and some works have remained resonant across decades of enormous changes in the underlying science. The technologies envisaged in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), for instance, have dated but the questions raised by the book have not. (Indeed, its status as cliché – which it shares with Nineteen-Eighty-Four as well as Frankenstein – can be argued to have pernicious consequences: see http://www.huxley.net .) In recent years, as Slonczewski and Levy (2003) point out, SF writers have ‘turned to biology as the “hard science” frontier of the future. The quest for outer space has given way to the quest for the genome. The great adversary is no longer an alien superpower, but the enemies within – cancer, AIDS, and bio-weapons – as well as the accidental results of genetic manipulation, and our own lifestyle destroying our biosphere. The engineering challenge of the future is less a matter of machines replacing living organisms than of machines imitating life’s complexity.’

Social scientists are less likely than natural scientists to star as villains or heroes in SF. Their work, however, has deeply influenced the genre. At first or second or third hand – directly, through popularizations, and as refracted through mass media - anthropology, economics, sociology, and political theory have all raised questions to which SF writers have imagined answers. Because science fiction is primarily about consequence rather than cause, a good deal of it consists of thought experiments in the social sciences. As Isaac Asimov put it, the trick is to foresee not the internal combustion engine, but the rush hour. The problem with highlighting SF relevant to social science is to narrow the list. Likewise with genomics: in much SF genetic hacking or somatic tweaking of the ills that flesh is heir to is assumed as default, part of the future background, while stories centred around GM have tended to diminish in quantity and increase in quality as the science and technology have advanced.

Mass media works (in SF and other genres) have reflected genomics in ways that range from the thoughtful (GATTACA) through the merely unrealistic workaday (CSI) and the sensational (Jurassic Park) to the loopy (Heroes). Written SF (whose core readership and reviewers are more scientifically informed than the general public) usually has to hew to stricter standards of scientific plausibility – though it should be clearly understood that plausibility is not the same as accuracy. For a brief look at this, see:http://blogs.amctv.com/scifi-scanner/2008/07/everything-the-movies-tell-you-is-wrong.php

For a wide range of academic and thematic approaches to SF, a good place to start is The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (2003). The chapter ‘Science fiction and the life sciences’ by Joan Slonczewski and Michael Levy, is a useful and detailed survey. On the general relevance and usefulness of SF to sociology teaching, see Laz (1996).

Here is a list of SF works (novels, short stories, and film/TV) of particular relevance to social science, genomics, or both.

Short stories:

  • We can start with a story whose synthesis of critical social theory and natural science is neatly summed up in the title. Carter’s story is cast in the form of an imaginary social science article about a genetic condition that disrupts the binary perception of gender: ‘Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation’, Raphael Carter, Starlight 2, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Tor Books, 1998.‘In "Congenital Agenesis" Carter looks gender straight in the face, and gender is the thing that blinks.’ (Kate Schaefer, commenting on the story’s winning of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. http://www.tiptree.org/devel/orig/1998/ )

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, 1973, edited by Brian Aldiss, includes a number of SF stories on social science themes:

  • ‘The Snowball Effect’, Katherine MacLeanA professor shows the funding authorities what sociology is good for, by adapting the rules of a sewing circle to encourage its expansion. Unfortunately, he didn’t include any rule to limit expansion.
  • ‘Pyramid’, Robert AbernathyDisplaced humans come to fill a succession of new ecological niches, as well as modes of production.
  • ‘Eastward Ho!’ William TennPost-WW3 Native Americans reconstruct their traditional order from anthropology textbooks about their ancestors, and incidentally push the whites back across the Atlantic.

  • ‘MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie’, C. M. KornbluthWhat if there really were a simple social solution to all the world’s problems – and one that’s repeatedly stumbled upon by writers, of all people? Then we’d all know about it, right? Well, not quite …
  • Apeman, Spaceman, edited by Leon E. Stover and Harry Harrison, Penguin, 1972, is an anthology of anthropological SF and of interest throughout.

Two short stories parody technical writing in archaeology and anthropology respectively, to make sharp satirical points:

  • ‘A Preliminary Investigation of an Early Man site in the Delaware River Valley’, Charles W. Ward and Timothy J. O’Leary
  • ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema’, Horace M. Miner
  • One story deals in a dark manner with coming to terms with local custom: ‘The Wait’, Kit Reed
  • Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution (1991) collects the author’s short stories on the possibilities of genetic engineering. I remember them as highly entertaining and thought-provoking.
  • The same author’s Inherit the Earth (1998) and its sequels provide one of SF’s most considered treatments of genetically engineered longevity, with its social and ecological consequences being monitored by a ‘Harbinist’ elite – the reference being to Garrett Hardin’s classic article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.
  • Greg Egan has written many relevant stories and novels, some of near-future worlds changed by plausible near-term advances in biotechnology, others of much more radically posthuman and distant futures. His novel Schild’s Ladder sets itself the challenge of evoking a physical world even more counter-intuitive than that of quantum mechanics; Adam Roberts dissects its textual strategies and suggests that they fail:http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/schild.htm But the book remains a bravura example of hard SF, and includes a wry joke about anthropology and SF explorations of gender.Egan’s site http://www.gregegan.net/ is well worth a visit, and you can read many of his stories online free.
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    • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, 1985Probably the most respectable SF text in print, this dystopian novel is already used in sociology classes - see:Science Fiction and Introductory Sociology: The "Handmaid&uuot; in the Classroom, Cheryl Laz, Teaching Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 54-63 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1318898

    • The Misconceiver, Lucy Ferris, 1997This novel, about an abortion provider in a near-future (2026) America where abortion is illegal and contraception restricted has been recommended to me by Farah Mendlesohn as a more credible (and thus alarming) dystopian vision than The Handmaid’s Tale.

    • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin, 1969Le Guin is the daughter of pioneering American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and much of her work explores anthropological and sociological themes. Her novel Always Coming Home (1985) imagines in great detail an anthropological study of the Kesh, a people ‘who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California’. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the question of gender through imagining a long-isolated branch of the human species genetically engineered to be sequentially hermaphroditic. The biology and the psychological and social consequences are deeply thought through.

    • Le Guin’s short story ‘”The Author of the Acacia Seeds” and other extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics’ subverts and extends the ‘imaginary science article’ form.

    • Cyteen, C. J. Cherryh, 1988Politics, genetic manipulation, human cloning. I haven’t read it, and it’s fair to say that readers are divided.

    • Distraction, Bruce Sterling, 1999Politics, economics, genetic engineering, and climate change in 2044 America (calling it the USA at this point would be pedantic).
    • Accelerando, Charles Stross, 2005 (available online at http://www.accelerando.org/)More fired by nanotechnology and AI than genomics, but in a molecular world, who’s counting? Not the robot cat, that’s for sure. Very intense, detailed imagining of the next few decades. The sociological angle is supplied by intelligent financial instruments: corporate personhood is no longer a legal fiction, and corporeal personhood becomes distributed and problematic, especially for the flock of pigeons formerly known as Manfred.

    • Darwin’s Radio, Greg BearAn adaptive human macromutation, triggered by environmental stress: controversial but well-informed biology and a plausible projection of human reactions to the birth of a new human species in our midst.
    • Blood Music, Greg BearHard science, speculative fiction: computation at the cellular level (‘biochips’) becomes infectious, runs amok and eats every living thing in North America. After that, things become seriously weird. Everyone lives happily ever after.
    • Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner, 1968One of the few novels whose hero is a sociologist! This dystopia of overpopulation (the title refers to the notion that the entire world population of 7 billion in 2010 could stand on the island of Zanzibar - it’s 6.7 billion now, by the way) is built on 1960s sociology, as popularised by Vance Packard – and human ethology, as popularised by Desmond Morris. There’s also a distinctly genomic twist to the plot: the anomalously peaceful population of Beninia (an imaginary African country) turn out to have a mutant pheromone. The novel is intriguing for the ways in which its world resembles and differs from the future we have now lived into.
    • Beyond This Horizon, Robert A. HeinleinDespite loading many structural flaws on its short span, this early work is of interest for the ingenious mechanism it postulates for prenatal eugenic selection, and for the originality of its utopia: one based on the Social Credit theory. It’s also the original locus of the technique invented by Heinlein of replacing exposition by un-remarked-on detail: ‘The door dilated.’
    • The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman, 1989Set in a warm, wet future London under a benign mutation of Chinese communism, this novel is riddled with genomic and sociological ideas: genetically modified people, viral ‘wiring’ of moral strictures (and other information) into the brain, and a cure for cancer that has halved the human lifespan. ‘This was not considered to be an advance in medicine. This was considered to be a mistake.’ The heroine’s homosexuality is considered by the authorities to be bad grammar: ‘bad deep grammar, but grammar nonetheless.’ Part of the novel was published as the novella ‘Love Sickness’ (1987).
    • Hard to be a God, Arkady and Boris Strugatski, 1964 (Eng. 1973; available online at http://lib.sarbc.ru/win/STRUGACKIE/engl_god.txtSoviet SF novel in which social science is part of the problem: a team of scientists from Earth, on a world of human-like aliens, try to understand the theoretically anomalous eruption of ‘modern’ totalitarianism in a feudal society. Any allusion to then-contemporary socialist societies may have been overlooked by those functionaries whose job it was to catch such allusions.
    • White Queen, Gwyneth Jones, 1993First Contact story, featuring aliens whose biological and psychological differences from humanity run deep. Winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for exploration of gender.
    • The White Plague, Frank Herbert, 1982Insane molecular biologist devises plague to wipe out women. Among other consequences, IRA warlords restore paganism. Not a Tiptree contender.

    SF of specific relevance to the sociology of science:

    • Kim Stanley Robinson may be the SF writer most interested in realistic dramatization of how science and science policy actually work. From his Wikipedia entry: ‘The "Science in the Capital" series encompasses three novels: Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007).This series explores the consequences of global warming, both on a global level, and as it affects the main characters: several employees of the National Science Foundation and those close to them.’

    • Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) is usually discussed under the rubric of SF about anarchism, but a large part of the story hinges on the politics of science.

    • Paul J. McAuley is one of the few SF writers who have actually worked in science, and it shows. His The Secret of Life (2001) shows the effect of the discovery of a Martian microbe (with a different genetic code from that of terrestrial life) through some believable and some sensational institutional shenanigans. It also features ‘Radical Primitives’ who have used GM techniques to modify their bodies for survival in the wild.

    • Another professional scientist and SF writer is the astrophysicist Gregory Benford, whose 1980 novel Timescape was praised for showing ‘the life of real scientists, cadging grants and fudging results’ (as I recall New Scientist’s review putting it).