Thursday, January 18, 2007

Biotechnology and the Frontiers of Science (Fiction)

Back in 2003, the PBS show "Closer to Truth" hosted a roundtable on the question: "Is Science Fiction Science?" The companion website has a transcript, video clips, and brief interviews with the participants: Michael Crichton, Octavia Butler, and David Brin. Interestingly, all three authors commented on biotechnology and the biological sciences.

David Brin, who is a physicist as well as an author, pointed to the rapid pace of biotechnology:
Q: Will technology outpace civil control?

A (Brin): The fact is that it seems likely that the biologists will do and the biochemists will do to their big, huge building-size laboratories what the cyberneticists did to the computer. And not only make them smaller, but cheaper. It's happening at a curve that's even faster than Moore's Law. Within 10, 15 years you will see the MolecuMac in which any teenager in America will -- on his desktop -- be able to fabricate any known or unknown organic compound. There are all sorts of possibilities, but science fiction is supposed to look ahead a little ways and see what they are, and I see the MolecuMac. Under circumstances like those, civilization cannot hold together if we remain stupid.
Not unexpectedly, Michael Crichton commented on the dangers of biotechnology, suggesting it is even worse than the nuclear threat at the height of the cold war:
Q: What do you think the biggest threat to life is today?

A (Crichton): I think that the greatest hazard now comes from biotechnology. In the heyday of the nuclear standoff, it was never conceived of really as wiping out the species. I think it is absolutely conceivable that somebody could do something in biotechnology that would wipe us out.
Octavia Butler noted that the only "hard" science she has used in her novels is from the biological sciences.
Q: Do your own science research?

A (Butler): I don't write hard science fiction for the most part. My Xenogenesis trilogy* is, I guess, as close as I've gotten to hard science fiction and that's biological science fiction. So far, I haven't been writing about the scientist busily doing science. I'm more likely to be writing about the people who are affected by the science. I always wondered when I watched movies or television what was going on with the ordinary people because so often you would see the leaders and the scientists and the generals, and I was much more interested in how all this was affecting Joe Blow, Jane Doe.
The discussion itself focused on the use of science in science fiction from the three authors' different perspectives, not to mention politics, science teaching, and cultural biases. It's definitely worth reading the transcript (pdf) if you are interested in science fiction writing.
It's also worth reading the full interviews, and looking at some of the suggested links for "further edification".

The take home message is that developments in the biosciences will necessarily have a role in our future, and science fiction should take that into account. Yes, I'm biased . . .

* Microbiologist and author Joan Slonczewski has written that Butler's Xenogenesis ". . . creates a stunningly vision of abduction and seduction by an alien species. This vision is presented in terms remarkably consistent with modern molecular biology, even predicting developments that have occurred since the novels were written." (from "Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologist’s Response")

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