Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Le Guin, Carrots and Playboy Magazine

Jemez Falls
"[. . .] We are John Chow. But we are differently trained."
Martin looked shell-shocked. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-three."
"You say he died young – had they taken germ cells from him beforehand or something?"
Gimel took over: "He died at twenty-four in an air car crash. They couldn't save the brain, so they took some intestinal cells and cultured them for cloning. Reproductive cells aren't used for cloning, since they have only half the chromosomes. Intestinal cells happen to be easy to despecialize and reprogram for total growth."
"All chips off the old block," Martin said valiantly. "But how can . . . some of you be women . . .?"
Beth took over: "It's easy to program half the clonal mass back to the female. Just delete the male gene from half the cells and they revert to the basic, that is, the female. It's trickier to go the other way, have to hook in artificial Y chromosomes. So they mostly clone from males, since clones function best bisexually."
Gimel again: "They've worked these matters of technique and function out carefully. The taxpayer wans the best for his money, and of course clones are expensive. With the cell manipulations, and the inucbation in Ngama Placentae, and the maintenance and training of the foster-parent groups, we end up costing about three million apiece."
~ "Nine Lives", by Ursula LeGuin, 1969
Ursula Le Guin's Nebula award-nominated novelette "Nine Lives" is one of her few "hard" science fiction stories. As she wrote in its preface:
It is as near "hard-core" or wiring-diagram science fiction as I ever get; that is, it's a working out of a theme directly extrapolated form contemporary work in one of the quantitative sciences - a what-if story.
What makes the story memorable is that it's not merely extrapolated science; she uses the science as a jumping off point to explore the implications of cloning and how we perceive "self".

The inspiration for "Nine Lives" was a chapter on cloning in Gordon Rattray Taylor's 1968 book The Biological Time Bomb which talked about recent advances in cloning - not humans, of course, but carrots and frogs. The book is an excellent overview of the cutting edge of biotechnology in the late 1960s1: not just cloning, but also human genetic engineering (years before the first genetically-modified bacterium), creating viruses and cells from scratch, artificially boosting intelligence and memory, cryonics, and longevity treatments. Anyone who thinks these ideas are recent (or were new 10 or 20 or 30 years ago), simply wasn't paying attention.

The cloning experiments Taylor describes were conducted by F.C. Steward at Cornell University. He took cells from the carrot root, figured out how to grow the cells in culture (coconut milk was the key ingredient to the culture medium), then was able to show that they could be induced to put out new roots and shoots and flowers and seeds - complete new plants2. While growing cells in culture wasn't novel, being able to develop into different tissues was. In an equally significant line of research, in 1962 Oxford developmental biologist John Gurdon showed that frogs could be cloned by transferring the nucleus from tadpole intestinal cells into an unfertilized egg. From the perspective of 1968, it must have appeared that human cloning was just around the corner. Little did anyone anticipate that it would take more than 30 years before the next cloning breakthrough: production of Dolly the sheep by transferring the nucleus from an adult cell.

While Taylor's description cutting-edge research made it seem as if human might soon be a reality, Le Guin's primary inspiration appears to have been his discussion of the social implications of human cloning:
Members of a clonal group will enjoy an important advantage: like identical twins, they will be able to accept grafts of tissue of whole organs from one another. Apart from the much greater security of life this will give them in general, such an advantage might be supremely important among a small isolated group, such as astronauts on a mission lasting several years, and, at least until such time as the problems of graft rejection are overcome [. . .], it will be an obvious matter of policy to select teams in this way. Indeed there may be another good reason for doing so.

At present the only genetically identical groups with which we are acquainted are twins, triplets and the rare higher orders of identical twindom. There is some evidence that identical (or one-egg) twins have a peculiar sympathetic awareness of each other's needs and problems - even, it has been claimed, a psychic awareness amounting to thought transference. It is certainly true that twins brought up in widely different circumstances have often lived closely similar lives, marrying similar partners of similar ages, and this is so even when they have not been in communication with one another. It is not mere sensationalism, therefor, to ask whether the members of human clones may feel particularly united, and be able to co-operate better, even if they are not in actual supersensory communication with one another.
And there you have the basis for Le Guin's story, which looks at what happens when all but one of such a cloned group of off-Earth explorers is killed in an accident.


So what's the Playboy connection? Back in the 1960s, the magazine actually published a fair amount of high-quality science fiction3, and that was where "Nine Lives" first saw print - under the name "U. K. Le Guin", because apparently a female author would have made its readers "nervous".4 Anyway, for those of you who don't have 40-year-old issues of Playboy in your garage (do people keep back issues the same way they archive National Geographic?), the story has been widely anthologized. If you haven't read it, find yourself a copy, because (as Nancy Kress put it) it's "one of the finest cloning stories written".

1. Biological Time Bomb is a treasure trove of science fiction ideas. Take, for example, the chapter on genetic engineering, which suggests that DNA from an egg could be used to fertilize another egg, bypassing the need for sperm. Taylor's conclusion cries out to be the basis of a story (and maybe it was): "The logical extension of this proposition is the complete elimination of men and the creation of a race of Amazons. While things will hardly go so far on earth, it might be convenient to colonize another planet in this way." I wonder if there is a modern popular science text that would be as useful to a SF writer.

2. For technical details, see Steward FC et al. "Growth and Development of Cultured Plant Cells" Science 143(3601):20-27 (1964). DOI: 10.1126/science.143.3601.20

3. If you stumbled on this post looking for science fiction writer veggie porn, sorry to disappoint.

4. Le Guin has commented: "It's not surprising that
Playboy hadn't had its consciousness raised back then, but it is surprising to me to realize how thoughtlessly I went along with them. It was the first (and is the only) time I met with anything I understood as sexual prejudice, prejudice against me as a woman writer, from any editor or publisher; and it seemed so silly, so grotesque, that I failed to see that it was also important."

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