Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Katherine MacLean and the cutting edge of biology

"Do you now anything about their home planet?" asked the man from the Herald.
"Their world must be earth-like to them," the weary-looking young man answered uncertainly. "The environment evolves the animal. But only in relative terms, of course."
~ "Pictures Don't Lie", Katherine MacLean (1951)
One of the things I love about the internet is how it had made it possible to see original historical documents from around in the world. Take, for example, the BBC Archive collection of documents related to "The Genesis of Doctor Who." We get to read the original in-house reports discussing bringing science fiction to the BBC. Of course we know that they ended up producing Doctor Who, but it's quite interesting to read about the other stories they considered.

This 1962 memo laid out the Beeb's requirements:
  • No "Bug-Eyed Monsters"
  • No "Tin Robots" as central characters
  • No "large and elaborate science fiction type settings"
  • "an opportunity for genuine characterization"
  • "ask the audience to suspend disbelief scientifically and technologically on one fact only"
Stories with telepaths and time travelling were high on their list. Among the reports recommendations were Poul Anderson's Guardians of Time (time travel), Erik Frank Russell's Three to Conquer (telepath), Clifford Simak's Eternity Lost (immortal characters), C.L. Moore's No Woman Born (humanoid robot with a human brain), and Katherine MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (alien contact).

"Pictures Don't Lie" was the most "biological" of the bunch. The plot is pretty straightforward: humans make contact with friendly aliens who are directed to land on Earth. The aliens follow the directions, but end up in a deadly swamp full of monsters. Even worse the humans can't figure out where they landed. Finally the humans figure out the problem: ** SPOILER ** the aliens are actually microscopic and have landed in a puddle on the tarmac in the airfield, which is rapidly drying out. ** END SPOILER **

The BBC's assesment? "The whole thing is absolutely possible and logical."

Well, that piqued my curiosity. BBC passed on the story, but it was produced for the NBC radio SF drama program X Minus One, which you can listen to at Internet Archive. It's an entertaining story, athough I'm not so sure about how plausible it is, but it does seem inspired by real science.

Author Katherine MacLean was well known for the use of "hard science" in her fiction. Born in 1925, she focused on math and science in high school, majored in economics in college, then, after graduation in 1950, began postgraduate studies in psychology. It was in 1947, while MacLean was working as a laboratory technician in penicillin research, that she began writing science fiction. One of her major influences was supposedly the General System Theory of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, which was initially developed to explain the interrelatedness of organisms with their ecosystems.

Many of her short stories explore biological themes*, which sound remarkably modern considering they were written shortly before Watson and Crick published their model of the structure of DNA, and long before genetic engineering was a possibility. A few examples:
  • "And Be Merry" or "The Pyramid in the Desert" (1950): A biologist tests an experimental longevity treatment on herself. The treatment, which regenerates the cells in her body, is initially successful, but mutations in some of the cells cause them to grow out of control, giving her cancer.
  • "Syndrome Johnny" (1951): Engineered retroviral plagues genetically re-engineer the human race.
  • "The Diploids" (1953): A young man "suspects he may be an alien because of certain physical and biochemical abnormalities but discovers that he is a commercial human embryonic cell line, sold for research and illegally grown to maturity"
In 2006 MacLean discussed the science behind her story "And Be Merry", which was far ahead of the molecular biology of 1950:
Finding she has no chance of evading eventual death, she immediately loses her obsession with safety, becomes interested in biochemistry again, and invents a new theory. (New at the time.) Mutation from background radiation does not just strike the sperm and egg making chromosome changes in the embryo and mutated progeny, it also strikes the chromosomes in each cell of any living creature, damages and mutates them also, and produces cancer. This cannot be prevented. She called it "somatic mutation" and used the new concept of body deterioration by slow radiation damage (age) to underpin her rediscovered recklessness, and be happy.

Even now most biotechs have not fully accepted the implication that every cell in the body can generate an entire copy of the person. But perhaps a copy will be changed and mutated for the worse by exposure to ambient radiation and other mutagens. Perhaps a cell needs to generate a placenta around it to develop into an entire body. Something like that is holding up the biochemists from successfully making copies of individuals from body or blood cells. Not for long! I wrote three more stories with novel genetic ideas before 1953. Some have not been followed up by scientists yet.
Her recollection is not entirely accurate. The idea of somatic mutation has been around since at least the 1920s, even if it was not known what "mutation" meant in the biochemical sense. However, the hypothesis that somatic mutations cause cancer was being debated in 1955 and probably later than that. And it's only in the last decade that DNA from adult somatic cells has been used to clone mammals - although no humans so far.

MacLean continued to publish short fiction through the 1990s. Her 1995 short story "The Kidnapping of Baroness 5", which blends biotechnology with fantasy tropes, was nominated for the Hugo. She was named Author Emeritus at the 2002 Nebula awards.

Unfortunately none of Katherine MacLean's early short stories are available online. However, they were collected in the 1962 anthology The Diploids and other Flights of Fancy, which was reissued in 2000.

Listen to MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie" (14 MB MP3)

* as an interesting aside, the Katherine MacLean Wikipedia article was apparently edited by MacLean herself

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Genetic Engineering is the most dangerous and the most necessary of all sciences, we are so much in danger from murderous human nature armed with technology, and with crowding, generatine so many murderous lunatics following mad obsessions armed with easy weaponry, and also the success of medicine increasing the crowding generating so much evolutionalry pressure on germs to take advantage of all the human meat.
We are already lucky to have survived the 29th century. Only such extreme danger can force ourselves to violate nature.

The almost impossible task is to take blind rage out of the human heart, the too often response to a confusion of obstacles irritation with the thorny hedge of small obstructions turning to roaring and striking, savage blind attack on anything near. No other animal so readily goes blindly berserk, suddenly violently attacking inanimate objects, innocent objects, or even the berserkers most loved helpers and family.and next worst, smouldering hatred that justifies attacking "enemies" The best of humans can encounter true enemies with tightly controlled anger that is not allowed to go blind, an urge to violence that is restrained to give energy to a reasonable effort to fix the situation without damage to anyone or anything. But controlling rage is not enough, it builds up behind the dam. At the gates of Jerusalum about to provoke and accept crucifixion to prove love and mercy and forgiveness, Jesus himself was reported to have cursed a spindly fig tree for not having figs. He was stressed. He was human.

How deep into the heart of mankind must the DNA surgeons knife go to extract the blindness from rage? Learning how to change human nature in the very depth is a mass effort of study, experiment entering a thunderous galloping home stretch racing to report new DNA research, racing against self destruction after the failed attempt of the sixties to find the answer in meditation, philosophy, psychotherapy with new techniques, and at last hopelessly, in drugs. DNA research is self fueled by selling the improvement of beauty, health, and curing hereditary handicaps,like age, but the last and deepest handicap is the normal accepting definition of anger as "getting Mad." Or going mad.