Biotech Revolution: “Carriers”

Essay: “Carriers”, Brian Stableford, 1993.

Cover by Pitris

A woman on the run. A living legend. An alien invasion.

This story has all those elements and shows one of the advantages of reading an author’s work in chronological order since it has a variation on an idea we saw in Stableford’s “Burned Out”. Like that story, I think this exists outside the future of The Third Millennium.

Bob Bowring is a bloodfarmer, periodically tapping the blood of sows genetically lobotomized and engineered to produce various useful antibodies, hormones, and co-factors. His solitude is interrupted one day by two Army helicopters making several sweeps over his farm. Yelling at them, of course does no good. Bowring doesn’t like the sight of military vehicles. Sometimes he doesn’t even like the sight of normal vehicles and stays in his house when the trucks come to pick up the blood.

Bowring is a committed recluse, and that’s because of his days on the Ares. Going back into his house, Bowring immediately senses that something is wrong. Somebody has entered his house. Bowring, again because of his time on the Ares, is a man very aware of his surroundings in minute detail. Grabbing a shotgun, he begins to search the house.

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Biotech Revolution: “Burned Out”

Essay: “Burned Out”, Brian Stableford, 1993.

Cover by Antonis Papantonious/Fotolia

Things are not going well in America ca 2017. Plague wars have killed 30 million Americans in the last six months. This is a tale of anti-biotech violence and a radical variation on a scientific theory. Despite some similarities to the depiction of life in the early 21st century in The Third Millennium, I don’t think this is part of that future because that variation

One Carmichael has come down from Washington, D.C. to investigate the torching of a bioresearch lab around Ashton (seemingly somewhere in Appalachia). Providing security in these troubled times is Sergeant Andrews and his men.

The local forensic scientist, Burke, says there’s not a lot left but ash. He thinks he’s found the remains of five human bodies and two animals which may or may not be chimps. Some teeth may belong to a scientist at the lab, Abel, but even that’s not certain. The only identified body among the seven missing people is from a local.

Perhaps he’s one of the arsonists and not a member of the lab, thinks Carmichael. The arson annoys Carmichael. 

Even if the lab had been doing the kind of work the anti-biotech extremists thought it was – even if its sealed chambers had been brim-full of armaments for use in the ongoing plague war – this would have been a meaningless act, a gesture of blind rage.

Carmichael doesn’t doubt Burke’s competence, but he’s not really there to find the culprits, just to make a report. He tells Burke, “You know how things are.”

. . . Nobody knew how things were – not any more. Things were coming apart at the seams, and you couldn’t rely on any of the old routines.

Burke asks if Carmichael knew the two scientists at the lab, Abel and Franklin. Carmichael worked in the same building once as Abel but not on the same project. Franklin he met once at a conference back in 2017.

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Biotech Revolution: “The Invisible Worm”

Essay: “The Invisible Worm”, Brian Stableford, 1991.

Stableford operates in domestic comedy mode in this one, and it’s firmly placed in the future history of The Third Millennium, circa The Period of Transformation 2400 to 2650. We have the living gantz houses and cooperative marriages of more than two people who raise decanted children (well, a child).

Our story opens with Rick, the designated caregiver of the week for Steven, a baby whose cries drive Rick up the wall. The other members of this cooperative marriage are Don and Nicola (both working somewhere in South America), Dieter (“a mud-and-sand gantzer” who has a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door), Rosa (who works remotely in the “Ed and Ents” – Education and Entertainment —  sector), and Chloe who is plugged into some robominer working on the mid-Atlantic trench. 

Trouble starts when Rick notices a sick rose on the living wallpaper of the house’s recently installed nursery and that the bathwater for Steven is contaminated. (This is not the last time in this series we will see the motif of gantz houses decorated with walls of permanent living flowers created by genetic engineering.)

So, Rick calls up the house doctor, Dr. Jauregy – a literal doctor for the living homes of this future. She tells him to take a few samples, bag them, and put them in the house’s disposal unit. She’ll analyze them remotely. Rick helpfully says the nursery was only put in a couple of months ago and the house doesn’t have a womb. Steven was “collected after delivery”. He says the wood in the nursery and the wallflowers are, of course, all dextro-rotary and, therefore incapable of being eaten by “feral organisms” and immune to “natural pathogens”.

Jauregy cautions Rick that there’s now, due to genetic engineering, a lot of “de-DNA” about now. Something might have gotten into the house when it was manufactured and then lay dormant. Or it could be something else like a fault in the house’s silicon/biochip interface. She asks if any members of the household are involved in “cutting-edge biotech”. She’ll come over to investigate. She’ll also keep her analytic systems hooked up to the house’s. And then, to Rick’s surprise, she asks him if he has any enemies. 

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Biotech Revolution: “Slumming in Voodooland”

Essay: “Slumming in Voodooland”, Brian Stableford, 1991.

Cover by Ralf Kraft/FOTOLIA

While the overarching purpose of Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution series is to propagandize for reshaping the human body and human society via biotechnology, there are some stories that partake of his interest in horror and Decadent fiction. This is one.

It seems to be in the early years of the 21st century. The impending Crash brought on by Greenhouse Warming and a souring economy seems to have started.

Above the swamps encroaching on Old Suburbia somewhere on the coast of England are the Upland Estates, and in the Upland Estates lives Benny. He is, in essence, a Decadent. Rather like Charles Baudelaire, he is horrified by ennui. Its antidote, to use his word, is “zooming”, the:

cutting edge of experience, the chains of impacts that his atom of consciousness made as it crashed into new territory, leaving the familiar behind.

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Biotech Revolution: “The Man Who Invented Good Taste”

And so it begins, my look at the stories and novels in Brian Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution series. I will be looking at them in order of publication. The list is drawn from ISFDB, the introductions of the six seven collections of Biotech Tales that have been published, and The Brian Stableford Website.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time noting internal chronologies and cross references between stories because it’s not that kind of series. It explores the many implications and possibilities of genetic engineering. As explained in the introduction to The Cure for Love and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution,

most involve relatively moderate variations of the future history sketched out in a series of novels . . . which was itself a modified version of a future history mapped in The Third Millennium . . .

The broad sweep of this future history envisages a large-scale economic and ecological collapse in the twenty-first century brought about by global warming and other factors, followed by the emergence of a global society designed to accommodate human longevity (although that is not necessarily obvious in stories set in advance of the Crash).

In the introduction to Designer Genes: Tales of the Biotech Revolution, Stableford says the series is “an eccentric propaganda campaign” inspired by J. B. S. Haldane’s 1923 lecture Daedulus; or, Science and the Future which argued for the necessity and plausability of “biological inventions” to remake the world.

The idea was taken up in fiction by two brothers: Julian Huxley in the 1926 story “The Tissue-Culture King” and his far more famous brother Aldous’ Brave New World. The former was ambivalent about Haldane’s ideas, the latter was more obviously against their application if not possibility.

Stableford describes the series as a “wildly optimistic” attempt to change minds about the desireability of biotechnology. Being congenitally pessimistic and somewhat contrarian, my own takes on the series may be a bit reactionary on occasion.

But, if I didn’t find Stableford’s style usually pleasing and very often thought provoking, I wouldn’t spend time reading him and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing him.

All that said as prelude, I should also say that, this is actually not the first story in the series. That was “The Growth of the House of Usher”, and I’ve already reviewed it.

Essay: “The Man Who Invented Good Taste”, Brian Stableford, 1991.

Cover by Ralf Kraft/Fotolia

Naïve utilitarianism battles a keen understanding of human nature in this one. Their champions are brilliant genetic engineer Jon Roriston and adman Eddie Farante. It’s also a rumination on how the seemingly trivial and non-utilitarian spurs true utilitarian technology. 

A week after the death of Roriston, Farante is willing to tell what he knows of Roriston’s life to a hungry writer looking to score a quick biography. 

Farante’s voice is sarcastic, the kind of voice, I suspect, that comes naturally to Stableford since he has said he was quite a sarcastic and cutting young lad. In Designer Genes‘ introduction, he says most of the entries in this series are framed as domestic comedies rather than featuring melodramatic action plots.

Farante was a product manager for Ecomech, the number one product manager in fact, and given the task of managing Roriston’s researches. Roriston resents a mere adman having veto power over his projects. 

It’s a profession whose sole purpose is to persuade people that they ought to spend money on things they don’t need . . . It deals promiscuously in false promises, cynical glamorization and low-key psychological warfare. 

To which Farante responds by describing what an economist would call “revealed preferences”:

I meet a lot of people who talk that kind of utilitarian guff, Dr. Roriston. . . . Although I must confess that I never yet met one of them who really acted utilitarian. It isn’t easy to separate out people’s needs from their desires, son, and the whole of history proves that people are very often willing to sacrifice things which you’d say they really needed in order to get things which they wanted for reasons you might not approve of – things which would enhance their images. Admen didn’t invent desire, or vanity, or envy, Dr. Roriston – we just recognize their power as motivating forces. 

Farante even goes on to argue the adman increases the placebo effect of drugs and helps people be healthy. 

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The Third Millennium

Review: The Third Millennium: A History of the World: AD 2000 – 3000, Brian Stableford and David Langford, 1985.

There are few things so uninteresting, except to a small group of academics, as a serious work of futurology published almost 40 years ago.

These works of futurism are approached with varying mixtures of fear, optimism, and cold-eyed assessment of probability on the part of the authors. Since the book ends with a 1905 quote from Anatole France appreciating H. G. Wells for not approaching the future with anxiety and thinking its morality will be ours, I’m going to assume the authors aimed for cold-eyed assessment.

In a sense, the future depicted here is sort of a stock future for our time. Greenhouse warming (the more honest name for what we call now “climate change” and still far from an observed certainty), the depletion of fossil fuels, an ever-increasing population pressures, eventually lead to an Age of Austerity, something like a world government, a massive die-off, and the elimination of nationalism. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is, in a dusty corner of a WEF archive, a copy of this book.

It doesn’t do any good to note its errors in estimating the rates of certain trends. The Soviet Union, of course, didn’t even last a decade after this book was published much less centuries. The connecting of the world, particularly after the advent of smartphones, took a lot less time than depicted here. The demography of almost every nation outside of sub-Saharan Africa points to a future population decline, not increase. Fossil fuels, as many have noted, still have not reached the point of Peak Oil. (Though, despite what some say, that will happen. Even if you postulate that oil is completely abiogenic – which doesn’t seem likely – it’s doubtful more oil could be created and placed in economic deposits to keep up with current demand.)

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Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia

This one came to me as a gift.

This review is for the smallest subset of those few readers who like to read about science fiction.

Review: Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, Brian Stableford, 2006.

Yes, I read every entry in the 575 pages of entries, from “Acoustics” to “Zoology”. (A bibliography, index, and list of entries pushes the total page count past 729 pages.)

The only comparable book I’ve come across is The Science in Science Fiction from 1982 which Stableford co-wrote with David Langford and Peter Nicholls. That was considerably thinner and featured many color illustrations. This book has no illustrations. That book focused on the scientific accuracy behind many common science fiction themes. This one throws a much wider net. For instance, there are entries on “Aesthetics”, “Occult Science”, “Pataphysics”, “Poetry”, “Narrative Theory”, and “Publication, Scientific”.

Generally, the scientifically themed entries focus on the development of a science or scientific theory and its interplay between science fiction and science fact. Generally, that’s the history of a subject and its scientific development and later use in science fiction. But the documented flow of ideas isn’t always from science to science fiction. The “Omega Point” started with philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and then was picked up by a series of scientists and fiction writers. (Stableford doesn’t seem to place much credence in the whole thing.) “Space Travel” could, arguably, be said to have first been initiated by literary dreamers and taken up by scientists.  “Paracelsus”, “may be the “great grandfather of quack medicine”, but he was also one of the fathers of modern chemistry and influenced both science and fiction.

The entries range from half a page in length to several pages in the case of popular science fiction icons like “Robot” or areas of universal intimacy or concern like “Sex”, “Medicine”, “War”, and “Psychopathology”.

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World War One in Fantastic Fiction: The Napus

This was intended to just wind up my look at pre-World War Two French science fiction featuring disasters and apocalypses, but, like many such stories, it also turned out to be another French work bearing the marks of World War One.

Essay: The Napus: The Great Plague of the Year 2227, Léon Daudet, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012. 

Readers in the know will notice that this work isn’t from Stableford’s usual outlet for translated French science fiction, Black Coat Press. He was told

’Léon Daudet was not a nice man’ – a principle which, if universally applied, would slim down the literary tradition considerably.   

However, the Lofficiers, owners of Black Coat Press, do briefly mention this novel and two other works by Daudet in their The Handbook of French Science Fiction.

Why was Daudet a bad man? Well, he was a noted right-wing author in France. Wikipedia refers to him as a Catholic integralist, a man who rejected the idea of church and state being separated. He ran for office in 1927, the year this novel was published. He also spent some time in jail after being convicted of libel when he accused the government of being involved in the shooting death of his son.

Stableford’s “Introduction” says this is the most farcical of all French future war novels. Daudet was very skeptical of the idea that no weapon was so terrible that it wouldn’t be used. He was also unusual in his depiction of a  

future in which scientific knowledge has continued to progress, takes it for granted that much of that science will be intellectually bankrupt, and that the fraction that is not will be largely deleterious to the quality of human life . . . that much contemporary theoretical knowledge is seriously mistaken, and that the theories that replace contemporary ones will be just as arbitrary and liable to supersession. 

He concludes by stating this novel is a “twisted classic of sorts”, “provocatively uncomfortable rather than soothingly soporific”.

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The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters

In my recent look pre-World War Two French science fiction stories of disaster and apocalypse, I missed a couple of stories. This book has the first, “The Death of Earth”, but I’ll be reviewing, as usual, the whole book.

Review: The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters, J.-H. Rosny Aîné, trans Brian Stableford, 2010.

Cover by Vincent Laik

Given that Rosny vies with Jules Verne among scholars of French science as being its most important writer and that this is the first of eight Rosny volumes put out by Black Coat Press (excluding Rosny’s widely available Quest for Fire), Stableford’s “Introduction” is long, 60 pages. Stableford doesn’t go so far as saying French science fiction didn’t exist before Rosny, but he does says that his characteristic themes and conjectures were unprecedented before and since.

Rosny was born in Belgium in 1856 and christened Joseph-Henri-Honoré Boëx. He had an early interest in science and technology, spent some year as an adult in London where he entered a troubled marriage. When he moved to Paris to establish himself as a writer, he became involved several literary disputes. Even his friends acknowledged he was very pugnacious and disputatious man. He did spend some years trying to inherit writer Edmond de Goncourt’s literary and actual estate.

He didn’t start out writing science fiction, and Stableford talks about his many straightforward literary works which were acclaimed but didn’t sell that well. His collaborations with his brother, J.-H. Rosny Jeune (aka the Younger) produced no science fiction work and only lasted about ten years. Not many of his contemporaries appreciated his science fiction except Maurice Renard who also wrote it. The market for French science fiction greatly contracted after World War One. Rosny persisted in writing it, but Renard didn’t.

There’s a fairly long quote from René Doumic, a hostile critic of Rosny’s work who, nonetheless, offered a perceptive analysis of it. Rosny’s work tended to be episodic with little connecting rational between its elements. In his “Afterword”, Stableford says Rosny’s enduring problem in writing science fiction was that he was immediately struck by an intriguing idea or image and didn’t think through, before he started writing, their implications and consequences. Rosny’s “patchwork” compositions were the price we pay for his striking ideas because he could never have written them if he waited to fully develop them.

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Weird Fiction in France

Low Res Scan: Weird Fiction in France: A Showcase Anthology of Its Origins and Development, ed. and trans. Brian Stableford, 2020.

Cover by Mike Hoffman

This anthology is mostly composed of stories three to four pages long though there is one novel and a novella. The “showcase” designation means it serves as sort of a sampler of Black Coat Press offerings since most of these works were previously published by them.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford traces the development of weird fiction in France, dubbed contes fantastiques, back to the manifestations of the Romantic movement there. Romanticism, in opposition to the Age of Enlightenment, emphasized mystery and emotion. Romanticism started in Germany but had different manifestations there. There was also an English version of the movement. French Romanticism was influenced by fey stories written by aristocrats as well as medieval romances and folklore, and France had a deeper tradition of fantastic fiction to draw on than England and the German states.

But there was some cross influences. French Romantics admired E. T. A. Hoffmann, Ann Radcliffe’s gothics, and Lord Byron. But it was Byron’s one-time doctor, John Polidori, that had the biggest influence. His The Vampyre was adapted into a stage play, and vampires were prominent much earlier in French literature than English. French Romantic works tended to be more frivilous and playful than their earnest and gloomy German counterparts. 

In 1830, Charles Nodier published a famous essay, “The Fantastic in Literature”, which explained why, after the Ages  of Reason and Enlightement, supernatural stories would be popular: 

When religions . . . shaken in their foundations, no longer speak to the imagination, or only bring confused notions to is, obscured . . . by an anxious skepticism, it is necessary that the faculty of producing the marvelous with which nature has endowed it is exercised in a more vulgar genre of creation, more appropriate to the needs of a materialized intelligence . . . The apparition of fables recommences at the moment when the empire ends of the real or conventional verities that lend a residue of soul to the wornout mechanism of civilization. 

In an 1832 essay, Nodier proposed three types of weird story: intrusions of the fantastic into everyday life, strange events that can’t be explained, and stories where the weirdness can be rationally explained or can be supernatural. The third type was by far the most common in French weird fiction and in this book. That theme was also aided by some pecularities of France:  the widespread interest in Mesmerism, the examination of mental illness by several doctors who wrote about their findings (thus leading to the popular “asylum novel”), and the romanticism of French writers around the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

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