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: “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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“Mankind in the Third Millennium”

My look at Brian Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry concludes.

Review: “Mankind in the Third Millennium”, Brian Stableford, 1986.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This bit of futurology is adapted from a lecture delivered to a Symposum for Young Scientists and Engineers held by the Japan Science Foundation, and, understandably, it’s not included in any of the post-1991 reprints of the collection.

It expands on Stableford’s remarks in the collection’s introduction that he views, despite the perils and follies depicted in its stories, bioengineering as a positive thing.

In his preliminary remarks, Stableford says that man is defined by his technology as a “tool-using” animal. Archaeological periods are defined by human tools. But technology is not just machines and tools. It is things like selective breeding of animals and writing. 

He thinks the view of many historians, that history partly chronicles the social, cultural, and political adaptations made when a new technology is introduced, is not completely correct. Adaptations to technology are mediated by cultural and political forces. After all, China did not do what Europeans did with gunpowder, paper, and block printing. Man can choose the shape of future technologies and future societies. 

Technological change produces understandable and justifiable fears and anxieties in people. It generates wealth inequality and means for the poor to be very aware of that inequality. It produces in each of us the certain knowledge that the world we grow old in will not be the world into which we were born. Most people understandably subscribe to the old adage, “Better the devil you know”. 

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“Bedside Conversations”

And I return to one of my favorite authors, Brian Stableford.

There’s a lot of Stableford to review – and that’s just his fiction.

Stableford and Nancy Kress are the authors who have most prolifically and rigorously dealt with the implications of genetic enginnering, and Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution is his most extended treatment of the theme.

Since I had Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Sexual Chemistry on the shelf, I thought I’d start there. Several months later, the project hasn’t gotten any further since I haven’t gotten all the many books in that series.

Still, I’m starting. As usual, Stableford will get one post per story.

While the stories in Sexual Chemistry all deal with genetic engineering, only one is in the Tales of the Biotech Revolution series. It’s “And He Busy Not Being Born”, and I’ve already briefly posted about it, so I won’t be covering it again. Actually, it’s “The Growth of the House of Usher”, and I will be covering it.

Review: “Bedside Conversations“, Brian Stableford, 1990.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

In the collection’s “Introduction”, Stableford starts out by noting the two great revolutions in human history: agriculture and industrialization. The “biological machines” that genetic engineering uses promise any even greater transformation. The possibilities of such a technology could be “hazardous and disquieting”. Used well, Stableford contends it can bring “paradise on earth”. Used badly, it could be apocalyptic. 

Stableford acknowledges some of the stories in this collection are, indeed, apocalyptic. More are ambivalent about genetic engineering and don’t represent its potential without “unqualified enthusiasm”. That, says Stableford, is not personal pessimism on his part. All except one story in the collection were written in the wake of the futurology work he co-wrote with David Langford, The Third Millennium. But, to dramatize the more bizarre possibilities of genetic engineering, fiction must be used. 

Science fiction can more effectively and imaginatively dramatize than futurology the implications of genetic engineering. It can ask question its implications “in a particularly cunning and pointed fashion”. The genre can help us imagine the future of humanity and the lives of our children though it can’t predict the future. Prediction is beyond the genre.

Stableford says he didn’t deal with the most likely applications of genetic engineering in these stories. Rather most of the stories deal with the themes of sex and death since they are at the heart of so many of our desires and anxeties. The stories are caricatures because caricatures more readily carry “meaning and implication” than realistic portraits. Absurdity and “entertaining nonsense” can help us more clearly see real possibilities. Utopias are boring fiction. It is the dystopia and apocalyptic that inspire the imagination if only to steer clear of an imagined future. 

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Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction

This one gets a low-res scan designation because it seems rather pointless to spend a lot of time on some of the pieces in this reprint collection.

Low Res Scan: Slaves of the Death Spiders and Other Essays on Fantastic Fiction, Brian Stableford, 2007.

In “Slaves of the Death Spider: Colin Wilson and Existentialist Science Fiction”, Stableford talks about Wilson’s Spider World series in a way that convinces me there’s probably not much of merit in them. He finds them not that original – specifically derivative of Star Wars and Murray Leinster’s “Mad Planet”. He finds it ironic that Wilson, who once accused science fiction of being fairy tales for adults who have not outgrown fairy tales, has written, inspired by his occult interests, a story that seems to suggest, a la L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, that mankind’s salvation will come. In short, Stableford says Wilson neither delivers a new plot or anything conceptually satisfying

H. G. Wells and the Discovery of the Future” is a very informative essay on Wells. Stableford points to Wells’ 1901 futurological work Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Human Progress upon Human Life and Thought as marking a change in his career and approach to speculative fiction. From that point on, Wells’ would attempt to forecast the future rather than just deal with possibilities. His classic works – The First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes – predate this turn. These, and three short story collections between 1895 and 1901, are realistically, what Wells’ reputation as a vital sf writer rests on – not the turgid utopias he wrote later on. Interestingly, Wells’ The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is seen as an example of Wells’ new direction. Begun as a scientific romance, it diverted to a new direction with the giants becoming an example of  what Wells’ thought humanity should be concerned with in the future. The giants are an example of a “new wisdom and new spiritual strength”. Stableford sees Wells’ participating in a general turn, around 1902, by British sf writers to pessimism, most specifically seen in the natural catastrophe and future war story. As the world became more secular, the belief that salvation and ultimate survival was not guaranteed begun to have effects. After World War I, the British scientific romance became fatalistic to the point of nihilism. Hope for civilization was in short supply. Optimism took a peculiar turn in Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men where man goes through various cyclic rises and falls in his civilization. But, says Stableford, Wells’ earlier approach did not go to waste. It was taken up by American sf. Ultimately, Stableford is fairly critical of the later Wells saying his work had a large element of folly. He says that the best of modern sf tries to strike a balance between the two Wells: an energetic, fun, romantic exploration of possibilities tempered with a desire to see and shape the future.

The Adventures of Lord Horror Across the Media Landscape” is a history of a notorious British novel and accompanying multimedia adaptations of it.

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Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading