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[GUEST POST] Nancy Kress on Why She Writes So Much About Genetic Engineering

Nancy Kress is the author of thirty-three books, including twenty-ix novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won five Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Most recent works are After The Fall, Before The Fall, During The Fall (Tachyon, 2012), a novel of apocalypse, and Yesterday’s Kin, about genetic inheritance (Tachyon, 2014). In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad; in 2008 she was the Picador visiting lecturer at the University of Leipzig. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, and Cosette, the world’s most spoiled toy poodle.

“DNA Yet Again, Kress?”
or, Why I Write So Much About Genetic Engineering

by Nancy Kress

Every once in a while some critic says, “Science fiction is over. The future is here now. Science has caught up with science fiction and there is nothing left to write about.” To these people I say, “Huh? What are you talking about?”

Science is advancing at a dizzying rate, but that produces more to write about, not less. Bi-weekly, Science News dazzles me with fresh discoveries in all fields. So why do I mostly (not exclusively, but very definitely mostly) choose to write about genetic engineering in my fiction? Three reasons.

First, genetic engineering is immediate, affecting everyone’s daily life right now. This is not true of, say, the discovery that a new species of microscopic creature has been found living in Antarctica, or that there may be double black holes at the hearts of many galaxies. If you ate a Danish for breakfast, you partook of a genetically modified crop: the canola oil widely used to make pastries. If you have Type 1 diabetes, your insulin was manufactured by genetically altered bacteria. If you have a genetic disorder that requires ATryn to prevent blood clots, you were given a compound harvested from the milk of genetically modified goats. If you take pretty much any drug for any medical condition, it may have been developed and tested on lab mice genemod for that condition. In one sense, the critics are right: the genetic future has arrived.

And it will keep on arriving, which is what makes genetic engineering such a rich lode to mine for fiction. Science fiction-especially hard SF-is a thought experiment, a kind of mental rehearsal for the future: If humans can do this, what might happen? Would we do it? Should we do it? With what consequences, and to whom? Genetics brings in questions of not only science but of ethics, power, money, and love.

Nowhere is this more evident than when the engineering concerns not bacteria, crops, or animals, but human beings. And yet this, too, is sneaking up on us. I remember the furor when Louise Brown, the first child conceived in a petri dish through in vitro fertilization, was born in 1978. The press exploded into accusations of “playing God” and “creating monsters.” Today there are over 200,000 people in the United States alone conceived by in vitro fertilization, and nobody can tell who they are (you may be one of them-are you positive you are not?) That was the first, very modest step toward manipulating our genome.

The second is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. In vitro embryos are screened for inherited genetic diseases and chromosomal abnormalities, and those “of best quality” are chosen for implant in the womb. Practically nobody has issues with this bit of manipulation because it is done for health reasons.

But the same time, if there are enough quality embryos, the parents can also choose the baby’s gender. And as we know more about the human genome, and screening becomes more detailed and cheaper, will we allow parents with enough disease-free embryos to choose among them for, say, height? Extroversion (an allele of gene DRD2 on chromosome 11 seems to contribute to this)? Musical ability?

The step beyond that is actually replacing genes in the embryo, via gene therapy, to change its DNA. We do this with mice all the time (“knocking out,” for instance, the genes that create an immune system). I’m told that the technique would not be that different for human blastocysts. This has been declared illegal in most of the world-but consider this: The UK has already approved the knocking out of defective mitochondrial DNA from a human egg and its replacement with healthy DNA from a donor, effectively giving the infant three parents.

Do I believe that eventually we will tinker with human DNA? Yes, if the demand is strong enough and the profits high enough. If the work isn’t done in the United States, it will be done elsewhere (right now, Brazil is bullish on genetic experimentation). To explore these kinds of scenarios, I wrote Beggars in Spain, in which DNA is modified to create humans who never need to sleep, as well as a host of shorter works about different genemods. They are all rehearsals for possible futures.

The second reason I write so often about genetic engineering is from worry: not that genemods will create monsters but that the public will think it does. SF has a long history of creating negative scenarios for genemods. Just three examples: Kate Wilhelm’s telepathic clones in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (cloning is merely much-delayed twinning; it does not confer magical powers). Ira Levin’s evil Hitler clones in The Boys From Brazil (Hitler was as much a product of his historical times as of his biology). Ted Kosmatka’s genemod monster-loose-in-the-city beast in The Games. I understand why writers do this; danger and conflict make a better story. But the result is that the public gains negative perceptions of what genemods can do, without many balancing portrayals to balance the picture.

Genetic engineering is a tool, like fire or an axe or electricity. Good or bad outcomes depend on what you do with it; the day humans discovered fire, arson became a possibility. If we look only at the negative side of this tool, we lose the good it can-and is-bringing into the world. This is why the Sleepless in Beggars In Spain have no bad side-effects from their altered DNA. (For my story, I then had to go to the conflict generated around them by everybody else.) If SF is a rehearsal for the future, we should realize that the future of this technology holds positive opportunities.

Finally, I write about genetic engineering for a more personal reason: It fascinates me. People often have no control over what seizes their imagination: collecting thimbles, playing chess, breeding roses, climbing mountains. The secrets of DNA have seized my imagination. Or, as Pascal put it with more eloquence, “The heart has its own reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” There is such a wealth of information in our genes about who we are and who we can become. Also about who we were: mitochondrial DNA, because it is inherited only from the female parent, can reveal maternal lineage far back in time. (One group of scientists has traced a domestic dog all the way back to wolves.) My latest novel, Yesterday’s Kin (out September 9 from Tachyon), explores this, with revelations no one on Earth expected.

I am considering having my mitochondrial DNA analyzed. Science fiction made personal, because the future always is.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Nancy Kress on Why She Writes So Much About Genetic Engineering

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // September 8, 2014 at 5:07 am //

    If I would have guessed, I would have thought you *already* HAD your DNA analyzed, Ms. Kress. Indeed, your abiding interest in genetic engineering is something I’ve eagerly read in your fiction back to Beggars in Spain…

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