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Louise Marley, Author of THE CHILD GODDESS, on Medicine in Science Fiction

LouiseMarleyColor-2-240x300Louise Marley, a former concert and opera singer, has published sixteen novels. Writing as Cate Campbell, her recent books are historical fiction. As Louise Marley, she writes fantasy and science fiction and occasionally young adult fiction.

The Wonders Within: Medicine in Science Fiction

by Louise Marley

In China, scientists are experimenting with modifying genes in nonviable embryos in order to prevent disease and improve health. In Poland, a man who was paralyzed after a knife attack is walking again thanks to a cell transplant. Engineers at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab are working on full-replacement prostheses which will respond to thought. Robotic, remote surgery is already a reality, as is detailed, noninvasive scanning of the human body and brain. Science fiction fans won’t be surprised by these developments. All of these things were anticipated in our genre.

Child Goddess cover.inddThe literature of science fiction has traditionally looked outward, to the planets, the stars, the galaxies, the universe, but science fiction also looks within. The excitement of exploring the far frontiers is equaled by the excitement of exploring the inner ones, and sf writers are already there.

Nancy Kress, in her classic novel Beggars in Spain, proposed genetic modifications that would make enable people to live without sleep—ever. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series employs the transfer of an entire consciousness to a new body—the ultimate transplant. Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy featured a completely functional replacement hand for Luke Skywalker. In my own novel, The Terrorists of Irustan, a para-physician uses a non-invasive device called a medicator to diagnose and treat every kind of ailment and injury.

Dystopias abound in medical science fiction as in the other subgenres. Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a society which deliberately manipulates fetal development to secure a caste system. In the film Gattaca, eugenics is universal, and DNA is used to determine a human being’s social class. In Scott Westerfeld’s young adult series The Uglies, plastic surgery is used to ensure beauty for everyone, but secretly inserts brain lesions to create an easily controlled population.

How exciting it is, though, to envision the positive uses of medical advancement! When my novel The Glass Harmonica was published, in which a character who suffers from an untreatable neurological condition finds help in a fictional medical approach, a fan whose husband suffered from the same condition wrote me to ask if there was any factual basis for the “sensory emissions” which put the character on the road to recovery. Alas, I had to tell her that the sensory emissions and the equipment which produced them, designed to re-route damaged neural pathways, were fictional. They could exist one day, though, could they not?

If we can imagine it, we can make it so. Jules Verne imagined rockets which could reach the moon, and those came to be. George Orwell, in 1984, predicted a web of cameras watching citizens at every moment; security cameras are now part of our culture. More than one science fiction writer has played with the idea of test-tube reproduction, and today in-vitro fertilization is common, and cloning humans, according to some, is right around the corner, with all its attendant moral implications.

One concept which has fascinated storytellers for centuries as is that of dramatically—sometimes infinitely—extended life. Fantasy abounds with immortal characters: vampires, zombies, magical Scottish warriors, and others. Science fiction has a more challenging task: to envision an actual scientific basis for very long life. Greg Bear’s thriller Vitals posits a biological substance to prolong life, and explores the dangers in trying to acquire it. Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, who is more than two thousand years old, is the product of selective breeding. In my about-to-be-reissued novel The Child Goddess, a virus affects the telomeres of pre-adolescents, and prevents senescence. To some, this would be a desirable effect, but these old children are convinced they are no longer human, and they long for the natural progression of aging.

There are countless such books and stories proposing extended lifetimes, and addressing the issues raised by it. Boredom is such a common theme in these stories it has become—well, boring. Still, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like an extra fifty or even a hundred years of healthy living. There’s even a Palo Alto Longevity Prize inviting scientists to compete for ways to “solve the problem of ageing.” I’ll bet when they find one, a science fiction writer will have predicted it.


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