Essay: Invasion of the plot snatchers; Book reviews; Unscientific Americans: sales techniques of science magazines; Media picks
Again, This Time with Feeling
In the test tube where Hollywood splices the DNA of science fiction and horror, the result is often comedy. If the political class seems ill-prepared to deal with cloning as a real-world issue, it may be because they’ve been prepared by an entertainment culture that has often seen biotechnology as fuel for hilarious horrors. The current hysteria over cloning humans for organ harvesting, for example, was prefigured 20 years ago in Parts: The Clonus Horror (1978), but this film is remembered—if at all—as fodder for a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” travesty. Crypto-clone classics like Dead Ringers (1988) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978) offer campy delirium without making any particular point (though Invasion of the Body Snatchers does offer a Red-scare allegory). Small wonder that recent pictures have gone for wholesale japery, as in the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity (1996)—whose weightiest issue is the quadrupling of the star’s trademark daffiness—or in Dominique Pinon’s unhinged portrayal of six narcoleptic clones in Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children (1995).
Of course, science fiction often gravitates toward ethical matters, and when issues of good and evil are in play, Nazis can’t be far behind. We all know that they saved Hitler’s brain (They Saved Hitler’s Brain, 1968) and that they cloned him 94 times (The Boys From Brazil, 1978), but apparently Hitler’s victims did some cloning, as well. In the deliberative Anna to the Infinite Power (1983), a teenager discovers she is a copy of Anna Zimmerman, a Holocaust-era scientist cum Hannah Arendt figure. Despite hokey mechanics, Anna and Boys From Brazil are actually among the more intelligent clone movies. The nature/ nurture question, for example, forms the basis for the outsized intrigues of Boys From Brazil (in which all the little führers must be not only birthed but also raised exactly like the original).
But these comedic penny-dreadful horrors distract from the more chilling vision Hollywood presents: the antiseptic and dehumanized future created by genetic engineering. From the robotically all-American hausfrauen in The Stepford Wives (1975) to the sedated neuters determined to rid Robert Duvall of his emotions in THX 1138 (1971), manufactured humans in the movies usually come in two flavors—workers and drones. The trope has proven remarkably durable, seen most recently in the 21st-century Dilberts produced by genetic engineering in Gattaca (1997). In an odd flip side to this pattern, the lab-born beings played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (1982) and Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) are Miltonic anti-heroes in an unfeeling world.
A world drained of emotion remains a favorite Hollywood nightmare, but the unspoken joke is that Hollywood itself may be helping to build that world. Who needs human replication or body snatchers when the multiplexes are glutted with clones of the sort of shallow stimulus-entertainment lapped up by THX 1138‘s drones? Last year, Time cited the JonBenet Ramsey story as evidence that 1997 was the “Year Emotions Ruled.” Recently, the Weekly World News reported that scientists were planning to clone the toddler beauty queen. Leave it to the tabloids to add a third component to Hollywood’s comedy-horror dualism: sentiment.
Unzipped Genes: Taking Charge of Baby-Making in the New Millennium By Martine Rothblatt. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. 201 pages. $18.95 paperback, $49.95 hardcover. Rothblatt, chair of the Bioethics Subcommittee of the International Bar Association, approaches the idea of a genetically engineered future for humanity from a feminist and legal, as well as scientific, perspective. While she acknowledges that “the biotechnology of birth is set to explode with possibilities benevolent, barbarous, and bizarre,” she’s not afraid of the possibility that genetic engineering will enable parents to create customized (and in their eyes “better”) embryos—nor is she intimidated by the disturbing history of state-sponsored eugenics programs. Her lawyer’s mind presents four rules she thinks will guide us successfully through the future of human genetic engineering, including “complete freedom to parent any genomes we please” and “total prohibition of any governmental influence over genomic expression.” Rothblatt’s belief in the ability of a rules-bound humanity to manage its new technologies is an inspiring tonic in a field rife with scaremongering. [B.D.]
And the Waters Turned to Blood: The Ultimate Biological Threat By Rodney Barker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. 346 pages. $24. With a new civilization-threatening disease seemingly popping up every week, it’s a bit hyperbolic to describe Pfiesteria piscicida as “the ultimate biological threat.” Not that the little devil (a deadly cousin of the algae that causes red tide) isn’t nasty. Over the last several years, it’s caused massive fish kills in North Carolina and has been blamed for serious neurological symptoms in humans. Unfortunately, this account of the discovery of P. piscicida overdoes the popular part of popular science, presenting an unflinchingly noble, brave researcher fighting against the B-movie machinations of venal scientists, uncaring bureaucrats, and sinister lobbyists. Bet it will make a nice TV movie of the week. [J.M.]
Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead By Gina Kolata. New York: William Morrow, 1998. 276 pages. $23. Kolata, a New York Times science writer, offers a straightforward and instructive story about the developments in practical embryology—and the people behind them—that led to the epochal cloning of Dolly the sheep from an adult cell in 1996. Human cloning, she suggests, cannot be far behind, and despite a patina of reportorial objectivity, it’s clear that she cheers this prospect. Among the most fascinating tales Kolata tells is that of the apparent fraud behind the first reports of cloned mice in the late ’70s—and of the scientific world’s disquieting faith in brash “superstars,” even when no one else can replicate their work. The Dolly breakthrough happened beyond the realm of big, reputable research universities awash in grants, in an isolated Scottish compound guarded by a dog, and dealt with the down-and-dirty problems of animal husbandry. Kolata’s step-by-step storytelling, beginning with the genesis of embryology in the 19th century, makes the cloning of Dolly seem not shocking but inevitable. [B.D.]
Holy Fire By Bruce Sterling. New York: Bantam, 1996. 358 pages. $6.50. In this vivid novel, Sterling makes real one possible biotech future: a phantasmagoric post-plague late-21st-century world filled with cities made of edible fungi, robots crawling the sewers for contraband chemicals flushed from toilets, computers resembling swimming pools (that you can actually dive into), talking dogs hosting popular TV shows, and a medical-industrial complex that dominates the world both politically and economically. Sterling’s heroine, 94-year-old Mia Ziemann, bored with the safely repressed existence of a life-extended “gerontocrat,” undergoes an experimental rejuvenation treatment and then escapes her handlers. She immerses herself in a world of bohemian rebel kids who resent the oppressive safety of a world made by and for bioengineered old men and women obsessed with extending their lives at all costs. In this environment, Mia is forced to contemplate the curious and possibly dire effect that effortless artifice has on art and on the eternal human creative spirit—the “holy fire” of the title. [B.D.]
A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities By Jan Bondeson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. 250 pages. $29.95. In the tradition of classics such as Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, this engrossing survey of the fringes of medical science covers the last thousand years of medical literature. Bondeson, a physician, traces the history of such real and alleged phenomena as “bosom serpents” (snakes living in people’s stomachs) and spontaneous human combustion. While most are obviously folklore, if not outright frauds—snakes don’t last long in a human stomach, and victims of spontaneous combustion tend to be unconscious drunks near open flames—the durability of these legends and the credulity of observers who should have known better make for fascinating, and cautionary, reading. Bondeson also looks at the very real stories of some of the great human oddities of the past, such as the Two-Headed Boy of Bengal, bringing an astute level of insight to subjects that seldom receive anything other than a sensationalistic treatment. [J.M.]
Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World By Lee M. Silver. New York: Avon Books, 1997. 317 pages. $25. Contrary to what its subtitle suggests, Remaking Eden focuses primarily on the biotechnology innovations that resulted in Dolly the sheep. Silver, a Princeton molecular biology professor, walks the reader step by illuminating step through both the science and social practice of bioengineering for human reproduction, from the first test-tube baby in 1978 to gene-splicing and the possibility of cloning today. He saves his openly sci-fi speculation for the epilogue, in which the Time Machine vision of humanity splitting into separate species comes much sooner than H.G. Wells figured. Silver sees in the almost certain aftermath of Dolly’s cloning the possibility, in fact the probability, that humanity will divide into dozens of species, specially crafted for off-planet environments, before the next millennium ends. [B.D.]
The Island of the Colorblind By Oliver Sacks. New York: Vintage, 1998. 311 pages. $13. In his latest book, everyone’s favorite neurologist, Oliver Sacks, travels to Micronesia. In a departure from his usual one-on-one style of observation, he studies two islands with a high inherited rate of colorblindness and also visits an island in Guam with a high rate of a Parkinson’s-like disease. It’s a shrewd reminder of the incongruities natural selection places upon us. As we now contemplate the “unnatural” selection of traits, it is helpful to read about the cone-impaired children of Pingelap, squinting against the hot tropical sun. While we might hope at first for a cure for their sensitivity to light, Sacks slowly reveals nature’s perverse logic in a description of twilight on the island, where the colorblind “disorder” turns into an advantage. At night, a society comes alive with fishermen “able to see the fish in their dim course underwater, the glint of moonlight on their outstretched fins.” [K.L.]
Reviews by Brian Doherty, Kerry Lauerman, John Marr, and Jen Wieczorek.