On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 12—Philip K. Dick and Sydney Brenner

“Within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist.” —Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

“What is real?” is the central theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968). In the novel, nuclear fallout led to the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, turning real animals into status symbols among the remains of humanity, as colonists flock to other planets with the promise of android companionship. But android models are becoming indistinguishable from humans—blurring the line between property and slavery—and when androids escape servitude, bounty hunters like Rick Deckard must use empathy tests to distinguish real from unreal before “retiring” them. The story plays with the nature of objective versus subjective reality as Deckard is forced to reexamine what it means to be human.

While the British New Wave was a reaction to Golden Age American Hard SF trends, the American New Wave began in part as a reaction to the British movement, in part thanks to the publication of the Dangerous Visions (1967) anthology assembled and edited by Harlan Ellison, and in part due to a postmodern shift in attitudes towards technology at the dawning of the Cold War. This conflict of warring political philosophies made good and evil appear less black and white, as both sides used cults of personalities and new forms of mass media to sway public opinion as it became harder to discern what was real and what was propaganda. In this new reality, the boilerplate SF whiz-bang plots with scientists positioned as heroes against obvious evil felt stale, and one of the most important postmodern writers at the birth of this American New Wave was Philip Kindred Dick.

Similarly, going into the 1960s, biology had tied up the central dogma with a neat bow, but most work was still done using well-characterized single-celled prokaryotic bacteria as a model organism, interrogating more sophisticated questions using an established biochemical and genetic toolkit. But what about the rest of Darwin’s Tree of Life? How do higher order, eukaryotic organisms carry out the same fundamental processes as prokaryotes, such as metabolism and reproduction? This was a complicated question at the time, requiring pioneering researchers to start from scratch with new model organisms and techniques, complicated by the multicellular nature of most eukaryotes. It would take the brilliant and restless mind of Sydney Brenner, a central player from the establishment of the central dogma, to take on such a difficult task.

Dick was born six weeks prematurely into his own difficult circumstances with twin sister Jane in Chicago in 1928. His mother didn’t realize the babies were starving and his sister died one month later en route to the hospital. Dick never forgave his mother for Jane’s death and the resulting loveless and distant home life. His parents split when he was four, leading to persistent feelings of abandonment in Dick, and his mother moved almost constantly, uprooting him from countless schools before eventually settling in Berkeley, California. Dick was a sickly kid with asthma and crippling anxiety, and he experienced his first hallucinations at a young age (there is speculation he may have had undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy), but he was a precocious and bright autodidact, voraciously reading everything. He discovered the pulps at 12 and started writing fiction soon after, but his anxiety prevented him from completing any higher education. He took a job selling music and electronics at a store in Berkeley, which allowed him to move away from his mother at 19 and his life at last took on a semblance of stability. His childhood left him with an unstable personality and he married (and soon after divorced) the first woman he slept with. He soon married his second wife, Kleo, who’s encouragement and emotional and financial support led to eight stable years in which he knew he wanted to become a mainstream writer of note, despite the rejections. Dick began writing SF, and at 23, made his first sale to Bay Area native Anthony Boucher, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Sydney Brenner was born in 1927 to a loving and supportive family in a Jewish immigrant community in South Africa, outside Johannesburg. Brenner was also a voracious reader and a precocious and unusually bright autodidact. He developed an early affinity for chemistry and science fiction, but found his calling in H.G. Wells and Julian Huxley’s The Science of Life (1931), going so far as to steal it from the library. South Africa wasn’t a bastion of scientific research at the time, and the best scientific education available was medical school, which he began attending at age 15 at the University of Witwatersrand. A confident and motivated student, Brenner supplemented the outdated lecture material with long hours at the library, and though genes weren’t mentioned in class, his reading in biochemistry and genetics excited him. Knowing he would be too young to practice medicine upon graduation, he took a science year, doing lab and field work; he knew his calling was at the bench, not the bedside, and he began work to complete a Bachelor’s degree.

Encouragement from subsequent SF sales gave Dick the confidence to write full time, and the booming pulp markets gave him room to experiment. Writing a story a week, he sold four in 1952, and found an agent, Scott Meredith. He sold over fifty stories in the next two years and in 1955, his first hardcover collection, A Handful of Darkness, was released. Unlike his dreary mainstream work, Dick’s science fiction was humorous and suspenseful, featuring inner worlds manifesting as reality, Jungian archetypes, and diverse, realistic characters based on people he knew. Moving against the grain, he was unconcerned with scientific accuracy, only using conventional tropes to advance character-focused stories. Making a pittance, he switched his focus to novels and sold three quickly. His third, Eye in the Sky (1957), proved a breakthrough and drew the kind of praise he’d been starved for. It was inventive, grappling with Kantian ideas about what was real, and it established him as one of the very best young SF writers.

With improvised equipment and no mentors, Brenner took an inventive approach to research and actively expanded his knowledge of contemporary research through an extensive network of global scientific correspondence. He was a big fan of “have a look” biology, teaching himself novel fluorescent microscope techniques to discover different cellular dyes, on which he published his first and second Nature papers, His thesis on the chromosomal content of South African Tree Shrews was so far beyond the scope of a Bachelors, he was awarded a Masters at age 20. Brenner was recognized as a rising star in South African biology, and after completing his medical degree at 23, he received a scholarship to undertake his doctorate at Oxford. There, studying bacterial resistance, he was drawn to research done by the phage group, while daydreaming about mechanisms of protein synthesis. In 1953, a colleague invited him to the Cavendish to see Watson and Crick’s double helix model, and Brenner was immediately spellbound. It offered him a “clear vision of the field and the future,” and he knew protein synthesis could finally be tackled in a meaningful way.

While Brenner view of the future was clear, Dick’s was becoming clouded. His hallucinations and paranoia were mounting, thanks to increasing abuse of methamphetamines he took for his asthma. Dick began to see fiction as a way to make sense of this growing surreality. His first hardcover book, Time Out of Joint (1959), examined the false reality built to ensure Raggle Gumm could continue to save the world following a nervous breakdown, but it was released to little fanfare. After a relocation to Point Reyes Station, Dick became dazzled by their newly widowed neighbor, Anne; he left Kleo for her and they married in 1959, welcoming their first child in 1960. Dick believed that only the love of a woman could ground him in reality, and his emotional high (and the speed) led him to fall into a pace of writing two novels a year. Furthermore, after his discovery of (and collaboration with) the I Ching in 1960, he wrote The Man in the High Castle (1962), a brilliant piece of metafiction featuring a cast of characters whose lives intertwine in an alternate United States after the Axis Powers won World War 2. Despite poor initial sales, it was picked up by a book club and its popularity earned Dick his first and only Hugo Award. After receiving a box filled with his rejected mainstream manuscripts, he gave up on his mainstream aspirations to devote himself fully to SF.

Brenner was equally devoted to his work and completed his doctorate in two years, followed by a summer at Cold Spring Harbor’s phage course, where he became close friends with Watson, Crick, and Gamow. Brenner had been collecting peptide sequences to disprove Gamow’s coding scheme, and he became obsessed with the idea of colinearity to prove nucleic acids were the template, and changing the sequence would change the protein; Crick quickly recognized Brenner as ideally suited to tackle the coding problem. While Brenner was required to return to South Africa at the end of the summer, Crick spent two years successfully petitioning for a position for Brenner at the Cavendish. Together, Brenner and Crick contributed to the discovery of the messenger and cracking the genetic code, and by the ’60s, Brenner was a household name among biologists. But Brenner had a restless mind and an affinity for cutting-edge research, and so he parted ways from Crick’s grounding influence in order to make his own mark on a new frontier.

Dick, too, was well on his way to leaving his mark on science fiction, writing 11 books in two years, including Martian Time-Slip (1964), Dr. BloodMoney (1965), and his first masterpiece, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), which featured many hallmarks of his early fiction—a diverse cast of characters, mind-warping drugs, and a battle against a lesser god. But he was becoming more controlling, manipulative, and violent in his personal life, convincing himself that Anne was plotting to murder him, leading him to have her committed. As his delusions grew and yet another marriage failed, he increasingly lost touch with the reality that had made his earlier fiction shine as his focus was monopolized by his tumultuous inner life. In 1964, his third divorce was finalized, and dodging child support payments, Dick moved back to Berkeley.

In his new lab at Cambridge, Brenner knew that cells in most higher organisms exist in an ecosystem of other specialized cells, and to pursue his new goal to understanding what each cell is and where it came from, he had to start from scratch with a new model organism—ideally one grown and stored easily like bacteria, small enough to be seen using powerful new electron microscopes, and with few enough cells to be able to track the fate of each one from egg to adulthood. He chose Caenorhabditis elegans, a microscopic roundworm that grew in liquid media, could be easily frozen, and had only 959 cells as an adult. His unprecedented plan was to map the lineage and location of every cell, with special attention to the nervous system to create a wiring diagram. Brenner also wanted to create a genetic toolkit by generating behavioral mutant worm lines for gene mapping and characterization. Many were skeptical at first, but with a small group of biologists, a computer scientist, and an electron microscopist, the team worked out techniques for generating and characterizing mutants, and wrote code to track cell lineages over time. By 1968, Brenner established C. elegans as a tractable genetic system, and in time over 200 neurological mutations were mapped. In 1986, after 20 years, a cell fate map for every cell, including the nervous system’s 8000 connections, was published. Furthermore, the surprising discovery that adults had 1090 cells, 130 of which underwent programmed cell death, resulted in the first description of apoptosis. In 2002 Brenner won his Nobel Prize, along with colleagues John Sulston and Robert Horvits, for their meticulous work describing what made C. elegans what it is, and C. elegans researchers numbered in the thousands.

Back in Berkeley, Dick married his fourth wife, Nancy, with whom he had his second child, and emerged from a slump to write nine novels in four years, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969), another masterpiece about warring factions of telepaths struggling to navigate a shared hallucination. But Dick’s paranoia over government spies was exacerbated by an IRS audit. Dick was chronically in debt, borrowing money, stealing pills and giving them away to friends, but nothing could fill the void inside him and Nancy left after several years. In response, he filled the house with addicts, artists, and freeloaders, giving him fodder for A Scanner Darkly (1977). But after a traumatic break-in, two institutionalizations, and a stint in rehab, he moved to Orange County where he met his fifth and final wife, Tessa, in 1972. Tessa soon gave birth his third child, and Dick began writing again, having kicked his pill addiction in rehab—but the damage had been done. After a series of powerful hallucinations in February/March 1974, he and his writing turned completely inwards as Dick vainly attempted to make sense of his increasingly subjective reality in his search for God. Tessa divorced him in 1977, but newfound media attention drove sales, and the fact that Do Androids Dream… was being adapted into the movie Blade Runner in 1981 made Dick hopeful. But he would never live to see the full impact of his fiction on future writers as objective reality caught up with him. Dick died at 53 from a stroke caused by chronic high blood pressure in 1982, just months before Blade Runner’s release.

Brenner had a long and storied career, and following his C. elegans work life, he moved away from the lab to focus on the conceptual advancement of biology. He was an important voice at Asilomar, recognizing recombinant DNA technology as a powerful tool for characterizing the genes of higher organisms. He also recognized the powerful role DNA sequencing would play in comparative genomics, both in terms of understanding the relationships of all life on earth and also how we evolved to become what we are. As such, Brenner facilitated the sequencing of C. elegans in 1998, producing the first multicellular eukaryote genome, which garnered crucial support for the Human Genome Project. He also recognized how important mentors had been in his own development and worked to establish research institutes in Berkeley, Singapore, and Japan, in order to help develop new talent. Brenner died in April, 2019 in Singapore, and his restless mind left its mark, conquering new frontiers in his work to show us what makes C. elegans what it is, and ultimately paving the way for humanity to understand what makes us who we are.

Next up, we’ll look at the work of two women whose subversive work against the science fiction and scientific establishments in the 1960s would have far-reaching consequences on the perspectives of both fields: Ursula K. Le Guin and Lynn Margulis.

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and a science fiction writer by night. Her work has appeared at Tor.com and other places, and you can find her tweeting about all kinds of nonsense @klagor

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