Tor.com content by

Kelly Lagor

Fiction and Excerpts [1]
All

Fiction and Excerpts [1]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 13 —Ursula K. Le Guin and Lynn Margulis

“The unexpected is what makes life possible.” —Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is about the necessity of perspective. In it, Genly Ai, an envoy from an association of worlds populated by the Hainish progenitor race, has traveled to an icy planet of androgynes to recruit them to share in humanity’s knowledge. He joins with a political exile, Estraven, and the two must transcend their ethical boundaries in order to not only survive, but to save Estraven’s people from themselves. Like many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, it’s a gorgeous and thoughtful study in anthropology, politics, and philosophy which challenged ideas about gender at a time when second-wave feminism was entering the public consciousness. 

[Read more]

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.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic : Part 11—J.G. Ballard and the Birth of Biotech

“These are the oldest memories on earth, the time codes carried in every chromosome and gene. Every step we’ve taken in our evolution is a milestone inscribed with organic memories.” —The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

In The Drowned World (1962), Earth has flooded due to soaring temperatures, species regress to their prehistoric forms, and humanity retreats to the Arctic while being subconsciously drawn to the boiling southern seas. Surreal, bleak, and suffused with ennui, it is a novel not about death, but transformation. Writers in postwar England found high-modernist optimism didn’t speak to their reality. Their lives weren’t interrupted by a distant war, but rather were defined by it, and their literature needed to be summarily transformed to match. Inspired by avant-garde writers like William S. Burroughs, they gazed not towards the stars but to the world within, and so the New Wave was born amidst the English rubble—so named, according to some sources, by critic Judith Merrill, borrowing from the French Nouvelle Vague movement in cinema.

[The field of biology, too, was poised for transformation…]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 10—Ray Bradbury and Mechanisms of Regulation

“They blended religion and art and science, because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They can never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful.” —Spender, “—And The Moon Be Still As Bright” from The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, represented something unique and different in science fiction. At the optimistic opening of the space age, if offered a perspective on the lie that the promise of a new frontier offers, as though by traveling to Mars we assumed we would leave behind our weakness and bigotry. It’s Bradbury up and down, sacrificing scientific rigor in favor of poetic metaphor; one part awe, one part sadness, three parts nostalgia. It brought a literary perspective to science fiction, tackling themes of loneliness, regret, and the inevitable loss of innocence. Bradbury sought the deeper meanings in the established mechanics of science fiction and his stories encompassed an added layer of complexity that would have a profound impact on an up-and-coming generation of writers.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 9—Arthur C. Clarke and the Genetic Code

“Unlike the animals, who knew only the present, Man had acquired a past; and he was beginning to grope toward a future.” —Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey was science fiction’s Big Bang. Written as a collaboration between two giants of their fields, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, it has taken its rightful place among the best movies of all time since its release in 1968. Its visuals are iconic—the featureless black monolith, HAL’s cyclopean eye, Frank Poole’s chilling exit ad astra, and Dave Bowman’s evolution into the star child—and its timing is prescient, preceding the moon landing by fifteen months, released at a time when many of science fiction’s dreams were becoming reality. Clarke was, above all, an optimist, confident in mankind’s ability to escape the demoralizing gravity well of the atomic bomb by journeying into the stars.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 8 — Isaac Asimov and Messenger RNA

“To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well.” —Salvor Hardin, Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov loved a cozy mystery, the kind involving few suspects that are solved by the logical deductions of a brilliant mind. In his two most famous series, logic was a prevailing theme. In the Robot series, Asimov used logic on a small scale to extrapolate and examine the impact of his Three Law of Robotics and in his Foundation series, psychohistory applied logic and a scientific approach to mass psychology to avert a dark age after the collapse of the Galactic Empire. Furthermore, near the end of his life, Asimov used logic to tie the two series together, rooting psychohistory in an extrapolation of the three laws, thus tying the fate of humanity to a singular partnership between a robophobic detective, Elijah Baley, and a humaniform robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, in solving a mystery.

The elucidation of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953 was a similarly singular event in biology, but it presented scientists with another mystery. That year, Watson said, “A genetic material must duplicate itself, and it must exert a highly specific influence on the cell. Our model suggests a simpler mechanism for the first process, but at the moment we cannot see how it carries out the second one.” George Beadle and Edward Tatum’s 1941 one-gene-one-enzyme hypothesis offered a place to start, but how one gene became one protein was an utter black box. And so biology’s own cozy mystery was afoot, and it took a handful of brilliant minds to solve it.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 7 — Robert A. Heinlein and DNA Replication

“Acting per se, like all art, is a process of abstracting, of retaining only significant detail. But in impersonation any detail can be significant.” – The Great Lorenzo, Double Star by Robert Heinlein

In Robert Anson Heinlein’s Double Star (1956), the down-on-his-luck actor “The Great Lorenzo” (aka Lawrence Smythe) is recruited by the frantic political team of John Bonforte, a VIP in solar system politics who has been kidnapped to cause a diplomatic crisis. Hired to impersonate Bonforte, over the course of a series of escalating complications, Smythe not only becomes sympathetic to Bonforte’s politics, but inhabits his role so perfectly that when Bonforte drops dead on election night, Smythe permanently becomes Bonforte. It is a light-hearted comedy about topics near and dear to its author’s heart—politics, space travel, moralizing, and shaving the numbers off of old tropes (in this case the classic body double plot)—that won the third ever Hugo Award for Best Novel and is widely regarded to be Heinlein’s best novel.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 6 — John W. Campbell, James Watson, and Francis Crick

“This is a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use.” – Blair, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.

In Who Goes There? (1938) a group of scientists in an isolated Antarctica research station find a monstrous creature frozen in the ice which, when thawed, grows murderous while perfectly mimicking people down to their deepest of cellular structures. The isolated setting and ominous threat to humanity make it a deeply paranoid and claustrophobic story, in which the scientists must pool their collective expertise to save the world. It was the best thing John. W. Campbell ever wrote (and was later adapted for film as The Thing From Another Planet in 1951, then again as The Thing in 1982 and 2011), and the year of its publication marked a turning point in the history of science fiction—the start of the “Golden Age.”

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 5 — Olaf Stapledon and the Modern Synthesis

“It displayed the delicacy and brilliance, the intricacy and harmony of a live thing. Strange that in my remoteness I seemed to feel, as never before, the vital presence of Earth as of a creature alive but tranced and obscurely yearning to wake.” —Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (1937)

William Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is a novel about perspective. It opens with a nameless narrator standing upon a hill, gazing up at the stars, when he is astral projected to another world where he encounters a new race of beings. In learning about their history, he merges with one of their consciousnesses, then flits to another world, then another, becoming a veritable Katamari Damacy of perspectives, growing ever larger, until the universe becomes a single awareness turning its perspective towards its maker. The book blends pulp space opera sensibilities and telepathy with a Modernist slant, written by a social worker, an educator, an activist and a philosopher, who turned to science fiction to bring his visionary ideas to a larger audience—albeit one who didn’t quite yet know what they held in their hands.

[Read more]

A Scientist Explains What Happens After the Ending to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

When Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in the late ’80s, he pulled from a wide range of biological knowledge at the time to envision a (surprisingly) realistic picture of what bringing back an extinct species, like a dinosaur, might look like. To bring one back from the dead would require methods from genetics, molecular biology, genomics, and cell biology (to name a few), and to set them up to survive would require knowledge of ecology and evolution. On top of that, creating a suitable habitat would require numerous other disciplines including botany, paleontology, mathematics and computer science. Finally, if one adds in the additional complications of turning the whole thing into an amusement park to generate enough funds to keep the whole thing going, it’s no wonder Dr. Malcolm kept going on and on about the danger of inherent instabilities in complex systems. In the end, Dr. Malcolm turned out to be right, and the smart money was absolutely on life finding a way.

[Warning: contains spoilers for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom]

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 4 — Edgar Rice Burroughs and Theodosius Dobzhansky

Science and science fiction are indelibly intertwined, each inspiring the other since their modern birth in the Victorian Era. Good science fiction, like a sound scientific theory, involves thorough worldbuilding, avoids logical inconsistencies, and progressively deeper interrogations reveal further harmonies. This series explores the connection between the evolution of biology and science fiction into the modern era.

“I have ever been prone to seek adventure and to investigate and experiment where wiser men would have left well enough alone.” —John Carter, A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom is a dying world, where competition for diminishing resources has encouraged the devolution of the surviving species into a hardened and warlike state. John Carter, a cavalry officer who falls asleep in a cave in Arizona and is astral projected to Barsoom, must fight for what he thinks is is right, sometimes save the world, and always get the girl. From 1912 to 1941, readers of the pulp magazines followed John Carter, his descendants, and various other characters through alien landscapes filled with romance and danger, peppered with plant monsters, brain creatures, and 15-foot-tall telepathic four-armed martians with radium guns riding atop galloping lizard dogs—a world where men were strong, women were prone to fainting, and the bad guys’ mustaches itched for a good twirling.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 3 — Aldous Huxley and Thomas Hunt Morgan

Science and science fiction are indelibly intertwined, each inspiring the other since their modern birth in the Victorian Era. Good science fiction, like a sound scientific theory, involves thorough worldbuilding, avoids logical inconsistencies, and progressively deeper interrogations reveal further harmonies. This series explores the connection between the evolution of biology and science fiction into the modern era.

“It isn’t only art that is incompatible with happiness, it’s also science. Science is dangerous, we have to keep it most carefully chained and muzzled.” —Mustapha Mond, Brave New World

Brave New World (1932) is set in a world that is built with, dependent upon, and terrified of science. Humans are manufactured on assembly lines. The shape of their lives and their intelligence are determined through the addition of mutagens during in vitro fetal development. During childhood, their personalities, likes and dislikes are conditioned during sleep with subliminal messaging to produce a perfect and completely replaceable cog that knows only work and pleasure in a utopia of the unquestioning. It is a science fictional dystopia, written by the grandson of Darwin’s bulldog, with a title drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, partly inspired by the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane’s 1926 lecture, Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, and a response to industrial and political totalitarianism. As a piece of literature, it is a mash-up of legacies—of Wells and science fiction, of Darwin and Mendel and biology, of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, of the Victorian era itself—which perfectly captures the the complex feelings of hope and anxiety that marked the time between the turn of the 20th century and the start of the second World War.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 2 – Wells and Mendel

Science and science fiction are indelibly intertwined, each inspiring the other since their modern birth in the Victorian Era. Good science fiction, like a sound scientific theory, involves thorough worldbuilding avoids logical inconsistencies, and progressively deeper interrogations reveal further harmonies. This series explores the connection between the evolution of biology and science fiction into the modern era.

“For I, in my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man’s culminating time.” –H.G. Wells, The Time Machine

At the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), the nameless time traveler stands alone on a beach at the end of the world, watching the sun go out. re escaped thirty million years into the future from the effete Eloi and cannibalistic Morlocks of the year 802,701 only to find their descendants—pale butterflies and giant crab-monsters – still locked in their hopeless predator-prey struggle on this terminal beach. Wells conjured this broken utopia through the evolutionary extrapolation of the class struggle he experienced firsthand growing up in order to tell an extraordinary story about time, consequence, and inevitability.

[Read more]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 1 – Verne and Darwin

“We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones.” –Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Science and science fiction are indelibly intertwined, each inspiring the other since their modern birth in the Victorian Era. Both employ similar feats of the imagination—to hold an idea of a world in your mind, and test the boundaries of that world through experimentation. In the case of science, you formulate a theory and conduct a series of tests against that theory to see if it can be disproved by the results. In the case of science fiction, you formulate a reality, and conduct characters through the logical implications of that reality. Good science fiction, like a sound scientific theory, involves thorough worldbuilding, avoids logical inconsistencies, and progressively deeper interrogations reveal further harmonies. This series will explore the connection between the evolution of biology and science fiction into the modern era.

[Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea starts with a mystery.]

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.