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Kelly Lagor

Fiction and Excerpts [1]
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Fiction and Excerpts [1]

On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 18 — Nalo Hopkinson and Stem Cell Research

“She just wanted to be somewhere safe, somewhere familiar, where people looked and spoke like her and she could stand to eat the food.” —Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber (2000) is about a woman, divided. Raised on the high-tech utopian planet of Touissant, Tan-Tan grows up on a planet populated by the descendants of a Caribbean diaspora, where all labor is performed by an all-seeing AI. But when she is exiled to Touissant’s parallel universe twin planet, the no-tech New Half-Way Tree, with her sexually abusive father, she becomes divided between good and evil Tan-Tans. To make herself and New Half-Way Tree whole, she adopts the persona of the legendary Robber Queen and becomes a legend herself. It is a wondrous blend of science fictional tropes and Caribbean mythology written in a Caribbean vernacular which vividly recalls the history of slavery and imperialism that shaped Touissant and its people, published at a time when diverse voices and perspectives within science fiction were blossoming.

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On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic — Part 17: Iain M. Banks and Genetic Engineering

“Just doing nothing is a statement, don’t you understand that? What is all your studying worth, all your learning, all your knowledge, if it doesn’t lead to wisdom? And what’s wisdom but knowing what is right, and what is the right thing to do?” —Cheradenine Zakalwe in Use of Weapons

Where does the moral boundary of a society lie, and at what point can utilitarian reasoning based in the concept of “the greater good” justify intervention in the affairs of other civilizations?” And if an individual is used as a mercenary of such a society, where does their humanity stop and their weaponhood begin? Use of Weapons (1990) is the third book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, which uses the trappings of a liberal anarchist utopia to examine politics, philosophy, morality, religion, and human psychology from the perspective of an ultimate mercenary on the side of such a “greater good.” It is a Gothic tale of split identity, fast-paced bloodshed, and galactic excess, told through two converging storylines and informed by a critique of traditional space opera tropes.

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On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 16 — William Gibson and the Human Genome Project

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding… —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

Neuromancer is William S. Burroughs meets Blade Runner, a noir thriller where a found family of high tech low-lifes navigate a job full of twists, turns, and double-crosses, through the real to the unreal and back again. Its vision of cyberspace as a neon-drenched nightmare city in a world of crime syndicates and multinational corporations inspired the makers of the internet. Burroughs understood that in a world where information is power and national boundaries are meaningless, everyone is empowered and everyone is helpless, and created a mirror of the dystopian anxieties of the 1980s. It is the book that gave the brief but revolutionary subgenre of cyberpunk its legs.

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On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 15—Star Wars and Polymerase Chain Reaction

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.

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

What is there to say about Star Wars? What other franchise inspires such love and hate, often simultaneously within the same person? Even if you’ve never seen the movies, you know the quotes. You know the spoilers. What made it such a phenomenon was being in the right place at the right time, and the fact that it has something for everyone: It’s good versus evil. Magic and spaceships. Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa. Jungian ur-mythology and campy dialogue. Most of the love-hate can be traced to a creator who at first was convinced of Star Wars‘ failure, and who then became uncomprehending of its success. Both because of, and in spite of, that creator, Star Wars changed everything.

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On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 14 — Octavia Butler and the War on Cancer

“A partner must be biologically interesting, attractive to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination.” —Nikanj in Dawn

In Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), humanity is saved from extinction by the Oankali, aliens who harvest useful genetic traits for their own evolution. They want cancer, which they see as a beautiful contradiction of a disease—mutable and immortal, yet pathological. Like all of Butler’s work, Dawn does not deal in good and evil, but with ambivalences…such as how one might make ethical compromises to survive an impossible situation under an indomitable power. Her characters generally aren’t lovable, or even likable most times, but contradictions and all, they’re always unambiguously relatable.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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]

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