“Each hour, a myriad of trillions of little live things – microbes, bacteria, the peasants of nature – are born and die, not counting for much except in the bulk of their numbers and the accumulation of their tiny lives. They do not perceive deeply, nor do they suffer. A hundred trillion, dying, would not begin to have the same importance as a single human death.
We believe this firmly as the kings of France have believed in their hierarchy. Which of our generations will come to disagree?”
From Blood Music by Greg Bear
Recently having allowed myself to digress into Science Fiction literature again, I came to finish reading Greg Bear’s Blood Music, a second hand print that had happened to slip in between the classic Dune and a book/thesis on Intellectual Commons at SW Welch. Originally published 1985, the book is as old as I am, and it bore a strange familiarity about it, which I later realized might have been the reason I picked it up, after all.
I will admit, initially the cover and dramatic sounding title caught my interest. Then reading about “biologic” (bio + logic) and alterations in the blood stream sold me – there was an air of synthetic biology about this, and I felt (and still feel) painfully ignorant to the whole cyber punk genre and ready to close that gap.
It was no disappointment – aside from being a thrilling still well-informed Science Fiction novel, this novel includes the discussion of
- DNA computing,
- Biochemistry-based Artificial Intelligence,
- Matter-to-Conscience transition,
- Individual vs. communal conscience,
- Swarm intelligence,
- Information-encoding on the quantum scale,
- Immortal existence of the human conscience in a self-renewing molecular structure,
- Questionable practices in pharma and at the pharma/academia interface,
- I guess 15 more I missed.
Reads like the list of ethical and philosophical debates in current biology? Yes, I agree. We will come back to that.
The strong side of the book is to make these discussions and questions tangible on a human, personal level. To create the necessary constellations and situations, however, makes the narrative suffer, it feels staged. Lines that, if drawn with a delicate hand, could produce most accurate and deep portraits of the novel’s characters, come across as caricatures drawn with thick stage make-up. At least no one misses the point, so much I will give Greg Bear, so it’s okay he lets go of the sophistication of other brilliant authors in exchange for getting his core thoughts across.
So, the list of current philosophical topics in Biology (see above) dealt with in the book seems like the standard repertoire from a 2012 perspective. However, there was also the strange familiarity about this book that I mentioned. I realized a 100 pages or so into it – I saw this book the first time before I even went to university, if I remember correctly it might have been one of those mysterious but inaccessible books my father would read in English, maybe we even gave it to him as a birthday or Christmas present (in case you read this Josef, sorry I don’t remember the details). Being probably in grade 10 or so, I was repelled proper by the task of reading all this in English, a thought getting a nostalgic smile on my face nowadays. This memory, and the fact that in the book Germany was still separated in two parts (also kind of before my time), made me look at the initial publication date: 1985!
1985 – the year I was born. 4 years before the Berlin Wall fell, 1 year after The Terminator addressed the dangers of computerized warfare and the insanity of nuclear shields deployed in the Cold War. Those were the topics of those days – nuclear shields, computerization, a world divided into blocks of power. And there is this guy, Greg Bear, writing about – what – DNA computation? Swarm intelligence emerging from synthetic cellular machines? I needed to grow a little more than 26 years to now see these topics touted by the current hot shots in Systems Biology, while they have been written about already the year I was born.
That was a moment of closure, and a moment of awe. I (probably) once gave my father due to his assumed interest in the topics, grow older and find my way into biology, and now find the current topics of my “new” discipline explained in a book published the year I was born. What this means? I do not ultimately know, but I found Bear’s foresight remarkable, remarkable enough to write about this otherwise staple-quality novel. Maybe it mirrors a strange meeting point my father once mentioned – him a trained sociologist, me a trained physicist, both of us finally working in the life sciences. Maybe it mirrors my own coming of age – still believing that the above ethical questions of biology are the current ethical challenges to our ever-progressing societies, while I am just clinging to old problems.
While there is a strange pleasure in reading old Science Fiction that projected into our now, maybe, just maybe, I should for once read something that won a Hugo or a Nebula in this, and not in the last century.