At the time, I was a working biologist (I’d just started my first and last permanent job, as a lecturer at St. Andrews University) and a youngish would-be hot-shot SF writer.
New Internationalist, a British, left-leaning, anti-corporate, pro-environment magazine, got in touch and asked me to write a story about the perils and horrors of genetic engineering. They gave me a list of topics they wanted me to cover, and a limit of 2000 words. I had already been thinking about genetic engineering (I’d just written a biohacking story, “The Invisible Country,” for Lew Shiner’s anthology When The Music’s Over), and there’s nothing like a constraint or two to get the imagination working. I borrowed the structure from J.G. Ballard’s condensed novels and Bruce Sterling’s “Twenty Evocations,” and strung as many ideas as I could on to the rise and fall of a corporate drone in the biohacking trade. New Internationalist’s editorial collective liked everything about the story except the ending, which they truncated to make it seem more nightmarish than it actually is. Well, it is a kind of nightmare for the protagonist, who has lost control of the technology that made his fortune, but maybe not for everyone else.
Your story was written over twenty years ago, and covers a generation in and of itself. Has the field of genetic research surprised you with what it’s found during that time?
It would be very disappointing if the future wasn’t surprising. Two things, I guess, stand out. First, the speed at which gene sequencing has taken off. How fast and cheap it has become. How quickly, once the basic techniques were developed, entire genomes were sequenced. You can go to the Wellcome Collection here in London and skim through about thirty books the size of telephone directories (remember telephone directories?) that contain in print form the entire sequence of the human genome. At the turn of the century it cost three billion dollars to produce the first draft of the human genome using first generation techniques. Sangar sequencing, and so on. It was biology’s equivalent of the Manhattan Project. A decade later, we’re into second generation sequencing, and commercial companies are offering to produce full genome sequences for less than $30,000. And targeted sequencing of significant genes costs far less than that.
Of course, the cost of sequencing doesn’t include the cost of analysis—of what the genetic information means as far as the individual is concerned. And the second surprise is the complexity and resilience of information coding and gene expression in DNA. The idea that one gene is responsible for the production of one enzyme that affects a single step in a metabolic pathway has turned out to be a massive oversimplification of what really goes on. For every effective example of human gene therapy (such as relieving chronic pain by using the herpes simplex virus to deliver to peripheral nerve cells a gene for the production of a natural painkiller), there’s another where insertion of the “correct” gene has led to only short-lived effects, or reaction to the delivery system, or some other kind of unforeseen side effect. And while there has been a lot of progress in genetically engineering bacteria and yeast to mass-produce antibiotics, useful proteins, and so on, engineering of the genomes of plants and animals is still mostly at the golden vapourware stage. Either because it’s more difficult and more expensive than was originally thought, or because of concerns about food safety, or because commercial companies have gone for quick and easy fixes, most often to do with improving shelf life of their product, or preventing what they consider to be piracy of seed lines, rather than improving quality.
All of which means that the hoary old science-fiction notion of using gene-transfer techniques to patch a trait from one species into another, to manufacture chicken-fish chimeras or nitrogen-fixing strains of wheat and rice or whatever, turns out to be incredibly simple-minded. As usual, reality is richer and more complicated than we first imagined.
There seems to be a resurgence recently in stories centered around bioengineering and the environment, such as Rob Zeigler’s novel Seed, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl. What are your thoughts on the stories that can be told in this biopunk subgenre?
A lot of the new stuff seems to be in a pretty deeply dystopian mode. My bioshock novel Fairyland was published back in 1996, and like a lot of current bioshock novels it has the effects of climate change in the background, and the cultural and political effects of genetic engineering in the foreground. But I think the milieu of Fairyland is fairly hopeful, while the new stuff is much grimmer. Partly, perhaps, because the present seems so uncertain; partly because a lot of current SF reflects a fundamental loss of faith in technology and technological fixes. When it comes to dealing with the consequences of cheap, out-of-control, universally available genetic engineering, we’re still in the Frankenstein mode, rather than exploring the full spectrum of possibilities.
In some instances, things that seemed purely in the realm of science fiction are coming back to life, such as the idea of patent infringement during cross pollination. What is it like to have a story turn from science fiction to science fact?
Back in 1991, when I wrote “Gene Wars,” there were already concerns about patenting genes and genomes, and raids by companies based in the west on the biological richness of so-called developing countries. The latter, of course, has been going on for centuries. Bligh’s ill-fated voyage on The Bounty was intended to bring breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the Caribbean, to discover if they could be grown as a foodstuff for slaves in sugar-cane plantations. Even earlier, John Tradescant was importing plants from the New World, via his American agent John Smith, and using them to prettify English gardens. But appropriating a few seeds or seedlings is very different from a company based in one country preemptively copyrighting the genomes of plants traditionally used as crops of a source of medicines in another. I took that idea of biopiracy, and pushed it as hard as I could, but I don’t think I can claim any real prescience. It’s more a question of noticing what’s going on around you, and thinking about its implications, rather than trying to play the prediction game.
What do you think the future holds in the next 20 years? Will “Gene Wars” continue to be relevant, or increase in its relevance?
I think genetic engineering will definitely continue to be important, so I guess “Gene Wars” may continue to ride in its slipstream for a little while longer. As to where genetic engineering is headed, it will become cheaper, and more ubiquitous, and it may well become more important in the developing world than in the US or Europe. There’s a kind of Luddite resistance to genetic engineering, here. It’s become mixed up in environmental politics, and the politics of fundamentalists. Some aspects of genetic engineering definitely present ethical and moral challenges, but the entire field is in danger of being defined by problematic outliers. The developing world, which not only has serious problems with food and energy supply, but is also at the sharp edge of climate change, doesn’t have the luxury of such scruples. The biggest and best biotech labs aren’t in the US or the UK; they’re in places like the technological pressure-cooker of the Pearl River Delta, in China. That’s where the action is going to be.
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