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Thursday
Jun252015

DNA AS A COMMODITY

Years ago I read a 1990 SF novel named Memories by Mike McQuay. It featured one of the most interesting time travel concepts I’ve ever come across: a drug is developed that lets a person “mind-travel” through their ancestral line and inhabit the body of any of their genetic ancestors. The plot of “Memories” involves the main character going back to the Napoleonic era to stop another traveller from messing up history. The process involves DNA and RNA (strongly linked to memory). It’s an excellent read that’s stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it this week when I encountered an interesting science news story.

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta have found that some information can be passed down from generation to generation in mice through chemical changes in DNA. The researchers trained some mice to experience fear when they smelled the fragrance of a cherry blossom (a cruel choice, if you ask me) and found that subsequent generations also exhibited fear when encountering that smell. Needless to say, there’s a lot more research to be done in the field, but it’s an interesting result. We’ve often heard talk about “racial memory” that might provide similar inherited behaviours. We certainly know that many species have instinctive responses to environmental dangers that aren’t taught to them by parents.

What if we find out that learned skills can be passed through human DNA? If the DNA responsible could be isolated and transferred to other humans, it would become a very hot commodity. Take a few DNA shots and become a concert pianist. Or a pro-level golfer. Or a master carpenter. You might be able to skip instruction booklets and just buy an injection of home builder DNA when you buy your lumber (or even better: a DNA shot to assemble Ikea furniture!) Although there’s no indication that specific knowledge would be shareable that way, physical abilities that are practiced so often they become like a reflex action might be good candidates for this. Olympic champion swimmers might be able to retire and live off the proceeds of selling small amounts of their blood or tissues. But so might expert chefs and trained sharpshooters.

Even if it’s found that such DNA information transfers only work on embryos, not adults, there would still be a huge market for genetic material from geniuses of all stripes, from the Einsteins to the Warren Buffets. It could revolutionize the education system, especially specialized training. Most encouraging of all, if it could be made readily available, it might go farther than any initiative has yet done to provide universal education to all children, regardless of geography or social status. But again, so far, it’s impossible to know what level of detail can be included in the information transferred.

I don’t think it’s likely we’ll ever time travel via DNA and RNA as in McQuay’s book, but what if we could extrapolate the knowledge and experiences of our predecessors from the DNA of current descendants? We might finally get to know what it was like to be Napoleon Bonaparte, or Henry VIII, or almost any historical figure who had offspring and descendants who are alive today. The animal kingdom would be ripe for exploration, too. Perhaps we couldn’t clone dinosaurs, but we might have more precise and certain information about their instinctive behaviours by analyzing the DNA of modern-day birds.

As with any genetic research, there are ways that knowledge like this could be abused. But the potential is very exciting.

Being a science fiction writer, I’m putting in a bid for Larry Niven DNA. Or Robert J. Sawyer. Or…of course…if you could get your hands on some DNA from the late Michael Crichton? Ironic, indeed.

Wednesday
Jun172015

SCIENCE FICTION VS. FANTASY

 

I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.

When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?

Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.

Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.

The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.

So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).

I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analog magazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.

What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.

It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.

Friday
Jun052015

BRAIN ENHANCEMENT TO ORDER

The invention of written language was a game-changer in human history. For the first time, we didn’t have to trust our memory, and that of others in our tribe, to preserve important knowledge. We could write it down. Others, at a later time or in another place, could read it. That provided a framework for enormous progress. Access to personal computers and then the internet, have also been huge leaps ahead in terms of the availability of knowledge and other forms of what could generally be called “problem solving”, from math calculations to determining a location on a map to keeping track of appointments.

These days we joke about our phones being smarter than we are. And I predict that, within the next half-century, technological capabilities much greater than those of our smartphones will be part of customizable brain “augments” that will interface directly with our own biological grey matter. But a recent article at The Conversation got me thinking about that. Some recent neuroscience studies appear to show that our brains selectively forget some information in favour of newer similar data. That’s a good thing: who wants to remember the pin number of a bank card you lost months ago when you’re trying hard to recall the new one? And while certain middle-brain structures like the hippocampus may be crucial for memory storage, it looks like the pre-frontal cortex determines which remembered data is the most relevant to a desired action. Think of it as being like the Google algorithms that show you search results appropriate to your location, previous searches, and other personal data, rather than just any random answer that meets your search keywords. Even with that help, you know how hard it can sometimes be to find what you’re really looking for (instead of a list of porn sites just as your boss is looking over your shoulder).

When we do have brain augments, something—biological or mechanical—will have to act as a similar filter, coordinating the functions and search retrieval. A significant amount of brainpower might have to be allocated to this. Your smartphone probably has a dozen apps you never use, but if we do the same thing with brain augments, the result will be needless mental overload.

So what kinds of brain augmentation would you most want?

Extra storage capacity, the better to remember all of those special moments in perfect detail (and where you left your car keys)? Well, don’t forget that the bigger the hard drive the longer it takes to categorize and locate specific data. Your recall might be total, but slow. Cloud storage would offer benefits and drawbacks.

How about better facial recognition, tied to the correct names and relevant data? I could go for that (great with faces, terrible with names). And it would be pure gold for politicians and sales reps.

Social media, instant messaging, and chat functions could take on an almost telepathic quality (although, would all of your Facebook friends really be welcome right in your head?)

A GPS and mapping function would make sure you could never get lost, or, even more exciting, never lose your car in the mall parking lot.

The possibilities are many, BUT let’s not forget that our brains do forget, very deliberately. Not only do they forget old stuff in favour of information that’s currently in greater demand, but neural pathways that are no longer used eventually disappear. So with every regular brain function that we replace with a digital equivalent, we might eventually lose the ability to do that task on our own (try solving a multi-part math equation without your calculator sometime).

Customizable brain augments will come, but before they do, lets give some thought to exactly what we want from them. While we’ve still got practice at thinking “outside” the digital box.

Tuesday
Jun022015

THE HEALING TOUCH SHORT STORY NOW AT AE

The most gratifying times as an author are when we’re able to make our work available to more readers. Every reader is truly appreciated. Still, I’m pretty picky about choosing the publication markets for my short stories.

I’m very pleased that AE—The Canadian Science Fiction Review has just published my short story “The Healing Touch”. It’s a love story, but with a twist, of course. AE uploads new content every Monday, and it’s always well worth a look. Especially since it’s free of charge! So I urge you to check out “The Healing Touch”.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, feel free to share it with your friends.

Thursday
May212015

FUTURE RX

When we think about how scientific research and technological innovation are changing our world, we can’t help but think of tech progress at the most personal level: within our own bodies. Over the past century, medical knowledge has made huge leaps and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. We already have amazing vaccines against some of our race’s most ancient biological enemies, and micro-surgical techniques are constantly improving, turning previously traumatic procedures into outpatient treatments. How long will it be before some obsessive scientist in a castle laboratory shrieks into the howl of a thunderstorm, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”?

OK, but if we haven’t quite figured out how to reverse death (or bring pilfered corpse parts back to life) we’re at least making great strides toward living longer. Even such things as pacemakers and artificial hip joints have had a big impact on life expectancy. I think that within twenty years we’ll all have implants that will monitor our vital signs, sound a warning to ourselves and to bystanders if we suffer a sudden health problem (and probably issue first aid instructions to those nearby) while automatically alerting emergency medical services. Why not? Our cell phones can almost do that now—which is appropriate considering how many people place themselves in life-threatening situations while texting.

Human body parts are being produced by 3D printing. Although it will be some time yet before viable organs are created, it’s thought that such printers might use living cells for “ink”. Various blood substitutes have been around for a while, which can save lives in a pinch, but now labs have begun to create actual artificial blood. Bioengineering will take us a long way in the coming years, making replacement body parts and organs customized to match our own individual DNA. Hopefully researchers will include muscle and bone tissue among these advancements, because none of us really wants to live decades longer if muscle and bone loss means we feel the aches and pains of every one of those extra years. Hello doctors—do I need to repeat that one?

Let’s not forget nanotechnology. As scientists create more and more micro machines that mimic the chemical processes of living cells, we’ll enter the territory of body parts that don’t wear out because they’ll repair themselves. Whereas we now turn to green vegetables, blueberries, and red wine to provide anti-oxidant compounds to clean out the “rust in our pipes” (from free-radicals),

within the next century we’ll have armies of ultra-miniature mechanisms floating through our bloodstreams to perform those tasks, and do it better because their actions will be directed, not random. Just as importantly, our mental capabilities will be maintained through the stimulation of new neuron growth, along with the technical assistance of implanted computer-networked devices (being “wired” will have nothing to do with overdosing on espresso). We now know that young children’s abilities to soak up knowledge like a sponge is chemically switched off as they approach puberty and then adulthood, but within the next century we’ll learn to switch it back on, say, when we want to learn a few new languages for our European vacation.

Our children and their children can look forward to all of these innovations and many more, BUT there will be a price to pay when humans start living longer and longer lives. Population pressure will become even more serious, and the resources of our planet are not infinite. Yes, we’ll find ways to gather some resources from elsewhere in the solar system, but wouldn’t it be much smarter to make better use of the ones that are already here?

It’s all well and good to improve human health and the human lifespan, but it will be irresponsible if we don’t put a serious chunk of that research and innovation brainpower into vastly improved recycling of materials (including wasted food), renewable energy, and the reclaiming of material that has been wantonly discarded in landfill sites for the past hundred-and-fifty years.

There’s more to the equation than just medical advancements if we truly want to “Live long and prosper.”