Cloud Atlas: Queering Space & Time

April 15, 2017 § 7 Comments

cloud-atlas-final-poster

“Cloud Atlas” movie poster. Copyright Warner Bros.

Let’s be honest. Cloud Atlas — both Cloud Atlas the book and “Cloud Atlas” the movie — is dense. It’s complicated, and it’s almost dizzying in scope. I know of no other work of art that has covered as many facets of the human experience: life and death, love and greed.

The book is a masterpiece, and yet author David Mitchell said writing it was like a “walk in the park” compared to the Wachowskis’ work in filming the movie. In using the same actors in multiple roles (see chart below) while shooting in three different countries, the directors needed to create a detailed filming schedule. In addition to disguising actors as different genders, ethnicities, and ages, the directors also re-purposed buildings and interiors to give viewers an uncanny sense of familiarity across the changing time periods and plots.

Not surprisingly, the movie was so confusing to most viewers that it flopped at the box office, exceeding its production budget by only $28 million (in comparison, the first Matrix film netted nearly $400 million). Indeed, when I went to see the film on Election Day in 2012, less than a dozen people occupied the theater hall. And when the credits started rolling, one of my fellow movie-goers nearly shouted, “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen!” before exiting the theater.

The Wachowskis knew the film was a financial risk. Likewise, the big-name Hollywood actors (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant) did not expect the film to be the next big hit. But they were compelled to join the cast for the artistic thrill of such a complex project. In a featurette accompanying the DVD release, Halle Berry said, “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaking experience. I will never be a part of another film like this in my life. I know it.”

Defined by both content and context

The movie is an artistic thrill, for sure. But its importance as a film goes beyond its production value: it speaks to the importance of all human life, especially in the face of both systematic and subtle oppression.

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Money Speaks Louder than Human Voices

March 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Everything has a price.” This phrase in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not new, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of her novel (139). In today’s world, corporations dominate in every sphere from the economy to religion and politics. While Atwood’s world in which corporations have absolute control is unsettling, her ideas are merely an extrapolation of current times to the future. However, as Atwood shows, commercialism and commodification come at a high price to society and the humans that are a part of it.

Early on in the novel we learn that Jimmy (or later Snowman) lived on a company compound called OrganInc. The corporation controls everything in Jimmy’s life including his school and the rules he has to abide by, enforced through the CorpSeCorps. Later on, we learn that Jimmy and Crake attend what are similar to universities. These “universities,” particularly Crake’s Watson-Crick Institute, aim to generate profits as well, encouraging the very bright students to innovate and develop new technology, carefully securing their facilities, and minimizing interaction with the outside world. In Jimmy’s world, corporations control everything, and their motives clearly dominate.

The corporation-developed compounds seem absurd; however, in reality, they already exist. Massive companies like Amazon and Google have “campuses” that contain everything one needs to live off of. They include restaurants, gyms, childcare facilities, and even sleeping pods – all designed to keep you inside and focused on doing everything possible for the company. Beyond company campuses, universities today mimic those in Atwood’s story. As Vandy students, we even say that we live in a “Vandy Bubble.” Our lives all exist within the confines of our campus as we strive to learn and make new developments in all fields. We are not far off from the fictitious world that Atwood describes.

Images are renderings of future campuses for Google, Amazon, and Apple (from left to right). 

Why does it matter that corporations and technological research centers have such a wide sphere of influence? In a world where profit governs, everything becomes a commodity. This can easily be seen in Oryx and Crake with the story of Oryx. Not only is Oryx commoditized by the pimps that earn money for her sexual acts and pornography but Oryx is also commoditized by every viewer that watches the child pornography, including Snowman. In her discussions of her experience, Oryx has clearly been influenced by the corporation mentality surrounding her, as she states:

“They had no more love…but they had money value: they represented a cash profit to others. They must have sensed that – sensed they were worth something.” (126)

Do we only value human beings for the monetary value they provide? I hope not. Atwood shows a disturbing reality if corporate power continues on its current trajectory. The power of corporations to influence politics and culture even today has implications for cloning and other advanced technology. It is unsettling to think of the development of human clones by companies driven by their own bottom-line. Morality does not seem to have a place in this kind of world.

If we do consider these clones to be “human,” how do we prevent the corporate developers from treating the clones like commodities and not humans, especially when humans today are already commoditized? In the novel, Snowman compares the children in the pornography to “digital clones,” as they did not feel real to him (90). With this statement, Atwood warns of the commodification of both existing humans and potential human clones in the future. If corporations both govern and profit, we cannot prevent abuse and exploitation.

Atwood is not far off in her portrayal of the commodification of human clones. Human cloning has often been criticized for turning human organs into commodities due to their monetary value with cancer treatments and other diseases. President Bush famously rejected all human cloning, stating, “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” He is not alone in being concerned with this idea, as scientists, philosophers, and policy-makers have discussed the implications of human cloning for decades. The Presidents Council on Bioethics expressed the following:

“When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force.” (The Presidents Council on Bioethics, 2002)

When corporate greed becomes entangled with the morality of health remedies, the potential commodification of humans and human clones is endless. Although Atwood’s fictitious world seems so distant, the reality is that it is much closer to present day than one would first think. From humans to clones to our independence and our value, Atwood shows that everything has a price, and the costs to society are high.

Sources:

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.
Arter, Melanie. “Bush: ‘Life Is A Creation, Not A Commodity’.” CNS News. CFC, 07 July 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/bush-life-creation-not-commodity.
The President’s Council on Bioethics. “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry.” Georgetown University, July 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/cloningreport/children.html.
Cambria, Nancy. “Our 21st-century Prophet, Margaret Atwood.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. STLtoday, 26 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/reviews/our-st-century-prophet-margaret-atwood/article_242b5f9b-3ac6-51e3-9024-e858d178f6e2.html.

Images source: http://www.geekwire.com/2013/4-tech-titans-building-campus/

Manifest Destiny in the New Frontier

September 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

Americans have always been a curious lot.  We have felt this desire to “boldly go where no man has gone before” from the time of the late 19th century when the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was coined, an idea reflecting our belief that we were destined to explore and colonize the new realm of the wild west, to the mid-20th century when we declared space as the “final frontier” and proceeded to conquer and explore that frontier to the best of our abilities, becoming the first nation to put its citizens on the moon.  However, contrary to our grandparents’ belief, space was not the “final frontier,” but rather another frontier still awaits us, ready for exploration and new discovery; a frontier not around us, but inside of us: our own genes.

We have come a long way from simple Mendelian Genetics and are now at the point where we can manipulate DNA in many different ways: inducing somatic cells to re-instate their undifferentiated form creating induced pluripotent stem cells, splicing genes of one organism into another creating chimeras, implanting favorable genes into crops with genetic engineering technology, and much more.  And even after all of this discovery, there is still so much we have yet to determine, so much unchartered territory left to explore.  Within our genes lie the secrets of our personality and the template for our appearance; but our genes also hold our genetic diseases and predispositions, oncogenes that can induce the formation of tumors and mutations that can lead to fatal diseases like Huntington’s Disease.  Within our genes lies the code that makes us who we are in every positive and negative way, serving as the unchanging template that ultimately steers our life.  But what if we could change this template? What if we no longer were forced to serve as slaves to our genes but rather could manipulate them for the better?

Human genetic manipulation is a frontier many have been afraid to touch for years due to a host of ethical issues. However, developments have still occurred.  Now, the technology is available for the groundbreaking research to occur, and the ethics of the idea seems to be the only thing holding us back.  Recently, the CRISPR Cas-9 protein, found in bacteria and used as a kind of immune system against viruses, has been brought up as a potential genome editing protein we could use in prenatal gene therapy.  Prenatal gene therapy is a medical procedure where a genome editing protein with high specificity, such as CRISPR, is implanted into an embryo and used to either remove or correct a mutation that would lead to a terrible, and likely lethal, genetic disease within a child.  Performing gene therapy on an embryo rather than a child already born would be very advantageous because the embryo has much less cells necessary to target and the cells that receive the therapy will eventually divide into other cells that will all contain the corrected gene.  Such therapy could be used to correct genetic diseases so that a child is born healthy and further, if the disease was originally heritable the next generation would also not be subject to that disease.  With this technology, we could eliminate Huntington’s Disease from the population just as we eliminated smallpox.

However, without proper research, it is impossible to make such miracles a reality.  Many can easily see how great the benefits of human genetic manipulation would be, but become squeamish when research is actually going to be done and argue that the costs will be too great and that even once we have this technology that it is a “slippery slope” until it is used for the wrong things.  Ultimately, these are risks we are going to need to take.  The ultimate benefit human genetic manipulating technology would have on future generations outweigh any initial costs associated with research.  It is not like we are very long away from great breakthroughs anyways; with research unimpeded it is likely we would be to the point where there were little to no real costs or great failures within a few years.  And with proper regulation, the “slippery slope” will gain more friction and we will stay closer to the original therapeutic goals.  Also, Once the technology is more established, it will become cheaper and more readily available, just as computers did.  Did you know that the first human genome cost $7 billion to sequence and today we can sequence an entire genome for just $1000?  As more research is performed and more technologies invented, cost decreases, so the idea of socioeconomic inequalities in gene therapy and related genetic medicine will eventually become null.

Even with all the benefits of further genetic research, still many people find that they just have a negative feeling in their stomachs even still when it comes to the idea of manipulating the human genome.  Tell me though, if you found out that your unborn daughter was going to die before she turned twenty of a fatal genetic disease, would you not want to help her and give her the full life she deserved?  If you found out your son was going to suffer from a condition that required him to constantly revisit the hospital and limited his ability to live his life to the fullest possibility, would you not want to give him a chance to live an unimpeded life that he could enjoy to the fullest?  If you found out that you were a carrier for a recessive genetic disease, not knowing whether your partner was a carrier as well, would you want to have to worry about your children having that disease and possibly choose to refrain from having children or would you rather continue with your plans for a family knowing that no matter what your child will be healthy?

Genetic manipulation is what allows for there to even be a choice in each of the scenarios above.  Right now, many people are faced with only one option, and it is not the better of the two.  We could change lives and save lives, but the stigma against this great technology is preventing such.  Such an opportunity would not have been presented were we as a human race not to take advantage of it.  We have a manifest destiny in the new frontier of genetics, and it is about time we started properly exploring.

-CRW

5 Opening Lines

October 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

1. It had been three centuries to the day since the last man died, taking with him the last Y chromosome the world will ever know and leaving behind nothing but a sea full of estrogen.

2. The shuttle took off with loud bang, propelling Xander on his mission to yet another Galaxy on the outskirts of the Universe, and he could not help feeling the same loneliness that had plagued him ever since he started this desperate search for Catalina.

3. Chartzx had fallen in love with many women before, but none quite as humanoid as her.

4. The past has always caused the future, the future can sometimes cause the past, and the present is always being caused by both, but nothing could cause Caleb to understand this week’s quantum theory homework, no matter what he tried.

5. “The ratio of clones to humans is simply too high for us to sustain this kind of rapid population growth!”  I exclaimed, much louder than I had intended to.

-PJ Jedlovec (pjjed)

Five Starting Points

October 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

1. The man fought the rising serge of panic within him as he desperately sought refuge from the enraged mutant children of his cold, thoughtless genetic experiments.

2. It can be very distracting hearing the telekinetic projections of others, but on the bright side, there’s not enough room to get a song stuck in my head.

3. The first rule of the space conquistadors: never put your laser gun in your back pocket.

4. As I lay feeling my life-blood slowly draining from my lesions, I was not concerned for myself, really. I was more concerned for my clone life-donor whose body parts will be shucked and harvested to salvage my life, regardless of his pain.

5. My mother absolutely refused to allow me to attend Space Cadet Academy after I was caught taking the family spaceship joyriding without permission the third time.  Maybe that’s why I ran away to join the Heinlein and Clarke Alien Space Circus Spectacular.

Orion

Increased Understanding of Our Genome

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

Probably one of the most exciting breakthroughs in science in the past 20 years was the complete mapping of the human genome. For the first time, we have the complete “human cookbook”. However, our actual understanding of the intricacies of these roughly 3 billion base pairs is somewhat lacking. Yes, we understand the concept of gene expression and duplication, gene transfer using bacterial vectors, and even down to identifying point mutations in a single gene, but there is so much more to learn. With an increased understanding of our genome we could possibly utilize genes known as homeobox genes (Hox genes for short) which play a crucial role during embryonic development. Even the controversial stem cells (undifferentiated somatic cells) would be utilized.

With a complete understanding of the genes that make the 7 billion people on this planet, the possibilities (both good and bad) are endless. In The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, rich individuals clone themselves. These “younger versions” of themselves are in turn used for their organs. Theoretically, this harvesting of organs from clones could extend one’s life span far beyond what is naturally feasible. In essence, this would create a sort of class war; the rich would utilize this technology to the fullest and extend their life spans while living healthier lives overall. However the poor, without access to this technology, would be forced to live a “natural” and therefore inferior life.

In the realm of science fiction, it is easy to extrapolate this technology. When war comes into play, the genetic engineering of soldiers to create an army of “super-soldiers” of sorts would be a popular theme. One can extend the class war to countries. Richer countries would be able to create amazing armies to beef up their own military while poorer countries would have to resort to the usual armies. The science fiction stories that could possibly stem from this advancement in genomics would be endless.

-Pranav Santapuram

 

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