Cloud Atlas: Queering Space & Time

April 15, 2017 § 7 Comments

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“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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Some of the Best Science Social Fiction of our Time

April 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

I have a confession. I never considered myself a fan of science fiction. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see myself as one until I was 20 years old. If we’re being honest, I had always regarded science fiction as a genre for geeks. I thought it could offer me little, and that it was simply low-quality material about alien invasions and space travel. Movies like Star Wars, or The Matrix, were fun to watch, but I had never read the stuff – and had no intention of doing so.

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That is, until I was hoodwinked into reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The book began just as I would expect. A lot of talk about space travel and interplanetary exploration. However, that only lasted for a few pages, and it was just a means of setting up the plot. The “real” story, as I saw it, became much more of a social commentary than any sort of alien invasion tale I was expecting.

After reading more of these quasi-science fiction stories, I realized that a work doesn’t have to be wholly “hard” science fiction to be classified as such, and I began to redefine my idea of the genre. Just as I had come to terms with my new, broader label of science fiction applying to just about everything, I read author Margaret Atwood’s definition of her works. The books I’ve read by Atwood were less “science fiction proper” and more typical of those that would fall in the outskirts – in that grey area that had confused me in the past. Actually, Atwood doesn’t consider herself to be related at all to science fiction. In fact, she

“define[s] science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today – that depend, for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or which contain various technologies we have not yet developed.”

She went on to say that she defines her own works, such as A Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy, as speculative fiction, which employ “elements that already exist in some form, like genetic engineering,” as opposed to more “wildly hypothetical science fiction ideas.”

With this definition in mind, I began to consider the extent to which the some of the technological elements of Oryx and Crake are extensions of technology we have today, and how far her speculative world is from our own.

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Artist’s depiction of RejoovenEssence Compound

Remember when Crake’s dad was accused of “destroy[ing an] elegant concept” when he questioned the HelthWyzer method of sustaining jobs by introducing disease through hostile bioforms implanted into the vitamin pills, and then he was executed on behalf of “the general good”? Well, it looks like modern scientists might be facing similar resistance from large, wealthy corporations.

David Williams, a cellular biologist at UCLA, has some concerns about genetic modification (GM) that he’d like to investigate. However, he says that it’s difficult to find funding for such research because the majority of funding for plant molecular biology comes from “the companies that sell GM seeds,” and these companies are more interested in research that expands the use of genetic modification in agriculture. Although the scientists who remain skeptical of GM are few in numbers, those who publish research that presents risks associated with the technology are “the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility.” I haven’t heard of any executions taking place to stop such research, but this slander and lack of funding seems to be successfully impeding extensive studies from a more neutral standpoint.

Another aspect of the Oryx and Crake world related to genetic modification is their complete reliance on synthesized food for nutrition. Due to the state of the environment, plus overpopulation, the citizens no longer consume “real” meats and “natural” vegetables. These have been almost entirely replaced with engineered foods, everything from SoyoBoyBurgers to HappiCuppa coffee.

Jimmy sees the development stage of a new variety, ChickieNobs, when visiting Crake at the Watson and Crick Institute. These protein sources are bred simply based on what’s profitable – beaks and eyes are replaced by a hole in the middle of a conglomeration of breasts. Very similarly, Mark Post of the University of Maastricht announced in 2013 that he had created the first “cultured burger.” No, this isn’t a piece of meat that enjoys attending symphonies and discussing the fate of the EU post-Brexit. Instead, Post’s creation started with stem cells, which his lab then differentiated into muscle fibers to create a burger patty. The lab is now working to also differentiate stem cells into fat cells that will enhance the taste. A video representation of the process can be seen here.

Although these still require a bovine cell source to initiate the process, it’s a more environmentally friendly means of production, and they are working on a completely animal-free production now. This technology is also something that the book, published in 2004, seemed to predict. With that said, these elements of Atwood’s speculative fiction seem pretty spot-on.

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Did Atwood take notes from Churchill’s article in The Strand Magazine from 1931?

However, I want to call into question her distinction between the related elements of modern technology that she calls speculative fiction, and those technologies explored in science fiction. If science fiction is a genre that employs space travel, and speculative fiction is one that discusses extensions of current technology, then what does that say to the rocket scientists and researchers of today using real science to create real technologies to be used in outer space?

Christopher Nolan, director of Interstellar, said that he wanted the robots in his film to be a “realistic approach to what a robot [of today] would be.” He wanted to push the limits between realistic fiction and science fiction by not “calling them robots in the script” – he used the term “articulated machines” to encourage not just audience members, but also the cast and crew, to challenge their preconceived notions of robotics.

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Though I did, in my younger years, classify science fiction as an unrealistic genre full of time travel and alien warfare, I believe that distinction is a slap in the face to the science fiction community, both its writers and its fans. To me, it all comes down to Doris Lessing’s statement “Science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”

-Mollie Maples

Sources:

Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982 – 2004, Margaret Atwood, 2004

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/18/doris-lessing-five-best-novels

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/film/interstellar-director-christopher-nolan-says-he-had-a-very-particular-vision-for-the-robots

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/

http://gizmodo.com/the-future-will-be-full-of-lab-grown-meat-1720874704

http://www.new-harvest.org/mark_post_cultured_beef

What Do We Sacrifice For “Perfection”?

September 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

It looked like any other hospital waiting room. Well, any other hospital waiting room in the year 2050. I’ve been told that you weren’t kept behind bars like a common criminal. I’ve been told the doors didn’t always have locks on the outside. Hell, I’ve even been told the rooms had chairs to sit in. . . . I’m pretty sure most of those are myths though. I guess it really doesn’t matter how the rooms might have been though. I’m here now and that is all that really matters.

Eventually they come for you. You don’t know when it will be. You just don’t know . . . but they come eventually. People leave one by one. Where they go I can only imagine, but I guess I will find out soon enough. No one really seems to be nervous and I guess they don’t really have a reason to be. We aren’t here voluntarily. We don’t have a choice, an escape, an alternative. You just accept your fate as it comes.

There was a general trend in the room. None of us looked old than five or six and most of us had obvious defects. You were snatched up as soon as something seemed off with you. For some they were born lucky. Infants with a clear disorder were treated on the spot. They won’t even remember the treatment. Not all of us were so lucky. The boy across from me sat drooped over in his wheelchair. His legs looked frail and thin.

He will walk soon enough. Everything will be fixed soon.

How I found myself in this mess was entirely different. You can’t tell something is wrong with me just by looking at me. The moment I was born my parents could sigh in relief that they would never have to turn their child over to the state. I am more sorry for them than I am for myself as I sit here. I’m an anomaly. It all started when I was three or four and I insisted I was a girl. “But Michael, you’re my baby boy,” my mother would insist. She would force trucks and army men into my hands to play with. She dressed me exclusively in blue. She put me in karate and never let me have girl friends. I was defective.

But medicine can fix all of that now. I am told that after the surgery I won’t even remember wanting to be a girl. I will be my mommy’s strong little man after all.

And with that, they came for me.

——————————————————————————

            I deliberately chose something that would offend or shock. Being transgender is not a defect. It is not something inherently wrong with the person. It is not something to treat. So why did I chose the issue of being transgender as the main driving force of my narrative?

To make you think and question.

Medicine and genetic research has come leaps and bounds from where it began. Thus far, the progress has been something that I support wholeheartedly. Stem cells have incredible potential to change the world. Finding a foolproof cure to cancer would revolutionize the world. But where do we draw the line?

Something I think about is where genetic engineering must stop. My fear is not so much what we as human beings can create, but rather how we choose to use that technology. My greatest fear is that we find ways to change things that are simply hard to understand or not the “norm.”

I have incredibly strong friends who have a wide variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, you name it. They are the strongest people I know and I know that they wouldn’t change who they are if given the chance. Nothing is wrong with them. They are unique and beautiful. But as someone who loves them all deeply and unconditionally, I fear that less tolerant people will try to change them. I used to paint my friend’s nails at sleepovers just to take it off in the morning before returning home. Thankfully, Claire*  was able to transition to the person I had always accepted her to be when she moved out of her house. I know her parents would have changed her to accept being male, the sex she had been born with, if given the chance.

I hope I did not offend you, but I do hope I shocked you. We need to think about the limits to genetic engineering. Not the scientific limits, but the moral and ethical limits. Just because something may be possible, doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it. I don’t really know where we should draw the line in the sand, but I hope we can start the dialogue.

Maybe this story can be the pebble that creates waves.

*Name changed for privacy. 

  • S. Jamison

The New Equations

September 25, 2015 § 4 Comments

Because everyone deserves a happy ending.

(Continued from The Old Equations, by Jake Kerr)

March 1, 2194—LC-E transmission

Kate, your final message inspired me, but it is so hard to sit here and just wait. And wait. And wait. I’ve kept the QE link from Earth open, even though nothing ever comes through. Still, I hope. And wait.

And wait.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

December 1, 2195- LC-E transmission

Sail calibration is normal. Propulsion subsystems are working. Thermal systems are in place. I’m still searching for Genesis 751, but I’ve only advanced a little on the mission trajectory.

I’ve kept the quantum link open, but I really don’t have any hope of my messages of ever reaching Houston.

Kate…..

October 10, 2199-LC-E transmission

I’m still not quite there yet. Even though time is moving faster for me, it still feels like an eternity on this goddamn spaceship. Why the hell did I agree to spend 10 years or rather 41 years away from Kate? We had a future together, and I’ve swindled it away.

June 30, 2205-LC-E transmission

James is still alive! Happy birthday to me.

I’m about 10 hours away from Genesis 751. My mission was to find this Earth like planet because we humans have exploited our planet for our avaricious needs. For what? But don’t you worry, Captain James is here to find a panacea! A whole new planet for us to destroy again!

The hypocrisy of my mission, which made me feel so noble once, now makes me sick.

I wish Kate were here.

February 17, 2206-LC-E transmission

MY GOD! Genesis 751 has trees and water!? And an atmospheric cover similar to Earth’s! I can finally breathe fresh air…

The planet is much more similar to Earth than our estimates could ever hope for. Could we begin a new life here? Could we start afresh? I’m going out to explore its landscape now, and make detailed reports about its biodiversity.

September 23, 2213-LC-E transmission

I have explored Genesis 751, and I can safely say that with a few technological and biological modifications and adjustments, it is a planet fit for human survival. Its star, Centaurus 809, is smaller than the sun, but taking orbital distance and speed of revolution into account, it doesn’t affect planetary features in a detrimental way. Genesis 751 is our potential home.

May 11, 2220-LC-E transmission

My food supplies from Earth have been running low, but Genesis 751’s biodiversity makes it easy to find fruits. The flowers and trees are not quite the same as those on Earth, but there aren’t any fundamental differences in taste or appearance. There aren’t any sentient animals here though. A planet full of trees and flowers, but no birds or bees…

December 1, 2229-LC-E transmission

I have begun my journey back to Earth, after spending 5 weeks on Genesis 751. (I don’t know how long it’s been in Kate’s years). God, I miss Kate. General Marsden should look after her well. Tony will also take care of her, I hope.

The radioisotope thermoelectric generator gave me a few issues, but nothing my MIT and NASA training couldn’t help me fix.

It’s such a relief to finally set the coordinates to Earth, to Kate.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

On June 26, 2235, 41 years since his takeoff, astronaut James returned safely to Cape Canaveral, Earth, receiving a hero’s welcome. Fortunately for him, the Earth he saw now didn’t look very different from the one he left 10/41 years ago. General Marsden had died of heart problems a few years after James’s departure from Earth. James however, was just 35 years old.

After preliminary biological and decontamination procedures and tests, James was taken to home to Nashville. He was told that Kate was at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

She’s old now, and we don’t have enough time together, thought James, regret and sorrow stabbing at his heart.

Apparently, Kate was the Bioinformatics and Genetics Department. Why? As James waited for the elevator, the curiosity was killing him. I hope she’s ok.

As he entered her room, he prepared himself to see a 70-year-old Kate. I don’t care, he assured himself.

When he walked into the room, he saw a sleeping Kate lying on the hospital bed, but she looked only 30 years old. HOW?!

Kate’s doctor rushed in. The doctor, prepared for debriefing the confused space-drifting James, said:

“I know how hard it must be for you to see Kate right now. Relativity has altered your perception of time, and even though you’ve only experienced 10 years, you were mentally prepared to encounter an Earth 41 years older. However, ever since you’ve left, we’ve made significant gains in the fields of gene modification, enabling us to live longer and look younger for many more years. With the help of newly discovered equations, we’ve successfully reversed the aging process using telomere lengthening.”

“The enzyme, telomerase, which replenishes telomeres after replication, allows a cell to live longer and combat aging. We give people periodic injections of the telomerase enzyme to reverse aging, and this form of genetic engineering is now used worldwide. I use it on myself too. The Kate you left is nearly the same Kate you see now, in terms of health and apparent age at least.”

As the doctor finished his explanation, Kate woke up. James rushed to take her in his arms. It wasn’t too late. They had a future, a long and loving future ahead.

“I told you I would see you again, didn’t I?”

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur

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)

Blog 4: The Unselfish Gene

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a parent, I’d be damned if I were given the option to genetically engineer my child to be predisposed towards altruistic behavior since – quite frankly – I wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation. An examination of the nature of altruism, the biological requisites for gene coding, as well as virtue-based ethics reveals that the very idea of an ‘altruistic gene’ is misguided indeed.

First, to what extent must the child be altruistic? Not too much, I hope. Since concerning for others’ welfare necessitates detracting from time spent guarding one’s own welfare, an excess of altruism results in a reduced chance of survival. To frame it in mathematical terms, altruism and personal welfare are inversely proportional, and there must be some fine line dividing reasonable selflessness from reckless self-sacrifice. Ironically, in order for altruism to fully blossom, personal survival must be of top priority since the caretaker needs to be alive and well before he/she can take care of others. Such a paradox abounds in careers with high risk factors; for example, as an emergency medical technician, I was trained to take care of patients only if there existed no serious threat to my own safety. Call me self-centered, but I firmly believe that the ideal altruistic attitude takes the form of equal parts selflessness and selfishness.

At this point, we’ve come to a rough understanding of the ideal extent of children’s altruism. The next problem we face stems from biology. When writing the genetic code for altruism, we must already have in mind a fine balance between genuine concern for others’ well-being and dumb self-sacrifice. Assuming we have already elucidated this balance, its very abstract nature makes it difficult to code into discrete sequences of nucleic acids. The issue at heart is analogous to that of emotions: if all emotion is based on electrochemical impulses in our brain, then what permutations of such impulses correspond to each emotional state? There are countless emotional states – as well as countless ethical dilemmas concerning altruism – to the point that it is nearly impossible to encode every possible response to such situations into a 4-letter alphabet. Even if our ideal altruistic state were not situation-based but rather rule-based, I bet it would still take researchers years to figure out how to genetically code for altruism.

Finally, what do ethics have to say about the prospect of genetically modifying children to become more altruistic? Let’s consider the vantage point of virtue-based ethics, in which we must act in strict accordance with a given ‘ideal’ regardless of the situation. In deciding whether to endow my child with the altruistic gene, I must consider two opposing ideals. On one hand, if the goal is to maximize individual liberty, then genetic manipulation would be simply out of the question as I essentially would force my child into becoming altruistic without consent. Granted, he/she can neither talk nor respond to human stimuli yet, but that’s a whole different story. On the other hand, if the goal is to maximize the amount of good deeds performed in this world (here I use the term ‘good’ in a very general sense), then genetic modification would be proper not only for my child but for everyone else’s child. Indeed, a brief analysis of virtue-based ethics stymies me: which ideal must be upheld?

Clearly I’ve opened a huge can of worms when I decided to bring biotechnology and ethics into the mix, but at this point I adamantly believe that the premise of ‘forced altruism’ via genetic modification is unfair. It’s biologically unfeasible. It’s ethically confusing. And I just don’t know what to do if I were faced with such a conundrum.

Sean Justin Lee

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