I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.
He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?
On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.
No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.
Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.
There is a type of sci-fi that is
triumphalist. In this kind of sci-fi,
people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal,
enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and
all goes well. This is welcomed as a
Then there is another type of
sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased
out. This is what sci-fi is for, after
all: thought experiments. “What would be
all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but
routine?” This thoughtful strain of
sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought
experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.
It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers. All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well. I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”
Here are a few
Think it would be great if all
parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?
Go watch Gattica.
Predicting people’s behavior and
assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions? Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?
Interested in “designer babies?”
There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing
seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended
side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that
created them. They are understandably
bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their
genetically edited strength and smarts.
How about perfectly executed
plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?
There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.
Creating a human/animal hybrid?
The movie Splice.
Storing all our important personal
information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?
Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?
What if we take this wonderful
stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it
at any time?
Back to The Outer Limits. In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies. The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace. Poor guy. (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)
How about “smart homes,” where our
electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much
I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every
other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can
Really smart AI?
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised communally?
Run and The Office of Mercy. Oh, and Soviet orphanages.
How about a perfectly controlled
society in which children are raised in families, but these families are
assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?
Giver by Lois Lowry.
How about we find or create a
portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it? Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to
him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …
(But actually, we shouldn’t need a
movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything
through a portal that we don’t know where
OK, OK, you’re right … no one is
seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes. Not that I am aware of. Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:
We have discussed in previous posts the idea that the people of the very ancient world were much smarter than we give them credit for, probably smarter than we are today. This post will explore the idea that genetic engineering may have been tried thousands of years ago. By the nature of the topic, the post will be highly speculative and will contain some stuff that is not for the squeamish.
Old Testament Laws Against Mixing Kinds
The Old Testament is famous for
puzzling and obscure laws. Here are a
“Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of
seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two
kinds of material.” Leviticus 19:19
At first glance these three rules seem arbitrary. But they may actually have been a prohibition on attempting to create genetic hybrids of animals or plants.
This verse comes in the midst of a passage that forbids the Israelites to do a number of different, mostly disgusting things that were part of contemporary pagan practice in Canaan, including child sacrifice, “divination,” self-mutilation, bestiality, and “eating meat with the blood still in it.” Translated into modern terms, all of these practices could potentially relate to genetic manipulation. They reflect an attitude towards people as disposable products (child sacrifice); a desire to carve up the human body and make it into whatever we desire (self-mutilation); a desire to find out hidden knowledge or secrets so as to take control of them (divination); and a desire to mix characteristics of humans and animals (bestiality, consuming blood). We know that these impulses were not confined to Canaan in the ancient world. See nearly every Greek myth ever recorded, but the particularly the story of the Minotaur.
Of course, we tend to think of
these practices as religious, and no doubt they were. But this doesn’t mean they were not also an
attempt to alter the nature of things in the physical world. Pagan religion is often a path to maintain
the agricultural cycle and prevent infertility.
These particular pagans took things one step further and sought to
“improve” these natural processes.
The Canaanites may even have had some success with their genetic experiments. Israelite spies managed to bring back from Canaan a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole between two men (or possibly between two poles, depending on the translation, which would make it even bigger). (Numbers 13:23)
Genetic Engineering in Really Ancient Times
The Israelite conquest of Canaan took place about 1400 BC according to conventional dating. This is very recent compared to the dates this blog usually has in view. It is more than a thousand years after the Sumerians, well after the probable date of the Tower of Babel, and even farther after the speculated date for the Giza pyramids. Many of the hints of genetic engineering – both in the Bible in other historical sources – come from these even more ancient times.
Hints from the Bible
There is a strong emphasis in the
creation account in Genesis on all things reproducing themselves “according to
their kinds.” Almost every time a particular class of plant, bird, fish or
animal is mentioned, it is followed by the phrase “according to their kinds” or
“each according to its kind.” This was
the intended order of creation.
It was violated a mere six chapters (but possibly untold thousands of years) later, when the “sons of God” (some of kind spiritual or transdimensional beings) lusted after human women and “married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 3) Their hybrid offspring were the Nephilim, who were giants.
The speculation goes that these “sons of God” or their hybrid descendants may also have begun to violate animals, either sexually (ew!!!) or through some other, unknown means of genetic manipulation, and that people began to learn these techniques and the attendant values. The general picture is a slow obliteration of all “kinds.” There would have been creatures running around that were hybrid animals (chimeras perhaps?), other creatures that were part human and part “divine,” and perhaps “divine” animals and animal/people as well. The world was on its way to complete biological, sexual, and perhaps even dimensional chaos. Soon no one would be safe from any kind of sexual violence or grisly experiment. This was the world that, thousands of years later, the Canaanites were still trying to bring back.
“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” (Gen. 6:11 – 12) The word corrupt here may mean more than just morally corrupt. There had been some deep perversion of the natural order of things. So God decided to destroy all the people and birds and animals (verse 7). He chose Noah. My translation of verse 9 says that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.” It is possible that a better translation of this phrase is “perfect in his generations.” That is, Noah was still 100% genetically human. His family line had not intermarried with the gods and had not been genetically manipulated (Van Dorn 36). God then asked Noah to gather “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.” He was going to re-start the world using the originally created kinds.
It is possible that the secrets of genetic manipulation were not completely lost after the Flood. Around the time of the tower of Babel, we get the figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [or against] the Lord,” who founds a number of ancient cities and is later worshiped as a god by the Babylonians. Genesis 10:8 says in the NIV that Nimrod “grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth,” but the grammar allows for the translation “began to become a giant.” (Van Dorn 77) Perhaps he found a way to alter his own genetic code. That would certainly have made his city-building task easier, especially if he was planning to use megaliths.
Hints from Other Historical Sources
The general picture we have painted
of the world immediately pre-Flood is a terrifying one. It is also strikingly similar to the picture of mythological times found in
Greek myths, as everyone knows, routinely
feature gods impregnating human women, giants, part-god “heroes” (often very
badly behaved themselves), and entities that mix characteristics of animal,
human, and/or divine. Not to mention
countless “monsters” created by the gods. It all adds up to a portrayal of a world that
is fascinating from a distance, but also chaotic and deeply unsettling. It is not a world that a sane person would
wish to live in.
But this is not confined to Greek mythology. Stories of giants are found everywhere. So are stories of human/divine intermarriage, and stories of people mating with various animals (or even inanimate objects such as stones), and producing monsters. It is a truism that these are common features of myth. All these very strange ideas are, no doubt, deep in the human mind. But perhaps there is a story behind the way they got there. Perhaps this was, in fact, the world that humankind lived in for some generations.
Finally, I give you a visual image that is not proof of anything, but that might be suggestive. It is the caduceus, a very ancient symbol that came to be associated with the Greek god Hermes in his capacity as a healer and as a patron of doctors. It is two snakes entwined around a winged pole. The symbolic association of snakes with healing in world mythology is too big a topic for a post that has already gone over 1,000 words. But, if you buy in to the idea that ancient people were very smart and may have engaged in genetic manipulation, it is interesting that this ancient medical symbol resembles a double helix, or DNA molecule.
Giants: Sons of the gods, by Douglas Van Dorn. Waters of Creation Publishing, 1614 Westin Drive, Erie, CO 80516, 2013. Van Dorn’s book was the source for all the original ideas in this post.
Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992. The Dictionary contains many references to giants, monsters, and to sexual activity between people, animals, rocks, etc.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. Scholastic, March 2010. First published 1962. This is a classic illustrated book for children that sanitizes the myths somewhat. Of course there are many other reference books for Greek myths. In addition to many other suggestive stories, D’Aulaires’ mentions that the smith god, Hephaestus, “built for himself two robots of gold and silver to help him about. They had mechanical brains and could think for themselves. They could even speak with their tongues of silver. They also served him as helpers in his workshop on Olympus.” (page 28) Here again we see at least the idea of very advanced technology in an ancient context in which we would not expect it.
The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:
The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this: A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced. Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship? Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?
Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com
The Essence of a Thing – Or Person
White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”
Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.
Changes to the Body
I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.
Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)
It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.
A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness
I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.
White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.
The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.
Would it Work, Though?
It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.
This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.
Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.
If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.
Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.
Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.
This is a great mystery.
On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.
I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.
To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:
“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”