Ad Astra 2014 day 3: Biotech, identity, and personal freedom

Panellists: Alison Sinclair; Shirley Meier

SM: Everyone is terrified of the loss of control. We use plague zombies to explain our fear. Dracula was about the fear of women’s power and blood magic. One of our biggest fears in biotechnology. There are a couple of good TED talks on the subject (Mel’s note: I found this one and this other one). Chemotherapy can be delivered directly to the tumour.

AS: Spider Robinson wrote about electrodes implanted in the pleasure centre of the brain. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Crossroads,” the Federation becomes a dystopia. The Borg are biological machines. In Star Trek: Voyager, 7 of 9 and Hugh explore these ideas.

SM: The essential questions are: Who am I? Who owns my thoughts?

Q: In Brave New World, what was horrifying then is common place now. People fear science. What’s the positive side of biotechnology?

SM: In my books, MOM (the medical override module) is corrupted. Technology is what saves people, frees them from the villain, Prime. Pets are modified into true companions. Of course, then you have the issue of old age, disease, and how you can justify putting the dog down. They rejuvenate animals, mammals specifically.

Q: What about clones? Currently they age rapidly to the age of the animal they were cloned from.

AS: Medical technology is always advancing. Right now, they’re working on cloning the heart. The brain is still too much of a mystery. Is it ethical to “treat” mental illness? How does the process impinge on personal freedom?

SM: Heart surgeons have noticed personality changes after bypass surgery. There is a distinctive decrease in, or complete loss of, empathy.

Q: Who should be afraid of biotechnology? Who will suffer?

SM: We add to our knowledge; we don’t replace it. The old doesn’t disappear. Norms shift.

Q: Do you have statistics regarding the percentage of personality change in heart transplant patients?

SM: It was in a Smithsonian Magazine article. The percentage isn’t certain. They’re not even sure why it happens. It might be a drug interaction.

Q: If we look at biotechnology rationally, our fear is relatively low. Irrational fear is automatically high, however. People forget our own criminal predisposition.

SM: Look at the military. They have drills for the nuclear fighter jets frequently. They have to make sure that all is in readiness in case the worst happens. They don’t run in these drills. They walk slowly. If the jets take off, the world will probably end. The ground crew is assessed. If they don’t react appropriately, they will be removed. When we write SF, we are troubleshooting. What if? Utopias are boring. Consider the controversy over stem cells.

AS: But what about the cost? We need to invest in quality control. In our society, who can afford it? In Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, the main character is autistic and offered a cure. Who chooses?

Q: What do you consider “you”?

AS: My mother has Alzheimer’s. Her personality hasn’t changed yet, but layers of memory get stripped off.

SM: Treatment is not the same as a cure. It makes illness tolerable. There’s a loss of dignity in Alzheimer’s that’s difficult to deal with. In the early stages, patients can be mistakenly addressed as if they are in the advanced stages. They don’t need that.

Q: There’s a tension between internal and external identity. Who we are vs. who others think we are. Is it the same person? I’m thinking of Heinlein’s Puppet Masters.

AS: Do we have a problem with free will?

SM: Yes. Our monsters steal our free will. Truth, justice, and the American way vs. the New World Order.

Q: What about mind control?

SM: Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is a fascinating look at mind control and possession in our society.

AS: There’s also a struggle between personal and medical personhood.

SM: Why do things not work? We’re essentially monkeys. Would you give a monkey “the button”?

AS: Technology both reinforces and subverts existing power structures.

And that is the last session I attended at Ad Astra this year.

I’ll save the wrap post for next weekend.

In the meantime, have a fabulous weekend, my writerly peeps. I’ll be back on Tuesday with my regular Tipsday curation.


Ad Astra, day 3 (finally): Science in Urban Fantasy

Panellists: Shirley Meier; Alyx (A.M.) Dellamonica; James Alan Gardner; Dennis Lee

SM: I write fantasy and science fiction.

AD: Science fiction with an ecoscience bent.

DL: I recently coauthored a science fiction book with Mercedes Lackey.

Q: How do you reconcile fantasy with real world science?

SM: In Dead Girl Walking, zombies are a part of the world. My protagonist wants to be an astronaut. How do you hide your essential nature (rigorous medical testing). Does she have the “rot” stuff?

JAG: Urban fantasy is contemporary-ish. Can, or should, magic be explained? Charles de Lint doesn’t explain his magic, it’s wondrous. What is the attitude toward magic in your novels? Is it threatening, or saving?

DL: Magic is an underlying, mysterious thing for me, but it follows the rules of science, the laws of thermodynamics. My mage does magic by completing complex equations in her head.

SM: Most people accept our technology as magical. Flick a switch and you have light. Push a button and you can communicate with people all over the world.

JAG: Magic and technology are not indistinguishable. In urban fantasy and superhero subgenres, 1% have “bought” immortality. The blue collar class has lucked into it somehow. It’s wish fulfillment. Neil de Grasse Tyson says that you don’t have to “believe” in science. It works for everybody. In fantasy, you often have to be “the right” person. The one. Anyone can learn science.

AD: Access to science is privileged too, though.

SM: Barbara Hambly’s editor wouldn’t buy one of her books because it was written in terms of fantasy. The science wasn’t explained.

AD: What about Thor? Marvel’s tried to explain that all of Asgardian magic is, in fact science, but it’s not explained either. What about Pern? Lord Valentine’s Castle?

SM: Dracula was born out of the fear of women’s power of creation and “blood magic.” People are as afraid of science or nature as they are of the supernatural.

JAG: They are placed side-by-side, too. The virus zombie vs. the raised, Vodoun zombie. There’s a story from the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the writer’s would put in a placeholder: Jeordy – tech. This would be the cue for the researcher to come up with some kind of plausible explanation for what science had apparently just made happen.

SM: With NCIS, it’s the same thing. Their placeholder is: Abby – technobabble.

DL: The project I’ve been working on has been a Google Docs collaboration. Each author has a specialization and lends their expertise to the project. Pharmacology, molecular biology, etc.

JAG: Peter Watt asked the question, “At what point is your bafflegab authentic enough?”

DL: It has to be grounded in something real.

JAG: Orson Scott Card says that there are three questions the reader shouldn’t ask: Huh? So what? and Who cares?

SM: When did we stop trusting “once upon a time”?

AD: Are there better branches of science that fit better with fantasy?

SM: The so-called “soft” sciences: sociology, anthropology, political science.

JAG: In my latest novel, I have four young protagonists, a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, and a geologist. All of them are “supers.”

SM: Is the increasing prevalence of autism evolutionary? It’s one of the questions that intrigues me. I inherited the history library of a professor friend of mine. It’s an excellent resource for steampunk. The science in steampunk needs to be shown, not explained.

DL: One of my characters is a geomancer, so she has to have math and physics.

SM: Look at Dresden. Magic is the realm of the guy in the basement with a hockey stick wand. Magic has a cost. Science does not.

DL: Science has to have a cost.

AD: Why? I want to write magic that works and has no cost.

SM: Then we have the problem of Superman.

Q: Does is come down to the transfer of energy? The way I see it, once that’s broken, so is the science.

JAG: Iron Man breaks science all the time.

Q: Do you explain it?

SM: You have to sell it, make it believable.

DL: Serve the story.

JAG: Like the faster than light in Star Wars; you either buy it, or you don’t. You can’t keep technology a secret.

Q: What about explaining the force in terms of “midichlorians”?

JAG: Midichlorians doesn’t really explain anything.

SM: Is A Wrinkle in Time science fiction, or fantasy?

Q: Or the technomages from Babylon 5?

SM: And we’re back to the Superman problem. Read A Canticle for Leibowitz. There is science beside the new church and its radiation saints.

JAG: Ultimately, you have to serve your story the best way you can.