Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Guest Post: J. Lincoln Fenn talks Genetic Modification

We Bring Good Things

So they built a $10 million house near my hometown and it was made of plastic, 45,000 tons of it, which they called the “Living Environments Concept House”. In 1989 a house made of plastic didn’t seem like a bad idea. Neither did shoulder pads. And GE Plastics was big where I grew up—plastic wasn’t just something in your fridge, it was the lifeblood of our local economy, and I don’t remember anyone talking about, or even thinking of, a downside.

Now we do. Plastic—a durable, easily malleable material—is a bit too durable. It never goes away. The Great Pacific Garbage patch, made of plastic and chemical sludge, is either the size of Texas or…Russia. By 2050, the oceans could contain more plastic than fish. Fragments of plastic smaller than 5 mm harm wildlife, and you’re probably already drinking, or breathing, plastic microfibers. What will it do to us? No one knows exactly.

Welcome to a human health experiment you didn’t sign up for.

My own personal experience with plastic, both the end result we’re all seeing and the affect of toxins released during its production (did I mention the Superfund?), have made me leery about wondrous new technology and our ability to manage it.

So when I heard about CRISPR, a cheaper, faster way to do things like control the ways genes express themselves or hey, delete undesirable traits and add ones we want, my first thought was—oh f*ck.

Because let’s face it, our track record in this particular area is less than stellar. A world war had to be fought to end a nightmarish eugenics program. And sometimes when I get a twisty, ‘someone stop the roller coaster I want to get off’, feeling, it bubbles into a novel, and this one did, The Nightmarchers. In it, an elderly scientist with a penchant for gene-editing sends her great-niece off to a mysterious island to collect a very rare plant specimen. Ostensibly. It doesn’t end well.

But when you’re a horror writer and spend much of your time poking about in the dark, cobwebby corners, the thing you realize is that everything has the potential to end disastrously. While on one level every action has an equal and opposite reaction, on another a reaction can also go sideways. Or upside down. Or backwards. Or set off a fractal that in turn creates a universe of unintended consequences.

It starts so simply. A Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, recently claimed to have used CRISPR to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls in order to protect them from HIV (carried by their father). On one level this should be a good thing, preventing disease before it happens. Who wants HIV? Or cancer? Or cystic fibrosis? No one.

That’s the argument James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, starts with in the PBS documentary, Pandora’s Box. It all seems so wonderful, ending disease through gene-editing, why don’t we start now? But then he goes on to say that we could end things like…unattractive girls. Gay people. Sprinkle in the recent controversy over his other comments, like thin people work harder than those who are overweight, or that black people are genetically less intelligent than white people, and it’s not hard to see how awful this could get.

Want to win an election in 18 years? Genes could influence whether you’re liberal or conservative. Need to bolster your army? There are genes linked to aggressive behavior. Or maybe you’d like more passive citizens. Ones more inclined to practice a religion. And for parents—think of the options. Instead of shlepping your kids to every damn activity in the world to make them more attractive to Ivy League colleges, you could just give them the ability to be a concert pianist. Maybe boost their intelligence. James Watson is in fact convinced we can cure ‘stupid.’ Cue irony.

Of course these options probably won’t be covered by your insurance company, so welcome to a starker inequity.

We could take a measured, ethical approach that slowly adopts some processes—oh wait, it’s too late already. Because if He’s claim is true, we already have our first edited people. And they’ll pass those traits down, good or bad, to their progeny.

The genetic engineering games have begun. Welcome to another human health experiment you didn’t sign up for.

But then again, maybe they’ll be able to add a gene so we can eat plastic.

About J. Lincoln Fenn

J Lincoln fennFenn began her horror career in the 7th grade when she entertained her friends at a sleepover by telling them the mysterious clanking noise (created by the baseboard heater) was in fact the ghost of a woman who had once lived in the farmhouse, forced to cannibalize her ten children during a particularly bad winter.

It was the last slumber party she was allowed to have.

The author grew up in New England, graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in English, and lives in Seattle with her family.

In 2013, POE won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror and became a #1 bestseller  in both Fantasy and Horror on Amazon.

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