Tech Flesh 5: An Interview with Nancy Kress
CTheory: Your novel Beggars in Spain introduces readers to a
genetically altered future of the "Sleepless," a generation of individuals that
are genetically modified to need no sleep, are highly intelligent, are resistant
to many diseases...there are even intimations of immortality in the Sleepless.
What was it about genetics and biotech that drew you to imagine the Sleepless?
Why did you choose the particular characteristics that you did?
Nancy Kress: When I first conceived of the Sleepless, it was
long before my interest in biotech. The motive was pure jealousy. I need a lot
of sleep, and I envy short-sleepers. I always thought that if I could get by on
six hours a night, I could accomplish so much more.
The other characteristics of the Sleepless, such as intelligence and
health, are logical choices for any parent who is having a child genetically
engineered. It seemed to me that if we could manipulate something as complex as
sleep, we could also manipulate those characteristics. Near-immortality,
however, was added as a plot device. I don't really think that's in our genes —
no matter how we adjust them.
CTheory: The worlds of Sleepers and Sleepless in the trilogy
are divided by what seems to be a form of genetic discrimination: the
genetically-modified against the biologically natural. Do you see similar
divisions playing themselves out in genetics, and in what ways?
Nancy Kress: Divisions are inevitable, and they will follow the same
lines that divisions in quality of health care follow: finances. Just as many
expensive elective treatments in health care are currently available to the rich
but no one else, so will many forms of genetic enhancement, at least for a
while. This is already happening. In some instances, people with "bad" genetic
profiles have been denied health insurance. This is true even though they carry
the genetic marker for the disease but have not yet developed it themselves. In
the near future, court cases and government regulations are going to have to
address issues of genetic privacy, insurance, and employment. They're big
CTheory: What are your own responses as a science fiction writer to
the human genome project?
Nancy Kress: My response is tremendous excitement. I can't imagine
anyone not being interested in this understanding of the basis of life
itself...and even more interested in the manipulation of life that will surely
follow. In fact, it is already well underway. We are using somatic gene therapy
to help disease victims whose bodies cannot make needed proteins. We are using
choice-among-embryos in vitro fertilization to ensure couples who carry
genetic diseases have a healthy baby. We have manipulated organisms into
producing medicines. Just a few weeks ago as I write this, the first commercial
sale of a cloned animal, a champion cow, took place in Iowa. As we learn more
about the human genome than simply the long, long listing of its base pairs — as
we learn where individual genes are located and what they do — we will gain more
and more power to create health, abundance, and beauty for ourselves. My biggest
regret is that I'm not going to be around for a thousand years to observe what
CTheory: What social roles do you think science fiction can have in
response to scientific fields such as genetics and biotech? As a writer, do you
think of these domains as sharply divided, or close together?
Nancy Kress: They're very close. Genetics decodes the DNA, identifying
how our genes create proteins, switch on and off, and interact with each other.
Biotech then puts this knowledge to practical use. Without genetics, biotech has
nothing to work with. Without biotech, genetics has only limited funding.
Science fiction acts as a theoretical laboratory, a "thought experiment," for
exploring the implications of genetics and biotech. Those implications can be
ethical, social, or biological. The function of SF — other than to be
interesting literature! — is to say, "If we did this in science...then what?" SF
writers thus predict not THE future (we have a pretty lousy track record at
that) but a plethora of futures.
In addition, I've heard many scientists say they studied science because of
an early interest in SF.
CTheory: Often in the mass media and in press releases from biotech
corporations we are presented with a future in which biotech promises to be able
to eradicate disease and improve health and even quality of life. But what do
you see as the darkside of this research? What are some specific danger-zones
that you see in current biotech and genetics research and application?
Nancy Kress: Some of the specific danger zones I already mentioned:
discrimination on the basis of personal genetic information, and division
between those who can afford biotech solutions and advantages and those who
cannot. Another danger with plant biotech is that some super-resistant crop
could begin to proliferate dangerously without enemies, taking over ecologies
(of course, we already have that with kudzu and loosestrife, neither of which
was engineered). A final, very real danger, is terrorism with genetically
engineered viruses or parasites for which we have no antidotes (I wrote about
this in my thriller Stinger).
CTheory: Much of biotech research gains its support — both scientific
and economic — from the ways in which it says "this research will lead to these
kinds of applications in the future..." Is there something that biotech could
learn from SF here in terms of socially-conscious extrapolation? Is there
something SF-like in this process of imagining the future?
Nancy Kress: Biotech already does do the same kind of extrapolation SF
does ("What if we could get this bacteria to produce insulin?"), although in a
much more limited and near-future way than SF's wide scope. I can't say whether
or not drug companies wrestle with ethical extrapolations as well. So far, it
hasn't been very necessary — no one disputes the good of using biotech to cure
or prevent diseases. The university labs are a different story: Witness the
controversy over, as I write this, NIH-funded research on human stem cells.
Universities also have proliferating bioethics departments to do exactly what SF
does: imagine consequences of future genetic engineering.
CTheory: Although there have been many scientific utopias about
genetics, it is rare that we see attempts to imagine workable futures. In
Beggars in Spain, however, we see attempts by characters to bridge the
gap that has divided the Sleepless from the rest of humanity. Do you see
such attempts as possibilities with the effects of genetics and biotech?
Nancy Kress: Before we can reconnect, we have to divide. Genetic
engineering is a long way from that. Our first germ-line attempts will
undoubtedly be to correct defective genes in an embryo, something very few
people would object to. Later, and gradually, will come altering such simple
things as eye color. Later still, we may — or may not — learn to manipulate
complex characteristics like intelligence. But all this will be private. It
probably won't be possible for a very long time to discern who is genetically
modified and who is just born physically lucky — unless we do make such dramatic
modifications as sleeplessness. But how will the real-world scenarios play
themselves out? I have no idea. That's why I wish I could be here to find out!
Nancy Kress is the author of eighteen books: three fantasy novels,
seven SF novels, two thrillers, three collections of short stories, one YA
novel, and two books on writing fiction. She is perhaps best known for the
"Sleepless" trilogy that began with Beggars in Spain. The novel was based
on a Nebula and Hugo-winning novella of the same name; the series then continued
with Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride. In 1996 Kress
temporarily switched genres to write Oaths and Miracles (Forge, 1996), a
thriller about Mafia penetration of the biotech industry. This was followed in
1998 by Stinger (Forge/Tor), about the introduction of a
genetically-engineered and very nasty form of malaria into Maryland. Her most
recent book is Probability Moon, the start of a trilogy, which takes
place off-World and includes such grand old SF tropes as aliens and a space war.
In short fiction, Kress has won three Nebulas and a Hugo. Her work has been
translated into Swedish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish,
Croatian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, and Russian. She is the monthly
"Fiction" columnist for Writer's Digest magazine.
Eugene Thacker is an Assistant Professor in the department of Literature,
Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech. His writes on new media and
biotechnology, and is a part of the art group Fakeshop.
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