As the Wellcome Book Prize, which celebrates literature with health, illness and medicine themes, is on hiatus this year, Rebecca, who has chaired the shadow panel got permission to run a ‘NOT’ The Wellcome Prize event. Today it’s my turn to spotlight two books, published last year that might have been selected for this year’s prize had it won. (The Shadow Panel will convene to choose a shortlist and winner from all the books featured on the tour in May). See all the sites participating in the tour in the banner at the bottom of this post. I nominated two books, one NF, one fiction…
Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity by Jamie Metzl
Genetic engineering is a controversial topic, and news coverage is generally lacking in proper detail or hopelessly biased one way or another. There are so many scare stories, alongside the fantastic developments that will undoubtedly be helpful to mankind. The words ‘genetic engineering’ strike fear in so many, scared that it’ll be used to develop so-called ‘Frankenfoods’ which will wipe out those in nature; that unscrupulous mad scientists and the big agrochemical companies which get so much bad press, will use it for nefarious means. But – we have to remember genetic engineering has always been with us – what is evolution but nature’s own way of doing it via natural selection? Plant-breeders and animal-breeders have exploited this for many, many decades, even centuries to speed things up and produce new domesticated and hybrid breeds and strains as a form of genetic engineering. We can’t stand still though – for whether you are pro or contra genetic engineering, or anywhere on the scale in between, technology is moving at a pace that makes a degree of it inevitable in our human future.
Hacking Darwin is full of the latest information, and Jamie Metzl is a genial host, taking us through all the recent developments in the science, discussing the ethics in depth – for and against, and he shows us what a genetically engineered future could look like – just a decade or two away. Metzl clearly explains the current technology, from the breakthroughs in IVF to reading the human genome for disease risk-factors, to using the ground-breaking CRISPR technique to edit the genome. He shows scenarios where procreation by sex is replaced by IVF and selection by the parents of which genetic traits they’d like their offspring to have – but it’s not a simple choice either. There is also the potential for editing out the faulty genes that cause many diseases – particularly ones which are caused by a single mutation. However, this editing out of undesirable mutations could ultimately result in less diversity in the genome. Some mutations can cause disease in some combinations, but provide useful traits in others: scientists discovered a group of West African women with degrees of immunity to Ebola, who were all carriers of NPC, a recessive neuro-degenerative disease.
Metzl is American and a leading geopolitical expert and technology futurist. In this book, he is not afraid to be provocative, and his discussion of the ethics is impassioned, but always clear and readable, even conversational at times. In presenting the big picture and then drilling down into the detail, he outlines the challenges for us as we travel into a brave new future. Hacking Darwin was absolutely fascinating. Ultimately, I believe he remains optimistic, but only if we talk to each other. He ends the book with a plea:
Fellow humans, let us together begin the conversation.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa’s latest novel has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, the competition is, so I hear, stiff – but could this be Ogawa (and her translator Stephen Snyder)’s year? Ogawa’s elegant and understated prose is always beguiling and full of undercurrents. I’ve previously read the sublime The Housekeeper and the Professor which is also about memory, and the much darker Hotel Iris, both translated by Snyder, so I knew what style to expect.
The Memory Police has a bold concept at its core. Our narrator, a young novelist, lives on an island on which things regularly ‘disappear’ from their lives. The Memory Police are in charge of ensuring that the residents respect the disappearances, and they gradually disappear from peoples’ memories. But there are some who can’t forget. The novelist’s mother, a sculptor, was one, she was taken away by the Memory Police. So when she finds that her editor is another, together with an old family friend, they create a secret room in which to hide him and his collection of disappeared items. Meanwhile, life goes on, more things disappear and the Memory Police rule. The narrator remembers back to her childhood, and her mother talking about the disappearances.
“The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.”
Then, her mother would show her collection of disappeared items, each in its own drawer – but although they fascinate the young narrator, she struggles to understand their previous purpose.
On one obvious level, Ogawa’s world is a totalitarian state, with the increasingly terrifying Memory Police in their smart uniforms as the SS or Stasi. The whole premise reminded me instantly of the superbly quirky satire in Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (reviewed here), also set on an island – in which the letters of the alphabet in turn are decreed into disuse with dire consequences for those disobeying. Whereas Ella Minnow Pea is a savage comedy, The Memory Police is altogether more serious in its treatment of this element.
Ogawa elevates the novel from being a mere dystopia by having the narrator writing a novel that unwittingly echoes her own life of gradual loss. It is about a woman who falls for her typing instructor and gradually moves from talking to him to communicating via typewriter, becoming more and more shut in, and submissive to him as he becomes more dominant (a theme of Hotel Iris). Ogawa intersperses chapters from the book within the book throughout.
One of the first things to disappear is roses. The town had had a beautiful rose garden; everyone awakes to find the river full of perfumed rose petals, blown there by the wind – it’s a beautiful ending for the flowers, but…
A rose garden without roses was a meaningless, desolate place, and it was terribly sad to see the trellises and other signs of all the care that had been lavished on the flowers. The murmur of the river did not reach me here and the rich, soft soil made a pleasant sound underfoot. With my hands thrust in my pockets, I wandered across the hill as though walking through a cemetery of unmarked graves.
The walls are moving in inch by inch, and the islanders’ lives are gradually made more and more banal as their memories are censored. Ogawa’s narrator, who is still hiding her editor, being helped her old family friend who used to be the ferry master before they disappeared the ferry, is caught between wanting to remember and being unable to, despite the best efforts of the editor during their conversations in the hidden room. But things, be they material or more conceptual, keep disappearing, and that did get problematic. By the end, I was reminded of a classic SF film, but I won’t spoil anything by telling you which one.
If this novel hadn’t been written so beautifully, I would have had problems with the lack of explanation. Ogawa never tells us the origins of the disappearances, of where the Memory Police came from, of who chooses the next thing to have to vanish from their lives. There is an acceptance in those who can’t remember that is hard to comprehend, but the narrator does have her moments of fighting against the system.
Whether there is enough engagement with health, illness and medicine to meet our criteria is, I think, marginal, but there is no doubting the elegance of the thought experiment behind this novel. Showing Ogawa’s characteristic flair for understatement, this is another troubling but beguiling tale. (9/10)