October 26, 2008

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Genetic Engineering and Jesus – Will “They” Be Human?

A few years ago, I sent Stan Schmidt, editor at ANALOG, a short story that took place in the clouds of a gas giant called (at the time) Jordan. It was all about a sort of “underground railroad” that freed profoundly genetically engineered humans from a slavery that saw them as manufactured goods and thereby not human.

One of the characters commented that HE was human, even though he’d clearly been genetically engineered at least a little. The other character asked what made him think he was human. The first replied, “I have over 65% unaltered human DNA!”

Stan didn’t buy the story, but he did comment that he found the idea of a society in which an arbitrary amount of unaltered DNA determined whether or not one was considered human – to be chilling.

Since then, I’ve done a bit of world building and written two stories in the skies of the gas giant now named River, in which I address this concept. But it got me to thinking – what is that defines “human” and specifically, is there a point at which a genetically engineered person is no longer human? Finally, this led me to speculate on my main question: did Jesus die for the sins of humans who have been profoundly genetically engineered?

Let me try an analogy, first. Let’s look at those who have been medically engineered: every person reading this has been medically engineered to some degree, whether we have taken aspirin or had a quadruple coronary bypass. We have been changed from our “original” or “natural” form, however slightly. No one has ever suggested that I am no longer human – though I have had shoulder repair, an umbilical hernia repair and my tonsils removed.

Second case: my mom. She has a pacemaker implant, two artificial hips and two artificial knees. Is she still human? I’ve never heard anyone suggest that she is not – though we do call her our Bionic Mom sometimes. ;-)

Third: a friend of mine works for a company that manufactures insulin pumps – both external and internal. People that use these are called diabetics – but are still human.

Let us now create a hypothetical composite: this person takes medication to control cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a thyroid deficiency; they have had both shoulders, both knees and both hips replaced, wear a pacemaker, have artificially implanted eye lenses, wear hearing aids and an insulin pump – and use Rogaine (with monoxidil) and Viagra. In addition, they also have dialysis treatments once a month and use an inhaler for asthma as well as a motorized wheelchair occasionally. Is this person human? Some might argue QUALITY of life, but none I know of would argue their humanity.

The next step is obvious: the correction of typically debilitating genetic defects, the demise of which few would decry – cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome and breast cancer. Are the corrected individuals human? A question, but my guess is that no one would deny their humanity and would rather celebrate their life.

After that is the slippery slope of greater correction that will, ALMOST inevitably, lead to the question of whether or not we should improve the species. Here is where medical ethicists will “earn their pay” so-to-speak, and it will be a new frontier for endless debate.

But the next step is what concerns me – but not for the reason some of you will assume.

What concerns me is that those who are improved will be ostracized despite the fact that Jesus Himself was the object of profound genetic manipulation by the Father God. He is, in His own words, immortal. He was never, as far as Scripture goes, sick in any way – though he consistently and regularly touched and lived with the ill. Clearly, His immune system was resilient far beyond human because He touched lepers and never came down with leprosy. Jesus, the Son of God was biologically only HALF-human, if you want to be particular about it.

So – when the future arrives and we meet profoundly genetically engineered humans, we need only look to our Lord to see how they should be treated: with loving care, deep reverence and just like anyone else. That’s how Jesus lived for 33 years of His life. Will He love them, did He die for their sins and should we embrace them in the Church? Without hesitation – because He was first in a wave that has yet to crest, but will most likely hit the Church’s beach by the next turn of the century.

October 19, 2008

Number of Hits = N + 867 -->

My counter froze at 867. So the number displayed is + 867. (If anyone knows how to fix it -- let me know!)

Slice of PIE: Rich Man, Poor Man, eBook Man, Sheaf…

When I bring this up, some people seem to misunderstand what I’m asking, they deliberately misunderstand or ignore the question – so I thought I might take a moment to see if I could clarify myself.

How will the eBook “revolution” affect the poor? Tangent to that, if eBooks hold sway, will reading become something only a person who can afford an eBook reader can do?

There is already a gap between those who read and can afford to either buy books or take them out from the library – which is “free” (Free libraries posit an economy of surplus). It’s just that the discussions among writers, agents, and publishers seem to EXclude everyone but those who read in the developed world.

Hmmm…I don’t know if I’m making myself clear even to me, so let me try again: many people seem to be saying that eBooks will eventually be the most common way to get new books. The Kindle appears to be a hit (http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/05/14/amazon-may-sell-750-million-in-kindles-by-2010-thats-a-lot-of-kindles/ ) and a lot of chatter on blogs and websites I read seems to agree that eBooks will eventually be IT. My question: what about readers in developing countries?

Right now, paper books are scarce enough in developing countries. When I was in Nigeria, Cameroun and Liberia, books weren’t available there the way they are here. There were no B. Daltons, Waldenbooks, or Borders Books, and certainly, in 1983, Barnes and Noble didn’t have a Lagos store. I did read ROOTS, THE FAR PAVILIONS, THE THORN BIRDS, ON THE BEACH and CENTENNIAL, but I picked them up off the bed stands of mission stations where they were warm, dusty, dog-eared and slightly yellowing at the edges -- but still readable. Schoolbooks in most places were shipped in from the UK or the US or Australia or Canada and were typically second hand at best, but lovingly cared for, pored over and passed on.

What will it be like if the wave of eBooks washes over the developed world and books old and new require an expensive reader using even more expensive batteries that require an even MORE expensive power plant to generate power to recharge from? Even with solar cells…well, my observation has always been that the more complex a bit of technology becomes, the more likely it is going to be difficult to fix if it breaks. Once our Kindles are dead, we’ll toss them away along with whatever novels or textbooks were stored in them. I doubt there’ll be a collection point for used Kindles that will be recharged, reloaded with books, boxed up and shipped to developing countries.

More likely, the developed world will continue to develop as it always has…and the developing world will stop dead in its tracks…at least as far as reading goes.

Anyone out there offering a brighter scenario will be gladly believed!

October 12, 2008

WRITING ADVICE: A First Report on the Flash Fiction Experiment

For the better part of a year, I've used my blog to field-test characters, situations and plots of novels I'm in different stages of writing. Each one has a different place in my "future publications" queue.

I'd never tried my hand a flash fiction before, so I did a bit of research -- if you're interested in a recap, I wrote about flashfic in July http://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2008/07/writing-advice-absolutely-basic-flash.html
Google "flash fiction" and you'll get some 800,000 entries. Genie in ALADDIN has the perfect word picture for flashfic: "Phenomenal cosmic powers; itty bitty living space!"

I've asked people on my regular "blog-alert" list to read and comment on whichever flashfic series interested them. I've created three worlds where I explore the relationship of the people who live there and the events that take place there:

HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: Humans have finished an asteroid spacecraft whose mission is to deeply explore the Solar System with a crew of over 2000 and Ruby Marcillon as one of its captains. But there's also a secret mission: something happened sixty-five million years ago and evidence from debris on Earth, the Moon, Mercury and in the rings of Saturn clearly points to alien invasion. Emerald Marcillon's parents discovered much, much more than evidence in the Chicxulub crater -- and are murdered for it by a knife-footed spider robot that may be the last survivor of those invaders and whose ultimate goal is the genocide of Humanity.

THREAT OF MAGIC: Filled with strange life forms, Heartland had Technology that once made a life of peace and plenty for most. But self-proclaimed Wizard Qii wants nothing to do with Tech -- it doesn't make for good serfs -- and is using Magic to overthrow it. Kids from our world are leaking into Heartland and the Light Maker will join them to defeat the threat of Magic.

THIRTEEN SQUARE MILES: The pastor and sometimes odd members of an evangelical Christian church serve one another and their decidedly and wildly varied community rather than send full tithe and offerings to their Regional ruling body. When their official membership drops while attendance grows, that body threatens to close the church unless they toe the line.

The results? The Bransford Plots you see above (To see the genesis of a Bransford Plot -- see http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/06/do-you-have-plot.html) came out of the necessity of seeing to it that there was an overarching theme that each piece in each story line could hang from.

Twenty-two pieces of flash fiction are another result. Also -- though few people post comments on the flashfic, LOTS of people email me directly or talk to me face-to-face. The feedback has been excellent and has given me grist ("a term for milled grain") from the writer's mill!

Following a (to me) grueling schedule of flashfic on Thursdays and essays on Sunday has been good for my plotting mind. It's also made me produce when I'd rather putter.

Finally, I feel that I am much, much better at producing usable fiction. I actually LIKE several of the pieces and feel a sense of pride at producing them.

So -- for a first report, I'd say that writing flashfic in three different worlds has been a success!

What do you think?

October 5, 2008

A Slice of PIE: “2010”, “CONTACT”, “MISSION TO MARS”: Finding Ourselves “Out There”

Let me say first that I love these movies. I use each one in some format for a summer school class I teach to young people called ALIEN WORLDS. They’re powerful, well done, visually exciting and well-acted. In each one, it’s clear that Humanity is pushing into space, bent on going as far is it can go and finding whatever is out there. Despite the words of Buzz Aldrin, former Apollo astronaut that TV (and movie, I imagine) science fiction has killed the interest of young people in the space program (http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?id=57491), I can attest that when I use these DVDs in my classroom, I get INTEREST rather than boredom.

But in addition to having the obvious Alien Worlds message, for me these three movies also have another meaning: we can’t find anything worth “worshipping” here, so it must be Out There.

In “2010”, we find that Humanity has been guided to intelligence from apehood, by the unknown builders of the black monolith and that our next step in evolution is just around the metaphysical corner. In “Contact”, mysterious aliens send plans to construct a machine that has unknown potential whose sole purpose is to bring one human out to speak with a super-powerful alien who encourages her and all Humanity in our evolution to become part of a vast, intergalactic union. “Mission To Mars” proves that the “fringe element” is right – the Face on Mars was left by aliens – or are they aliens? The key to opening the Face is human DNA and one person is invited to come visit the super-powerful ancestors of Humanity to find out what’s in store for us.

For me, all three movies assume that God is no longer a viable source of motivation, comfort, and guidance for Humanity. In short, God is dead. HOWEVER, there is also a belief that secular Humanity needs something more than its local “self”. We need to know that we have been purposefully evolved by advanced aliens; we are almost evolved enough to join everyone else; our ancestors lie “out there”. If only we can contact someone else, we’ll find our true selves.

We can find ourselves Out There. While you won’t find this purpose stated in the American, Russian, European or Chinese space mission books, it seems to me that it is a small element in our fascination with space.

As a Christian science fiction reader and watcher, I’d just like to say that I have already found my “self” in God. Deuteronomy 4:29 – “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.” Scripture is pretty clear – He’s here. All we need to do is look and we’ll find Him. Right here.