Nancy Kress: Dealing With How the Use of Genetics Can Alter Society
Now that you know a little bit about me, and what I love/hate about popular science fiction, I can finally start to focus on the writers and directors that have and continue to define and push the genre forward. With that, it’s an absolute pleasure to write about Nancy Kress. Not only is she a great storyteller, but her science fiction typically deals with genetics and how the use of genetics can alter society. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also an extremely nice person!
Nancy has actually been writing since 1976, and fortunately for fans of science fiction, has over 40 novels published as well as several short stories. I first discovered Nancy’s writing through her novella, Beggars in Spain in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. It was then expanded into an excellent novel, published in 1993.
Beggars in Spain
The premise of Beggars in Spain is that scientists genetically engineer their children to not require sleep. These children are known as The Sleepless. At the time of reading, my own children were relatively young. All I could think was “what idiot would ever do that!?” I was tired just trying to get my non-sleepless children to sleep, so how could parents handle kids who never sleep? Interestingly, when Nancy wrote the story she didn’t specify how children were genetically modified to become ‘sleepless’. Today, with CRISPR technology one could see how key genes could potentially be inactivated (if they exist in the first place!).
Remember how I said Nancy is extremely nice? I know this first-hand because she made the foolish mistake of almost immediately replying to an e-mail I sent her. Being the star-struck fan I am, I took the opportunity to ask her a whole bunch of questions over the course of the conversation. I was surprised to find out that she does not have a science background. She clearly does her homework though, as her fiction is very scientifically literate. And yes, she did claim artistic license to gloss over how The Sleepless were created. Fortunately, I don’t require all my science fiction to be plausible to be enjoyable. The point of the book wasn’t that you can create these individuals, but more importantly what happens when you create Humans 2.0.
That being said… Suppose you could find the small handful of genes that control sleep, and alter them – would such a construct even be viable? Sleep is incredibly pervasive and absolutely essential to the survival of most animals. Given that information, I would have thought a ‘sleepless’ mutation would be lethal. This, of course, leads to follow up questions as to how you could make viable Sleepless humans…
Anyway, Nancy’s Sleepless are born in the near future of 2008. The lack of a need for sleep gives them a much higher IQ and 50% more productive time. In an interesting twist, it turns out that the genetic modification also unlocks an unknown cell regeneration system that prevents ageing. This results in a fascinating dynamic as The Sleepless are a clear improvement on us regular Homo sapiens. And that is really the crux of the novel – how would our society view a new species of human that is clearly vastly superior to their forbears. This was a great read in the 90’s and an even more relevant read today in light of the technologies that are becoming available to us and the ethical questions they pose. I absolutely love Beggars in Spain, and I’m not the only one – it picked up both the Hugo and Nebula awards. If you’re interested in a great, thought-provoking read with genetics as the foundation of societal transformation, pick it up, and its three outstanding sequels!
Nancy scooped up another Nebula award for another one of my favourite stories of hers, Yesterday’s Kin. It too started life as a novella before being expanded into a novel with genetics as the foundation. This time the action focuses on Marianne Jenner, a middle-aged geneticist at a small dinky college researching mitochondrial haplotypes. Using Sanger Sequencing, she discovers that all humans are descended from a common female ancestor. The study is a big deal and gets her published in Science. This is a big deal no matter where you work!
At the same time, aliens land in New York harbor, cue Marianna getting tanked away to work for the government. I love a good ‘first contact’ story, and this one is definitely one of those, with an exciting twist. I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just say I loved that for once biologists were cast as the heroes rather than the villains. I got the same good feelings reading Yesterday’s Kin as I did reading The Martian.
As ever with good science fiction, this story also holds up a mirror to the society we live in today. Away from the action, the lives of Marianne’s three children provide some interesting parallels and twists of their own.
I’ve only recently finished reading the book, and can’t recommend it enough. I’m excited to see where Nancy takes us with the rest of the trilogy.
Nancy has already written an entire lifetime’s worth of wonderful stories. As much as I’d love to, I can’t write about all of them here. But I will add the excellent The Flowers of Aulit Prison to the list of Nancy Kress essential reads. It too picked up a Nebula award in 1997. That being said, I thought I’d finish up by talking about Beaker’s Dozen.
Some people can find a full novel to big a commitment for the purposes of discovery, so a really good way to discover Nancy Kress and immediately fall in love with her writing is to read a collection of her short stories published back in 1998. Beaker’s Dozen is a collection of 13 stories, with 8 being concerned with what comes out of beakers, test tubes, and DNA sequencers of microbiology. What is perhaps most striking in these stories is the optimism with which she writes, in sharp contrast to the doom and gloom typically associated with genetic advances in science fiction. If you find yourself enjoying Beaker’s Dozen as much as I did, then you should take a look at The Best of Nancy Kress, published two years ago by Subterranean Press. It contains around 200,000 words of some of her very best short science fiction.
So there you have it. I’ve pretty much read every word Nancy has written and am a huge fan. The stories are exciting, the themes are thought-provoking – good science and good fiction, holding up a mirror to society. It’s everything science fiction should be!