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June 21, 2012 / dgrushkin

CDC Ebola Virus Outbreak Action Playset

“Level 4 Breach! Level 4 Breach! The monkey’s are free! The monkeys are free!” Recreate the horrors of an Ebola outbreak with Reemco’s CDC Ebola Virus Outbreak Action Playset!

You get:

– Center for Disease Control doctors in Contaminant Suits
– CDC Ebola victim in breached suit
– Infected Virus Monkey

Reemco’s outbreak figurines for the kiddies! Is this for real?

June 21, 2012 / dgrushkin

Hot Zone… It’s gonna be a scorcher

This month’s reading… I knew it was about biology, but really?! Thanks Rina for the link. Actually, Richard Preston has a Hot Zone study guide on his site. Check it out.

June 14, 2012 / Genetically Modified Storytelling

Oryx, Crake 2: The Silence of Animals

Biopunk abounds with “nu-animals”—animals shaped by genetic engineering and poisoned by radiation, hormones, and pesticides. Some of these animals are pharmakons (useful but also dangerous—so useful we come to over-rely upon them).

There’s something wonderful about how animals serve throughout fiction as a silent backdrop for humanity; no matter how advanced the humans in a fiction are, the animals are eternally dumb…

Biopunk at first seems to alter this dynamic by forcing humanity into the role of animal-designer, but most biopunk stories we’ve read haven’t hinged on animals changing in their muteness. They may become more slimy and colorful or more dangerous, or they may disappear altogether, but few of the nu-animals we’ve encountered have been intelligent, leaving open the space of the shaman—the dream- or divine/diabolic space in which animals speak and humans “return” to a pre-technical nature.

Biopunk interests me in part because, as a genre, it has the power to bring that dream-space into realism, overcoding realism with talking and otherwise exceptional animals (and inorganic individuals such as androids) that we believe will exist one day. As in the time of shamans, the fiction here races just slightly ahead of the reality; “realism” becomes a term for the littoral zone where the two meet and collaborate (mate), producing possible realities (instead of definite realities or definite fantasies).

But then again, among the pigoons, rakunks, bobkittens, wolvogs, snats, and green rabbits, we also find the Crakers, who do speak, though they cannot speak “metaphysically” (whatever Atwood means by this assertion; she seems to employ all the typical inflections of Rousseauist noble savagery). So silence and speech remain opposed, and language still separates the orders of the animal and the human.

June 13, 2012 / deorr

Haunting Illustrations of Oryx & Crake

Artist Jason Courtney painting some haunting interpretations of important scenes from the novel.


June 8, 2012 / Genetically Modified Storytelling

Oryx, Crake 1: Totem Names, Dream Names

Oryx – the scimitar oryx.

Crake – the red-legged crake.

These two animals are the “real” oryx and crake inside Atwood’s title—cute, vulnerable, vibrantly adorned (with horns, with color), strangely and melodiously named…

Though the real animals scarcely cross the mind of the reader, they are fit as totems (genealogical archetypes)) for their respective characters. Oryx is lithe and quick; Jimmy views her with something of a fantastic quasi-unicorn to be courted and defended. Crake is not physically imposing but is easy to spot; he has a sort of aura of genius, a vibrance of dark creativity. (Look at the intensity in the red eye of the crake above.)

And then there’s the whole matter of the names of the Children of Crake, and of Jimmy/Snowman. Snowman calls attention to the act of naming: Abominable Snowman is a powerful, pseudo-animal inspired dream name. It’s appropriate to him, to his actions. He is after-man and therefore after-names, after-the real.

In a way, the whole book revolves around animals and what we call them, how we name and think of animals as objects—how we create new animals, in the case of biopunk.

Reading Oryx and Crake, I’m growing more interested in animal names, animal creation, and the role of each animal in the world in part because these feel like mythical aspects of fiction, earlier than the format of the novel, profounder than any specific prediction about our biotech future (though I am interested in those as well). What are the relations among the real animals, our ideas about them (our objectification of them, their histories, their genetic and, daresay, spiritual links to us), and their names—the links between reality and idea?

Maybe I’m not interested in specific animal totems, but in the totem function—how we use animals in fiction, what we imagine they feel, especially about us.  I can imagine eventually writing a weird essay on:

  1. the function of the totem-animal in biopunk fiction (Jimmy as  born of Abominable Snowman; Oryx the girl, born of the free, endangered, scythe-horned oryx the ruminant);
  2. the becoming-animal of variously heroic and anti-heroic and mischievous biohackers (Jimmy realizes he’s maladapted compared to the pigoons; he needs to think more like them);
  3. and the becoming-animal or becoming-“natural”-again of the world that these characters inhabit (how quickly the Compounds break down again into jungle).

What the totem animal tells us is past and, in apocalyptic biopunk, future as well: Each totem animal was the first of its lineage, one that devolved, over generations, into this tribe or that. In biopunk, after Crake, the tribes devolve or evolve back to animals, or to the non-metaphysical (animal) Crakers.

Thus the totem comes full circle in fictions in which we are allowed to see both animals engendering humans (perhaps metaphorically) and humans becoming (“true”/other/nu) animals. “Dust to dust” is here overcoded by slime to slime, wing to wing, fang to fang… and the apocalypse becomes not a choice between survival (as recuperation/re-capitalizing the world) versus extinction, but adaption versus other, even stranger adaptation.

June 6, 2012 / gmulder

Never Let Me Go

On my way through Oryx and Crake I found myself being reminded of a novel I had read a few years back: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Set in a timeless Britain of the “late 1990’s”, the novel follows a group of young people who are growing up in a sheltered, becalmed, boarding-school type establishment, to find out that they are human clones reared for the express purpose of donating organs to their originals. The story navigates poetic straits between accepting what you are (and are put on earth to be) and the hope and will for a few years of life that belongs to them, and those that they love.

Never Let Me Go, with the subdued, yet unquestionable clarity of a cold morning, tells a tale of the human condition that it shares with Oryx and Crake – but without the dystopia. Where in Atwood’s novel it’s

“Grief in the face of inevitable death,” said Crake. “The wish to stop time. The human condition.”

and greed seems to be driving force coming out of that condition, with Ishiguro duty and responsibility are the driving forces in the face of said condition.

However that may be – and I have not finished Oryx and Crake at the time I’m writing this, so that may be neither here nor there – it stayed with me as a different voice in the same arena Oryx and Crake is in.

BTW: Never Let Me Go was made into a film – and here is the trailer:

May 20, 2012 / deorr

Blade Runner sequel in the works…

I don’t know whether to be excited about this or terrified that it’s going to be a travesty. (Think Jar Jar Binks.) The return of Ridley Scott to direct and the possible return of Hampton Francher to write make the film sound promising. But the quote in Rolling Stone that Blade Runner and Aliens take place “in the same universe” is nauseating, and that strange noise you hear may be the sound of Philip K. Dick rolling in his grave.

WP: New Blade Runner film will be a sequel.

May 17, 2012 / Genetically Modified Storytelling

What book should we read next?

May 17, 2012 / Genetically Modified Storytelling

Paracelsus: Alchemist, Doctor, Anti-Victor

The other night, we discussed Paracelsus and his cohort of alchemists/pre-Enlightenment quasi-doctors. Turning to Wikipedia, I learn that not only did Paracelsus experiment on animals and plants, in addition to nuggets of precious metals, but he was also a celebrated precursor to the Enlightenment physicians who moved medical science away from humoralism (body as balance of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) and toward modern anatomy and germ theory (body as an inside in balance with a potentially harmful outside).

In this turn toward empiricism (and, even more generally, skepticism, criticism, abstraction—all opposed to acceptance of tradition, reliance of authority [Galen, Aristotle, Hippocrates]), Paracelsus is similar to Victor-after-Paracelsus. Both are Germanophone doctors; both are skeptical of the past; both seek to upend anatomical science in the name of an unknown they have yet to encounter.

And yet another major Paracelsian theme, that of the pharmakon (cure-that-is-also-poison), reveals a serious divergence from V. Frankenstein’s monomaniacal, “practical-results-at-all-cost” mindset. Paracelsus:

Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist. (All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.)

This is perhaps a central theme of Shelley’s masterwork, in my reading of it: Victor was not wrong to embrace empiricism, science, curiosity, and a quest to plumb the Abyss. Science can be a cure. But Victor overdid it. He should have consulted someone before making new life; he should have nurtured the life he made; he should have done anything except work obsessively, as if possessed, to create new life, and then abandon it immediately after its birth. He went from 100 to 0, and he probably could have avoided much bloodshed had he hovered somewhere in between.

Abstracting out: Is technoscience a cure for natural illness, or a new manmade source of illness (and potential cure for same)?

Paracelsus, made of metal!

Philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler also explores the general problem of the pharmakon in technoscience, relating the poisoned-cure all the way back to the fire of the gods, stolen by Prometheus—whom Shelley invokes in her title. Here is Kunstkabinett‘s excellent summary of Stiegler’s discussion of the pharmakon, my emphasis:

One of the most difficult concepts found in the writing of Bernard Stiegler is encased in the Greek word Pharmakon; translated literally as the illness and the cure… Stiegler, in his investigation of the origin of mankind—in terms of the moment when we became tool-using animals—allegorizes this concept by using the Prometheus and Epimetheus myth. Stiegler is trying to make apparent the fact that the moment that our ancestors reached out and used tools “repetitively” we became something else… For Stiegler, this was the moment we became human…

Stiegler engages this concept through the myth, describing how once we were given the fire that belonged to the gods (from Prometheus) we recognized our mortality because we knew we were not immortal like the gods whose fire we were using. This interplay between technics and mortality is where we find the idea of the pharmakon. Our humanity is technical, an extension of our physical selves, but it is also organic, in that we must all recognize and face the possibility of our own deaths.

These allowing conditions of humanity complicate our understanding of what it means to be human. One question that I ask specifically is this: If the fundamental moment of becoming human is through repetitive tool use and a recognition of our own mortality, then could it not be possible that other creatures at least have the potential to become human?

I love that the the writer links the stealing of fire/technics to a possibility, one not exhausted by mankind. She asks, can other creatures become human? We can ask, can the creature that Victor creates—already composed of human tissue—ever become truly human? He learns technics (language) naturally, but he learns identity mimetically, by turns trying to connect with and then opposing humans. Is any creature born of technics and not of nature only capable of aping the human, of mocking it?

This question figures directly into discussions of nonhuman intelligences such as AI, cyborgs, aliens. Do we require that these intelligences emerge “naturally” (not under human guidance) in order for them to become our peers? Or can we “uplift” an intelligence to our own level and consider it truly similar to/equal to whatever we mean by the adjective “human?”

Ethics may not require us to answer these questions. Paracelsus’s personal motto was Alterius non sit qui suus esse potest: Let no man belong to another that can belong to himself. If we grant that the creature is covered by the word “man,” this motto pushes Paracelsus even farther from Victor, who claims a sort of copyright over his creature—as well as the ability to destroy him. If the creature can “belong to himself” (what a perfect way to say it), he should not belong to Victor. It doesn’t matter whether he’s “human” in every sense; he is certainly a “man” enough to make his own choices.

I think we must read into Victor’s education a struggle between, on the one hand—

a) pre-Enlightenment thinkers who were not scientifically correct in their methods, but for whom science and practical ends (technics) were subservient to “the human,” an idea that for them was tied up in Christianity or Islam, and even (I would hypothesize) the relatively small size of even the largest human communities before 1800—and—

b) early nineteenth-century thinkers who saw all aspects of life, human and otherwise, as calculable, instrumental-izable, knowable.

Victor represents the triumph of b) over a), at the cost of the traditional moorings (religion, e.g.) that might have curtailed his experiment or pressed him to raise the creature as a son—as Adam. The prescience of Paracelsus points us toward a third option, c), which perhaps Shelley was pining for or even hoping to inspire… Instead of founding your practice exclusively on religion or the quest for knowledge at all costs, can you use the best of tradition and of empirical progress to improve the life of the human?

It’s a Romantic question, Rousseauist and pie-eyed. But it’s also one we, as readers, are led toward asking Victor. Victor ultimately rejects tradition (his bourgeois family) and the weird humanism of Paracelsus and company (who were, after all, piss poor at actually doing technoscience), relying instead on his own will and upon the immutable facts of chemistry and physics. Where this gets him is quite dead. Or at least, that’s one reading…

May 15, 2012 / readingrina

The Uncanny Valley

This video reminds me of the idea of the uncanny valley. Does it give you that deeply unsettling feeling of familiarity and horror?
Rina “uncanny fingertoes” darwinian octopodean