Monday, March 29, 2010

Genetics, Steampunk, and Fantasy

Donna Hole on Friday brought up a good point in the comments (I'll restate here so you don't have to click through):
"While reading this, I was wondering if you couldn't equate Sauron with a mad scientist with all the gene splicing to create his orks and Brukhi (I know, I spelled it wrong, but I didn't want to get up to get the book). There have been other fantasy novels also that the evil wizard practiced a form of organic or genetic fusing to create the creatures that did their nefarious bidding. Cave weights, Kabold, Dark Elves, gnomes."
Genetics, if anyone remembers science class, was first codified by the monk Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th Century while experimenting on inherited traits in pea plants. However, people have been cross-breeding plants and pets (dog breeds are an example) since ancient times. Classical Sparta practiced selective breeding in its citizens -- look at the movie 300 for an object example. In the opening scenes, we see an elder of Sparta investigating a baby to see if he passes muster for inclusion into Spartan society. If he did not, then the child could've expected instant death.

Simple genetics thus deals with traits inherited from two "parents," whether human, animal, or plant. In this manner, wizards like Sauron and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy can be considered mad scientists because they blend Orcs and Goblins into the new Uruk-hai, a race of creatures that can move in the sun like Orcs but have the strength of Goblins. This simple usage of inherited traits falls under the general umbrella of genetics.

With steampunk, genetic manipulation takes on a more contemporary feel. In Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, for example, we see the British Army using fabricated animals crafted after Charles Darwin's discovery of DNA and genetics. Truth be told this is actually an expansion on what we know about DNA manipulation -- modern science only allows for very simple organisms to be built, not anywhere near on the scale of the whale airships in that novel.

A simple search of "genetics in fiction" brings up a list of books both at Barnes&Noble and Amazon, but much more in the future/near-future science fiction realm than in steampunk or in standard fantasy. Of course, this could also be tied to people not always considering certain things as genetic science rather than "magic" as in fantasy.

Genetics offers such opportunity for authorial hand-waving or even honest-to-goodness fictional science, that I'm slightly surprised it hasn't quite been done to death in modern fiction. Then again, it might have been without me noticing (which is entirely possible).

But I'm curious: what other novels, films, or video games can you think of that deal in genetics as a plot point? And do you think genetic manipulation and its consequences has been overdone in storytelling?


Adam Heine said...

A lot of sci-fi, like you said. The Hunger Games comes to mind. And Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun had a lot of genetics going on behind the scenes.

Oo! And X-Men. Can't believe I almost forgot that.

L. T. Host said...

There's a Michael Crichton novel about genetics, and the right to the genes we have in our bodies. Really riveting and actually quite frightening read. I think it's NEXT but I'm not sure-- I get a lot of his books mixed up.

I don't think it's been overdone. Like any kind of story, though, I think there's always a new way to tell it if you are the one to see it.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Matt! This is really interesting stuff. I don't think it's overdone at all, yet. As far as examples, X-Men was the first to come to mind. Did Hunger Games have some genetic manipulation, because I keep thinking of that one, too? :-)

Davin Malasarn said...

Cool post. Did you know I'm a geneticist?

The movies that come to mind are The Island of Dr. Moreau, GATTACA, and Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park was interesting scientifically for me. The others were still fun to watch.

Matthew Delman said...

Adam --

I'll have to check out Book of the New Sun. And read Hunger Games/Catching Fire of course.

L.T. --

NEXT did pop up in my list, but Crichton seemed to write a lot of fiction dealing with genetics or biological disasters, so I could pretty much probably choose anything from him.

Shannon (and Adam too) --

I did kind of forget about X-Men. Genetics plays such an integral part in that world that I can't believe I didn't remember it.

Davin --

You are? Cool! I think mechanical engineering and genetics are my two favorite branches of tech/science respectively.

Have you read "Mapping Human History" by Steve Olson? I thought it was a fascinating (and accessible) introduction to human genetic history, but I'm reading it from a layman's perspective.

I should've mentioned Dr. Moreau as a prototype for this story, seeing as it was H.G. Wells who wrote the original story.

Joshua McCune said...

Genetic engineering is too frequently demonized by the sci-fi crown, IMO, but it is a fun topic.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I picked up Leviathan last week- it's toward the top of my TBR pile. I'll let you know what I think!

And my daughter did some genetic engineering of her own in my post today. Sort of. :)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

Mendel crossed plants with pets??

Did you see Avatar? The Avatars were a genetic mix of Human and Navi.

dolorah said...

Way cool; I inspired a post. Thanks Matt.

Anne McCaffry delves a bit into gene manipulation with her Dragon series - though you'd have to read Dragon's Dawn to really get that - and also in The Ship who sang. In fact, most of her sci-fi's use genetics to produce only the smartest, strongest, most perfect people; down to the sex of the child the parents prefer.

Jack Chalker has several series' that use gene splicing: The Rings of The Masters; Well of Souls; and the one with the four different worlds - hmm, can't remember the name of a single one. And don't forget James Patterson and his Max Ride series.

Do I think the concept overdone? Nah; I really enjoy it.

Davin that's so cool you're a geneticist.