Just started reading Daniel Suarez’s new near future SF Change Agent. While Singapore, Shanghai and other techno-commercial capitals move forward into the 21st Century shaping the future of technology, capitalism, and the lifestyles of the new Technocracies, America and Silicon Valley along with the populist anti-scientific politics of the U.S.A. with its traditions of anti-intellectualism leave it in debt, decadence, and economic collapse. At the center of this biopunk SF is the use of CRISPR technology and its repercussions on society (here’s a snippet):
Synthetic biology was the transistor of the twenty-first century. Yet political realities in America made it increasingly unfeasible for entrepreneurs there to tinker with the building blocks of life. Every cluster of human cells was viewed as a baby in America. A quarter of the population wasn’t vaccinated. A majority of Americans didn’t believe in evolution. Social-media-powered opinions carried more influence than peer-reviewed scientific research. In this virulently anti-science atmosphere, synbio research was hounded offshore before it had really begun. Activists crowed over their victory.1
One imagines how the progressive Left along with the religious Right will ultimately bring about the collapse of EU and U.S. through protest and civil strife as China, India, and other major countries emerge and integrate these new technologies and the techno-economies arising out of the NBIC revolution. A passing of the economic baton to the East.
Suarez is a formulaic writer, a techy, savvy and brings a fast paced technology driven storyline that skims the surface of characters while keying in on the accelerating effects of the social and political repercussions of these new technologies. Synthetic Biology has been around for a while but what Suarez does best is extrapolate it into a near future scenario that informs while at the same time wrapping the sociology and impact upon our various cultures in a tightly plotted entertainment. At times he seems a little preachy, waylaying Silicon Valley and the California thought-tanks, and the Wall-Street and Washington Consensus blasting the stupidity that brought America down in a debt ridden world of gadgets and mediatainment. While promoting the efficiencies and streamlined economics of Singapore and its automatic society where robotics, AI, and Syn-tech seems to thrive in its authoritarian regime. Some will probably be turned off by the encyclopedic professorial tutorial on the impact of technology on these various peoples lives (more abstractly than concretely) that seems to spew page after page, lacking a character driven plot until further into the story. But that’s the point of a novel of ideas in which the sociology and technology seem to interweave and mesh in this type of novel. Yet, one would like to be shown through dramatic action and sequences rather than be told in some dry thesis based format that sounds more like one of his TED lectures. That would be my only criticism so far…
Synthetic biology has been around for a while, enabling manufacturers to produce synthetic plastics, carpet fibers, and a many other bio-degradable commodities in much the same process as we make beer. As the authors of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves tell us,
Just as computers were universal machines in the sense that given the appropriate programming they could simulate the activities of any other machine, so biological organisms approached the condition of being universal constructors in the sense that with appropriate changes to their genetic programming, they could be made to produce practically any imaginable artifact. A living organism, after all, was a ready-made, prefabricated production system that, like a computer, was governed by a program, its genome. Synthetic biology and synthetic genomics, the large-scale remaking of a genome, were attempts to capitalize on the facts that biological organisms are programmable manufacturing systems, and that by making small changes in their genetic software a bioengineer can effect big changes in their output. Of course, organisms cannot manufacture just anything, for like all material objects and processes they are limited and circumscribed by the laws of nature. Microbes cannot convert lead into gold, for example. But they can convert sewage into electricity.2
In Suarez’s novel on the other hand there is a combination of both the use of syn-tech technology with the notion of gene editing. The idea of programming life, of altering our DNA, of changing the very fabric of the human genome to produce a new commodity (i.e., humans as products, etc.) is at the core of this story.
Early on we’re introduced to a young couple who have decided to go underground, use the black market company of Trefoil to edit their child’s embryo to give it an edge in the competitive world of the future. They listen to a holofeed that explains the process to them:
“Initially developed in 2012, CRISPR technology is a search-and-replace tool for modifying DNA—the blueprint of all living things.”
The word “CRISPR” appeared with the letters expanding into full words in turn.
“Shorthand for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,’ CRISPR derives from a naturally occurring process in bacterial immune systems—and it has been adapted by modern science to permit targeted genetic edits of plant, animal, and human embryos.”
The couple is interrupted by a loud bang and noises coming from the hall, the salesman tells them to follow him and not to worry. Reaching the hall a door is blow open at the far end and police begin shooting. The young wife is killed.
At that point we’re introduced to one of the main characters in the novel, Durand, an expert analyst and developer for an international police agency that tracks down illegal CRISPR labs owned and operated in a world wide black market for embryonic editing speaks to his daughter who has herself been edited for a genetic disorder explaining his involvement:
“Some people want to edit embryos even when they’re not sick.”
“Because they want to make their kids taller or stronger or smarter than other kids.”
“But some kids are stronger and taller and smarter.”
“Yes, but Nature does that.”
“But Nature also makes kids sick—like I was.” Durand paused. “That’s true.” He laughed and thought harder. “But we don’t fully understand how all our genes work together. They took millions of years to evolve, and any changes we make are passed down to all future generations. So the results could change our whole species in ways we didn’t intend . . .”
This notion of intervention, artificial selection, of editing genes to produce more intelligent, more athletic, superior children for a more competitive edge in the speeded up pace of techno-commercial culture, economics, and capitalism seems to underlie the novels premise. Early on a UN agreement that outlaws certain gene edits is enforced by an International Tribunal, etc. It’s this storyline of those who are willing to pay high sums for such interventions to give their children an edge in a world of depleting resources, growing competition, and disruptions with AI, robotics, and other technologies that are forcing humans to keep pace or die out that underscores Suarez’s novel and the ethical dimensions his character will face as violence becomes invasive and all pervasive in enforcing the UN’s decree. Like many technologies the black market will always be fare game for the misuse and abuse of such systems for a price, and in an advanced capitalist market where humans are being excluded, expulsed, and obsolesced due to automation such practices as gene editing will become more and more a necessary commodity in a world where human life is becoming less and less of value. People of wealth will go to extraordinary lengths to give their own children every advantage, even to the point of a new for of eugenics that such a genetic manipulation entails.
Looks to be a good read… enjoying it.
- Daniel Suarez. Change Agent (Kindle Locations 244-248). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Regis, Ed; Church, George M.. Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (p. 4). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.