Literary fiction has long tinkered with science for its themes, but in biotechnology the novelistic imagination has found its ideal technical partnerby Julia Lovell / November 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Book: Wake up Author: Tim Pears, (Bloomsbury, £16.99) Book: Middlesex Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
In Douglas Adams’s 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, as Zaphod Beeblebrox and friends take their seats at the restaurant of the same name, they are greeted by an ingeniously engineered bovine waiter: “Good evening. I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?” It had been decided, the cow explains to its would-be consumers, to “breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.” Twenty years on, the possibilities of genetic engineering-clones, Frankenfood, animal-human organ transplants-continue to generate a stream of fictional meditations on the implications of a post-evolutionary future, though few have been as entertainingly succinct as Adams’s walking, talking steak machine.
The 1980s and 1990s saw an upsurge in the number of novelists and playwrights venturing across the Two Cultures border. They returned from the science side bearing metaphors, plotlines, ideas and analogies. Neutrinos, superstrings and wave-particle dualities started cropping up in the works of Tom Stoppard (Hapgood), Martin Amis (Night Train), Ian McEwan (The Child in Time), Michael Frayn (Copenhagen). The mind-expanding sublimity of particle physics and mathematics-what Amis called the “whizz-bang factor”-was seen to bring a reflected glory to the world of literature. The involvement of such serious authors as Amis, Stoppard and McEwan was also seen as proof that fiction about science need not be science fiction. The distinction between the two modes could be made as follows: the primary aim of science fiction is to elaborate and embroider upon the rational premises of science, and ponder possible future implications for humanity. The point of science “in” fiction, however, has been to use the metaphors of science to illuminate human situations and reactions, and to scrutinise how science’s findings might cause us to re-evaluate our selves, and the selves of others.
English male novelists, Lucy Ellmann remarked acidly in the 1990s, had become convinced they shouldn’t write about “life, the world, the Universe, their mothers, or anything else until they’d read a few books on black holes.” But since the late 1990s-in the wake of the human genome project and the GM food scares -biology, and genetics in particular, has been taking over from particle physics as stimuli for literary contemplation of the…