Children of the Slime on Darwin’s Radio

“[W]e may simply be spaceships for bacteria” –Greg Bear, “A Short Biological Primer”

Greg Bear’s novel Darwin’s Radio (1999) exemplifies the capacity of hard sf to use rigorous gobbledygook to invite speculation Darwin's Radio Covertangential to the main narrative arc. In the fine tradition of Jules Verne’s Professor Pierre Aronnax, Bear’s pedestrian genius geneticist Kaye Lang, rogue archeologist Mitch Rafelson, and the proliferating, conference attending multitude of corporate and government scientists seem to locate us in the heart of current research. There is even a short biological primer and glossary at the end with terms like Lysogenic phage, HERV or human endogenous retrovirus, and Trisomy. As a reader, I pick and choose from this cornucopia of jargon, filtering out the heavier, headache-inducing stuff: “less than 80,000 nucleotides of single-stranded RNA…associated with an unidentified 12,000+ kilodalton protein complex Retrovirus imagein the host cell nucleus” (119). On the other hand, I can’t get enough of Lang’s work on phages, viruses that use bacteria as hosts, and horizontal gene transfer. For several decades, these ideas have disturbed the view of the world I inherited as a child, suggesting that fantastic range of ancient and invisible forces we sometimes associate with the supernatural—events and powers such as the plague of Justinian in the sixth century CE, which killed something like one in every four people, or mutualism, the reciprocal adaptation of species.

Not surprisingly, Bear deploys bacteria metaphorically to figure the novel’s central message of biological purposiveness. If Lang’s initial visit to the Republic of Georgia invokes current fears about superbugs and the failure of human science to constrain bacterial disease, the real problem in Georgia is a social response to the unknown, massacres betrayed by the discovery of mass graves. The real problem in the Unites States is a government predicated by reaction and a bureaucracy of dogmatic scientists who put profit and fear before truth.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story is the descent of the Unites States into pseudo-fascism driven by the complicit interests of biotech companies and  institutions of government security, especially the Centre for Disease Control.  Bear is fascinated by the positive roles played by bacteria: “Bacteria are extremely important and though some cause disease, many others are necessary to our existence. Some biologists believe that bacteria lie at the root of all life-forms, and that eukaryotic cells—our own cells, for example—derive from ancient colonies of bacteria” (528). I like this. It pushes the Darwinian insistence on origins into the biofilm cities we associate with rot and decay. It pushes the envelope of humility to say that we are children of the slime.

And yet, this emphasis on the sociality of bacteria and our mutual dependence is belied by the main narrative arc which ends up imagining an idealized post-human. This homo sapiens novum is familiar to the fantasies of baby Einstein popular in child rearing. (Albeit some of the “getting there,” such as the horrifyingly malformed miscarried fetuses and the Lone-Ranger facial masks, isn’t as familiar.) If only our child could be the beautiful post-human genius that heralds the new age. In the face of the world’s crises, its information density and multiple stressors, is it time for homo sapiens sapiens to “evolve”? To take that next step and become, well…better?  As you can tell, I find this fundamentally distasteful. As much as I appreciate little Stella whistling dual variations of a Mozart piano trio, I can’t help but think that Bear has missed something about reciprocal adaptation. Lang’s metaphor—Darwin’s radio—reverts to a centralized and hierarchical model of organization that forgets the lessons of mutualism and horizontal gene transfer. The gradual working out and randomness that allows reciprocal adaptation can’t be reconciled with a centralized gene computer or “wizard” (Lang’s word for it) that figures it all out for everyone.

Not to mention that such biological provocation—and this is rendered brilliantly by Bear—subverts itself from the outset.  What sort of “wizard” would produce such radical change that the society of organisms it is reprogramming resorts to massacres and mass abortion? It doesn’t seem like an effective selection strategy. At the very least, if I was the “wizard,” I’d let go a few more of those deadly retroviruses buried in the genome to clear the ground, as it were.

I’m interested in the “romantic” dimension of genre sf, and especially here in hard sf where we might think it wouldn’t be as important. I want to distinguish between two senses of romantic: on the one hand, the humanist, subjective apprehension and imagination of the world; on the other hand, the tendency to romanticize in the sense of idealizing or participating in dissociative fantasies that obscure material practices. The first type resists cynicism and abstraction–especially the propensity of abstraction to rationalize the status quo or injustices. In the late eighteenth century, romantic writers participated in abolition and rejected the economic imperatives of the slave trade. Blake critiqued abstractions when they became substitutions for reality, and one variation of the “fall” in his minor prophecies occurs when the character Urizen thinks that the mind can explain and control the whole body. Kaye Lang, in Darwin’s Radio, has a similar insight when she realizes that the separateness of mind is illusion, that she is her body.

On the one hand, Darwin’s Radio insists on the body as the site of knowledge and practice while moving from paranoia to acceptance. Weena and the Time Traveller (1960)This is one of those rare books in which a birth is the climax. It asserts the central role of women in evolution and knowledge making. And it invites genuine reflection and speculation about both our bodies and society. It is also a heavy romance, reminding us yet again of the literal love making that is so important to genre sf. Like the time traveller and Weena in H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel, this romance is central to the plot, and it marks the shift of knowledge from professional to personal.

On the other hand, it also participates in romanticized notions of evolution and perfection. Rather than following the curve of Lang’s insight into the presence and function of retroviruses in the human genome and keeping the children in the slime, as it were, Bear flirts with intelligent design and allows a wizard into the genome.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

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