ASU scholars use science fiction to explore the future of biotechnology

Rosalyn Berne
Author Rosalyn Berne

Original science fiction stories from two Arizona State University scholars are being featured in To Recreate Life from Life: Biotechnology and Science Fiction (2014, Pan Stanford Press), a forthcoming book by Rosalyn Berne, professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia. Berne’s book opens up ethical and cultural dialogues about the promises and perils of biotechnology by pairing each nonfiction chapter with a science fiction story that delves deeper into the human implications of scientific and technological change.

In the introduction to To Recreate Life from Life, Berne characterizes biotechnology as a complex cultural and social process, rather than a matter of unfettered and decontextualized scientific innovation:

The biotechnology “revolution” was launched on a global scale many decades ago, and through the manipulation and control of biological processes, has taken a direct course towards re-creating life. Yet there are still many choices to be made in shaping the futures that may be made possible through biotechnology. Where this research is leading, and what this revolution will mean to human society, to the Earth’s ecosystems, and to other living species has not yet been determined. Market demands, regulatory processes, ethical queries, narratives and storytelling will all play a role in how we construe what it means to be autonomous agents in interaction with one another, as biotechnology makes its way deep into the fabric of our lives.

The story “Madness Enough to Break the World,” by Sean Hays, a former post-doctoral fellow at ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, accompanies an essay by biologist Reginald Garrett that ends with the unsettling question:

Now that information can be readily encoded within DNA, spy stories about purloined state secrets encoded on microfilm or in microchips seem old-fashioned and trite.  How will governments and industries ever discover a stolen secret encoded as DNA?”

“Madness Enough to Break the World” imagines a macabre future of international espionage and information warfare when human bodies, rather than bytes and flash drives, are the containers for highly classified information.

Also featured in To Recreate Life from Life is “Ronin,” a story by Lena Nguyen, a senior in ASU’s Barrett, the Honors College majoring in Creative Writing and Political Science and a student researcher at the Center for Science and the Imagination. “Ronin” explores a future in which androids work and live alongside humans, and considers the ethics of laws that restrict their full participation in society. If androids are sentient and exhibit high levels of intelligence, should they be restricted to unskilled jobs in the service sector and manual labor, and excluded from important political and juridical decisions? Or should be they be granted all of the rights and privileges that accrue to citizens in our society?

“Ronin” will be paired with an essay by Catherine Rhodes, an expert in the global politics of biotechnology, about the potential social, economic and ethical consequences of the biotechnology revolution.

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