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Monster Myths

The text of an address given at the Wellcome Institute's symposium on the topic, Do Artists Demonise the New Genetics? March 23rd 1995

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My favourite critical quote on the TV version of CHIMERA came from New Scientist magazine. I got this second-hand but it was something like, Well, as science fiction it's hardly 'Brian Heinlein'. I have to say that my hat goes off to the reviewer for this unnatural mating of Brian Aldiss and Robert Heinlein. Two literary species so disparate that you wouldn't have to keep their offspring in a cage, you'd have to keep it in a deep pit under permanent sedation.

After that clip I'm the last person to stand up and say, no, of course writers never demonise science. What I will say is that I did approach this entire event with trepidation. The Wellcome Centre. Science Week. Let's face it, the image of Daniel walking into the lion's den can't be far from one's mind. So, what should I do? Backtrack? Be an apologist? Stand up before you and promise I'll never do it again, and then somehow hope to get out of this place alive? Because Daniel walks into the den here with only the most basic of armour. I'm a layman. At least Michael Crichton has a medical degree. He's qualified to talk bollocks about science.

But that's the ground that the debate so often occupies. These writers, they come in, they know bugger-all, you offer them the hand of friendship and show them round the labs and before you know it, damn it, you've been demonised. They're ignorant about the true practice of science. Technically they're inaccurate, they exploit the serious work of others for sensational effect. Biggest crime of all; they get the science wrong.

I'm going to talk more about that in a moment. But first let me say this. If I do one thing here tonight, let it be that I make you aware that there is another point of view. If you're a scientist, a geneticist in particular, and you feel aggrieved at the myths that people like me project onto your field, could you consider this thought. Which is… that as much as I am venturing into your territory, you are venturing into mine.

Let me define what my territory is. I am a writer of popular fiction, a sensationalist, a painter of bright colours with a big brush. I work in the mass media for a mass audience, and I'm proud to do so. It's not a low form. All writers of popular fiction succeed or fail by one simple principle. That is, the accuracy with which they are able to target and tap into the human unconscious. Not, cynically, to know what the people want. But as Chesterton once said of Dickens, to want what the people want.

Success, when we have success, depends entirely our being able to access the mass unconscious - that dark basement where the myths live. When I talk about myth, I don't mean in the sense of things that are patently untrue. That's a corruption of the term. I'm talking about those patterns of human events tied to no particular time and place that can, again and again, be tied to any time and place. Those basic forms and tales that we will always recognise because, as a species, we've lived them so often that we can have no doubt of their truth.

There's a way I can illustrate this. There was a point at which I'd thought of starting by showing you clips from two science fiction films of the 1950s. The first was going to be DESTINATION MOON, which was sold to the public on its scientific accuracy. It was top-heavy with advisors and a demon on detail. It has one big drawback today. It's too dull to sit through. I'd say it now has a potential audience of one, and that's the guy who once sat behind me in a screening of 2001 and, for the benefit of his companions, loudly identified every single hand-prop adapted from an engineering tool that he could recognise. And there were a lot of those.

By contrast. FORBIDDEN PLANET made no pretence to accuracy at all. I mean, to begin with, they had Leslie Nielsen giving the orders. The spacecraft is a silver flying saucer with what we know to be the most energy-efficient kind of propulsion system, a big pulsing light that goes woo-woo. There's a robot that almost blows up when there's a conflict in its programming. This is a future where no-one ever thought of the error message. The monster was created by one of the Disney animators whose last job was on PINOCCHIO. The result was glorious, and plays as well today as it ever did. They're talking about remaking it, and they're wasting their time.

Here's my point. One sang, the other didn't. They were both driven by a certain fascination with science, but one was accurate to its time and that does nothing to help its case now, while the other wasn't and that's done nothing to harm its case, ever. Because when you're writing fiction that happens to be about science, the science itself is hardly ever the issue. I'll go further. Making science the issue is the one sure way to kill your work stone dead. And if you ask me what responsibility a writer has to present science accurately, I'll say, None.

Why? Well, for a start, nothing dates faster than the eternal truths of science. Those eternal truths are actually a snapshot based on our best experts' best understanding at this moment. Ten years ago, that understanding was quite different. Ten years hence, it'll be different again. I wrote this story back in 1979, and here's a quote from a letter by a geneticist who was helping me out at the time; he said, 'just identifying and locating (individual) genes will take, at present rates, about a hundred and fifty years… by that time, genetic surgery should be advanced enough to complete the job in, say, five years.' How long did that actually take? You tell me. And this guy was no idiot. But it's a comment he made later in the same letter that I valued most; he said, 'It sounds like a great story. Write it and say balls!'

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Let me talk about CHIMERA just a little bit. It's an early book and it's not my best one, but it's the reason why I'm here. Because if there's demonising going on, here's the devil in action. The book, when it came out, was what we'll politely call a modest success. But the TV adaptation was a big ratings hit, and I can't tell you why. It cleared the news off the front page on some of the tabloids, it sparked centre spreads in most of the others. Even the Daily Telegraph had to be in on the act. They phoned a bunch of delegates at some conference in Rio for comment, which I'm sure must have puzzled them no end out there in the sunshine. I debated the case with Bob Williamson on ITN's lunchtime news, where I said much the same thing as I'm saying now; this is not me rousing the rabble, this is not hype, this is not a bought controversy. This is that rare event, you can hope for it but you can't rig it… a direct connection with the public subconscious. So where, exactly, does that connection lie? Because if we can answer that, we're partway to answering the big one. Which is not whether writers demonise the new genetics, because I'm perfectly prepared to accept that as a given. I'm a scaremonger. That's my job, it's a role in the tribe. I'm happy to take it on. The real question has to be, what is it in the new genetics that so lends itself to demonisation?

I think one of the answers has to be that if you practice this science, you follow a path whose challenges, temptations and dilemmas aren't necessarily new ones. I don't say, 'Don't follow this path.' I think the potential benefits of genetic science are, quite literally, incalculable. But by that same rule, there is going to be a downside that equally can't be quantified, and certainly can't be dismissed.

I started to get a feel of this way back when I began to research the story. I was in the chimpanzee house at Chester Zoo talking to the curator of mammals. Nick Ellerton. I told him about the story I had in mind and he said, 'Oh, yeah. We get requests'. I said 'what kind?' And he told me about a woman who'd called them and asked if she could get hold of a sample of gorilla semen for what she described as a 'private experiment'. I said, 'what did you do?' And he said 'Well, we told her she could have as much as she wanted, but she had to come and collect it for herself'. End of enquiry. And meanwhile the poor gorilla was getting all excited over nothing.

And it went on. The RSPCA gave me a reference to a Japanese actress who volunteered herself for artificial insemination with primate sperm. I heard of a doctor in Shenyang, North-East China, who claimed to have achieved success with the same procedure, human sperm to female chimpanzee, only to have the three-month foetus destroyed by Red Guards who came in and smashed up the laboratory. Professor Brunetto Chiarelli of the University of Florence, telling a variant on the same story; I did it, no evidence, sorry, it got destroyed. And there were more. Don't for one minute imagine that I believed any of this. What I did sense was something of great and unusual significance. Here we had something with all the qualities of one of those urban myths. The only difference between these stories and an urban myth was that these stories had names, they had dates, they named witnesses, they were supposed to have happened in real places. It wasn't always a friend of a friend; quite often it was me, me, me. All that any of them lacked was a scintilla of proof.

And it was clear to me that there was something at work here. I mean, dismiss the claims themselves for a moment, as I'm sure we have to. But what a way for qualified professionals to seek attention. It suddenly dawned on me that in science, just like in every other field of human endeavour, there are front-rank players, and there are knock-offs. By knock-offs I mean second-rate professionals who look at the published work of first-rate professionals and think, now what can I do with this? And what's more important, what can this do for me?

When Steptoe and Edwards perfected the procedures that aided the conception of Louise Brown, were they looking ahead to the situation we now have in Italy, where only last week the Speaker of the Italian parliament referred to her country as 'the Wild West of infertility treatment?' Of course not. It doesn't work that way. You can't blame those who open a door for whatever may happen beyond it. That would be like blaming the Wright brothers for Lockerbie.

The door is open, and the territory beyond it is unknown. Fortunately, as we move forward into it, we're not entirely without maps. That's what our myths are for. Not to stop progress, but to keep us aware of the enormous potential for things to go wrong. Can I finish by saying this. Don't mistake the apparent message for the real message. Who really thinks that Jurassic Park is an anti-science movie? It's the most pro-science movie I've ever seen. It has a few anti-science speeches in it, and who on earth listens to them? What it has is some fabulous dinosaurs that are probably going to pull your next generation of geneticists into the field. Who could see it, and not want to make those creatures? Tyrannosaurus first. We'll all be down there in the first set of jeeps to go through and we'll probably run the movie beforehand to add spice to the experience. The subtext of Jurassic Park is not, Don't ever do this. The true message is, Do a more thoughtful job than this shower, who thought they'd got it cracked and that nothing could possibly go wrong. You've never got it cracked. There's always going to be something. Ten thousand years of repeating our mistakes reveals a pattern that tells us so.

And if I can dare to suggest it, there's a message underneath my own little fiction as well. It's not that we'll be murdered in our beds by monkey-men. I mean, some of us will, but that'll be statistically insignificant. The message is that in genetics, your material has a point of view. Up to a certain point, it's possible to ignore it.

Beyond that point, you ignore it at your peril.