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Science fiction or fact? It’s merely a question of time

Dystopian author Margaret Atwood blurs the lines

Anne Burke 4 February 2018

Hybrid: speculative fiction can defy categorization

In a decade, Atwood’s work has transmuted from fiction to, if not fact, then at least to a viable reality

In a recent interview condicted by Lisa Allardice in the Guardian, Margaret Atwood declared that she is “not a prophet” and that “In science fiction, it’s always about now”. She is, however, also “sorry to have been so right”.

Atwood was speaking particularly in reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted into a high lauded (and widely watched) television series by Hulu. In what Allardice describes as the “Atwellian era”, events in the United States have raised the possibility of a repressive regime with liberties curtailed in a way that would have seemed unthinkable in the Obama presidency. No wonder the white bonnets and red cloaks have become a protest symbol against threatened amendments in US abortion law.

But Atwood’s literary prescience lies frighteningly in the detail as to how science itself would progress. The novel about the incorporation of the relatively recent gene-editing technology CRISPR and related advances into society has already been written. Oryx and Crake, a dystopian tale about genetic engineering, was published in 2003, a decade before the CRISPR revolution. And while (thankfully) ethical use of CRISPR appears to be the focus of some discussion, the appearance of snats (snake/rat hybrids) or rakunks (a cute raccoon/skunk splice) cannot be discounted in a world where commercial forces favour a “create then regulate” approach.

Indeed, the very status of CRISPR-modified products as “genetically modified organisms (GMOs)” is not clear. Traditional GMOs were transgenic in that genes were moved from one species to another to confer (from a human perspective) desirable traits such as herbicide resistance or limited lifespan in insects. CRISPR and related technologies manipulate individual genes in situ to create “new” genes. Sometime this is a good thing. CRISPR allows a possible cure for human diseases caused by single-gene mutations. But what else could be created by this process?

Regulation of changes wrought by CRISPR lie in a definitional miasma. Indeed, in 2016, the scientific journal Nature reported how a CRISPR-modified mushroom was not regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) because USDA did not consider that the fungus met the criteria for GMO modifications, and therefore did not require oversight.

Oryx and Crake is set in a world where an unbridled enthusiasm for genetic manipulation has caused an ecological disaster. The only survivors appear to be Jimmy (otherwise known as Snowman) and a genetically-modified group of humanoids who have been tailored for the new conditions by the eponymous Crake.

Genetic modification of food crops was already on the cards by the time Atwood penned the first of her trilogy about Crakeian-induced catastrophe. Genetically-modified seed, embraced on the North American continent and largely rejected in Europe, was widely covered in the media with lively debate and protests in the late Twentieth century. However, the conceptual difference wrought by CRISPR lies in the exquisite precision of gene-editing with consequent incorporation into the germline. This raises the unpalatable dystopia painted by Atwood to a scary level of validity, particularly because the lack of clarity about regulation. In a decade, Atwood’s work has transmuted from fiction to, if not fact, then at least to a viable reality. How long will it be before a pigoon-like creature escapes from a research facility because committees are still debating about when is a GMO not a GMO?

Atwood is the doyen of dystopia. It is tempting to ponder how her informed and acute intellect would address the issue of artificial intelligence (AI). Speculative warnings of a Terminator-like future where the AI outperform humans abound today as reports of the learning capacity of computers become mainstream. Indeed, none other than Stephen Hawking has warned that humanity has to be prepared for the eventuality that AI will eventually outsmart its creators. It would be interesting to see how Atwood would make use of this to explore the future. So far, she has been terrifyingly on the money.

Other articles by Anne Burke