Ever since we discovered the tiny strands of code that program our bodies, we’ve been asking ourselves, “What if we changed that?” For better or worse, human beings have a history of harnessing powers beyond their control. In the 20th century, we narrowly avoided blowing ourselves to pieces with our discovery of splitting the atom. In the later 21st century, a new threat captures us: The power of the human genome.
It’s already happening. CRISPR gene editing allows us to make changes in our DNA, which could soon cure disease and even help us make “designer babies.” If you think that’s far-fetched, imagine if a foreign government starts doing it. Do you think we would allow them to create a super-race without us?
When our imagination creates monsters out of the unknown--that’s where storytellers show up. Science fiction writers take all the possibilities of the future and collapse them down to a single one. While it is often profoundly dystopian, that’s still better than endless, terrifying possibilities. Writers do the vital job of cutting the monster we don’t know down into the beast we know. It’s an essential job. Some writers have done better at this than others. While it is somewhat subjective--there is no doubt that Orwell was a better writer than my ten-year-old nephew.
In this article, I’m going to list the top 5 stories about genetic engineering. These are the ones that have most captured my imagination and transformed my fear. The writers in these stories took the basic concepts of genetic engineering and spun them into mind-bending stories about our future. For kids growing up with this on their horizon, these books are more important than ever.
The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
A genetically enhanced race of human beings has created the best players of games. The best of all the players goes to a strange land to play a game so complex and similar to life that the winner becomes the ruler of the world.
I have to say; this seemed like a strange and funny premise to me at first. Games? But then I realized how profound this idea is--and how useful it is for us to understand--especially as we embark into the wild world of CRISPR gene editing. What is it about human beings that we love games so much? What do they signify to us?
Life is a game. But it’s not just the game that you win in each possible moment--it’s the “meta-game.” For example, you could win an interaction with someone by punching them in the face--but you would lose the larger game. That person would no longer want a relationship with you. Or, take a children’s soccer game: The team could win the current game if they just kept passing to their star player--BUT the other kids would not get any experience, and the team would lose more games in the future. So, to win the meta-game, the star player should pass the ball. That makes the kid more likely to keep playing in the future and have more success over her life. No one wants to play with a ball hog.
What does this have to do with genetic engineering? Well, when a human is a winner of the “meta-game” over their lifetime, they are more likely to have wealth and the chance to reproduce. Hence, we have already been “genetically engineering” for game-winners since before recorded history. That makes this story take on a whole new level of relevance and meaning. How cool!
Taking it a step farther--what does it mean to be the best at the set of all possible games? That’s the central question to human beings, believe it or not. It’s the purpose of all storytelling. What makes a true hero? We’ve got a million and one stories exploring the answers. What if you averaged each of those heroes into their common elements? Then you get an archetype; A savior. That’s the “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes about.
What stories are archetypal hero stories? The ones where the hero can’t get any nobler. The best player of the best game across all possible games. Buddha and Jesus are time-tested examples. Harry Potter and Aang are newer incarnations.
That’s why this book is so thrilling. It is the future of archetypes given genetic engineering. It is a stab at creating a “super-savior.”
Pick up the book for yourself to see if it accomplishes that.
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
You all know this story. It changed the culture. Stories that have a significant impact--flawed or not--are important. Jurassic Park is more remembered as a movie than a book, but I will be referencing both or either.
Like all stories, it’s as old as time. It still might be a surprise to you, given that it has a futuristic premise. The premise is new; the underlying idea is not. Human beings open a pandora’s box of chaos that they don’t understand. Hubris causes a precipitous downfall. It’s a more modern Frankenstein.
The elements of genetic engineering make for exciting bits of a story about man vs. nature. As Jeff Goldblum delivers, “Life, uh… finds a way.” Those elements make it feel pressing and relevant in the world of technology growing on an exponential curve. We all have a collective sense that something’s gotta give. Nature is going to re-emerge with a vengeance any moment now.
Jurassic Park captures us because it blends perfect mythological storytelling with a good understanding of our modern fears. The result is an excellent story about genetically engineered dinosaurs gone wild. You don’t have to dig very deep to have fun with that story (but you can if you want to).
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
What if death was nothing more than… altering carbon. If your body or “sleeve” perishes, you simply upload your consciousness to a new body. Everything is for sale, even existence itself. That may seem like a blessing, but what if some things shouldn’t be bought and sold?
It’s an existential take on the question of altering human beings. The title “altered carbon” evokes a dehumanizing sense of our bodies being just a sack of elements--mostly carbon--which you can alter at will. What is the value of life without the looming presence of death?
The book explores those questions and more. We may be waiting eagerly for the change to “upload” ourselves and become immortal--but there is a real price. It's as important as ever to read. We need to realize that there is a cost to everything. Death won’t be beaten so easily.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Among the books on this list, this is the most mind-bending, misunderstood, and strange. I think that’s why it’s so important. Long before we can understand things verbally, we understand them through story and action. That’s what makes stories so important. They are the exploratory probe into the unknown. The more deeply they dive, the stranger they seem to us here on the surface.
This story is about an object that comes to Earth, which somehow changes any genetic code near it. The bubble around the object is called the “shimmer.” Our hero must venture into the shimmer--only to discover betrayal, horror, and ultimately, herself. It is difficult to understand what happens to her.
The book is good, and the movie is stunning. You will leave awestruck. Just don’t expect to understand what you saw fully.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
What makes for a great story? It can’t be preachy. It has to look at the horror of the future with a sober eye. In Huxley, part of the horror is the contentment of the characters. They seem to be OK with the world. Only the reader seems to know that something is terribly wrong. That’s genius. In the story, genetically engineered people happily take their place in a “dystopian” society.
Brave New World stands on its own in this regard. There is no clear baddy, and there is no clear hero. And it screams of accuracy that you almost can’t believe it was written in 1931. Like the blobs of people in Wall-E human beings aren’t fighting the machines, man. They love their masters. They are content. It sends a shiver down my spine.
How can you fight something that makes you feel fat and happy? It’s not clear what the answer is, and Huxley seems not to be sure either. That’s another part of the genius. A great writer doesn’t start a story trying to convince you of something he knows. He asks a question and explores the world along with the reader.
You can feel it in Brave New World. Huxley seems just as horrified by his creation as you. He grabs you by the hand and leads you forth. By the end, you have more questions.
Brave New World is one of the most fantastic books, period. If you want to read about genetic engineering, start here.
I am a writer, photographer and programmer based out of Chicago, IL USA. I enjoy finding creative ways to combine my studio still life photographs with fictional stories. I am always on the lookout for interesting stories and writing, which I love to really dissect and figure out how it works, and to share what I have found.