Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book 36: A Calculated Life


"And, rejoining the mid-afternoon crowds ambling in the hot spring breeze, she thought about her work colleagues who went back to their own kitchens in their own homes at the end of each day. She wondered if they, too, gave names to all of their meals."

Dates read: March 27-28, 2016

Rating: 4/10

I get really annoyed by people who smugly insist that they don't eat GMOs. Literally every food available at the store has been genetically modified. The corn we buy at the supermarket bears precious little resemblance to the corn that European settlers would have seen when they came to the United States for the first time. It's bigger, sweeter, more robust. How did it get that way? Cross-breeding! Like everything else out there! Which is just a crude form of...wait for it...genetic modification. If no one objects to cross-breeding, which is necessarily a much more blunt form of genetic modification, why object to much more precise changes in the genome? What if we could make tomatoes bigger and more resistant to disease without losing flavor? Who loses?

Where I think the argument gets interesting is when you start to follow the slippery slope down. We've already made significant genetic modifications (again, through cross-breeding) to our domestic animals. What if we decided to start tinkering with people? It might start out with someone totally benign, like neutralizing the BRCA genes and sparing thousands of women the agonizing choice between their reproductive organs and almost certain cancer. Eradicating Tay-Sachs, Parkinson's. But what about other genetically-related syndromes? What about dwarfism? Down Syndrome? Some forms of deafness that are genetically linked? We start staring down an uncomfortably eugenicist barrel.

A future like this is where we find ourselves in Anne Charnock's A Calculated Life. It's the future and there are three kinds of people: organics (totally normal people except with genetic altering to prevent most diseases and addictions), bionics (given an implant that dramatically increases mental performance), and simulants (humans "born" as adults with incredibly powerful cognitive capacity, basically robots in human bodies). Simulants, like our main character Jayna, live in communal compounds and are leased to their employers for large sums of money, collecting only a small allowance of their own. Jayna and her friends are a second generation of simulant designed to be more "lifelike" than the first, who had no real personalities. Amid worrying reports that the simulants are starting to act, well, more like people, Jayna finds herself convinced that learning more about non-simulants in their natural environment will help her be better at her job (predictive trend analysis) and starts to reach out beyond the borders of the world she's always known.

It's pretty easy to see where the story is going when it starts to go out of its way to bring up Jayna's interesting, good-hearted organic coworker Dave. Obviously, they're going to fall for each other and Consequences Will Ensue. I think I've mentioned before that I'm not at all put off by spoilers, because I feel like they shed light on lazy writing (if all your story has is the twist, it doesn't have anything), so having a good idea of how the plot would turn out wasn't the problem. The problem is that it didn't get there in any sort of interesting or exciting way. Jayna and Dave are never more than thin sketches of characters and their world doesn't have much richness or detail. It feels like a mishmash of 1984 and Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? except without the incisive social insight of either. It's not egregiously bad, just aggressively mediocre.

Tell me, blog you care about GMOs?

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