Register Monday | March 4 | 2024

Through a Novel, Darkly

History, fear and the new biotopians

At the high school that I attended in northern Ontario, dystopian fictions—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984—were cornerstones of the curriculum. Students were taught to gasp at Huxley’s near-mystical ability to predict All That Would Come to Pass; to accept the moral that the Brave New World is a Very Bad Thing because its inhabitants are “no longer human.” I remember, as a sixth grader, watching the cartoon version of Animal Farm, and, afterwards, being told that this strange movie about pigs and a sad old horse had something to do with the Russians. For rural white kids whose families had come to Canada in the twenties and thirties, it was hard to see how farms and guys named Trotsky were a bad thing. The social analysis of non-places is a poor surrogate for a political education; it leaves students with a fine set of principles, but robs them of a set of facts to match. It took a university course in Russian literature to disabuse me of the notion that the Gulag Archipelago was not a picturesque cluster of islands off the coast of Kamchatka, but a reference to (very real) Soviet prison camps in (very cold) Siberia.

I daresay my teachers meant well. Collectively, these books functioned as a kind of liberal humanist inoculation against totalitarianism, and a far more effective one than history class, which, at my school at least, always got bogged down in the mechanics of parliamentary democracy and “ran out of time” before reaching the twentieth century. By the time I graduated high school, Orwell and Huxley were established in my mind as grim prophets of the modern world, and constituted the whole of my adolescent political education.

A recent informal email survey of friends across Canada, the United States and the UK suggests how popular and widespread this pedagogical approach was: all but a handful of them received a year or more of dystopian education. John Wyndham’s post-nuclear chestnut The Chrysalids and William Golding’s aggression fable The Lord of the Flies seem to have been the most frequently taught, with Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale also making an appearance on syllabi. This literature of futurist fear has determined to a large extent our responses to the social use of technology. Try, for example, to find a discussion of cloning that does not eventually cite Huxley, or an article on surveillance technology that avoids use of the word “Orwellian.” Brave New World is a particularly popular touchstone these days because of its “predictions” of biotechnology and genetic manipulation.

The poles of “utopia” (an ideal place) and “dystopia” (its nightmarish opposite) mirror to some degree the age-old split between philosophers and poets—between people who look to the sky for their ideals and people who look down at the earth for answers to the same questions. Political philosophers colonized Utopia before the poets. Plato’s well-ordered state, delineated in The Republic, was dreamt up decades before the poet Theocritus invented the “idyll,” a lyric of pastoral ease, and centuries before the Roman Virgil exoticized this bucolic ideal by transplanting it to the remote and barren Greek region of Arcadia.

The poets and philosophers of today (more often than not, middlebrow novelists and philosophers of science) continue to square off over the nature of progress and regression. Philosophical discussions of utopia tend to dismiss novelists as mere dilettantes and their works as “mere literature.” Russell Jacoby’s 1999 survey of contemporary utopian thought, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, ignores Huxley and makes only passing reference to Orwell. Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis’ The End of Ideology and Utopia? treats dystopian fictions as a curious sideshow.

This tactical dodge—an attempt to exclude hacks and populists from an endless and insoluble debate—is understandable. Dystopian novels are seldom well crafted and rely on dreary exposition to bludgeon their points into place. Few of H. G. Wells’ novels remain readable as works of aesthetic language, or even as well-plotted yarns. The science fiction section in your local bookstore—the default location for both serious speculative writing and dystopian pulp sci-fi—is full of second- and third-rate fictions whose futuristic worlds are as conventional as a fish bowl with two goldfish. In the 1990s, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson (lumped rather unfairly together as cyberpunk authors) enjoyed limited highbrow popularity with their technologically prescient (or, at least, very well-informed) tales of silicon-based dystopias, but they were still too tech-heavy to make much of an impact outside of Wired magazine’s subscriber list. The literature of utopia and dystopia, in fact, is seldom literary: most novels in the genre are too utilitarian, too polemical—even when practiced by literary celebrities.

Furthermore, such novels lack a meaningful audience. Sure, small-scale utopian movements still abound, but the contemporary West acts as if it has realized perfection in the comfortable form of late capitalist liberal democracy. Utopia—as an intellectual ideal—is out of fashion. It’s a sentiment that should give us pause, considering “the end of ideology” was first raised as a concept in the 1950s (as Jacoby points out)—though more recently and famously reprised by Francis Fukuyama in his triumphalist manifesto The End of History and the Last Man. In a capitalist land of milk and honey, no one wants bland narratives about the organization of an ideal commonwealth. Most of us think we’re already living it.

However, biotechnology (and its symbiotic strain of philosophy, bioethics) has given concepts of utopia and dystopia new utility, partly because no one considers biotech to be the musty old-hat utopianism that it is. For one thing, the combined issues at stake are so unstereotypical: food taboos, abortion rights, the ontological status of human tissue, intellectual property law, anti-corporate resistance, free trade, class warfare and gender politics have all been wrenched into question, making the development of a conventional or politically orthodox response to these matters intellectually impossible.

The biotechnology of genetic modification has two oft-misunderstood branches: somatic and germline. Somatic therapy inserts new but non-inheritable genetic code (via injection or a pill) into a living organism. Amish and Mennonite communities have been among the first to volunteer for somatic therapy for certain genetic diseases endemic to their communities. As a cure for a multitude of infirmities, from genetic syndromes to cancer, the potential for somatic therapy is vast and largely uncontroversial. In contrast, germline modification—inheritable changes to an organism’s DNA—is what most of us mean when we think of genetic modification.

Opposition to germline technology comes from every corner: biologists are contemptuous of its potential human applications (largely because the incidence of experimental error is so high); environmentalists are skeptical of its long-term effects on plant and animal biodiversity; many religious thinkers consider it a hubristic tampering with creation; anti-abortion advocates protest experiments involving fetal stem cells; secular humanists (such as Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution) fear potential damage to notions of human nature and human dignity; and nearly everyone, including outspoken supporters of germline technology, worries about the long-term impact.

Almost everyone, however, agrees that germline engineering and cloning will provoke a metaphysical revolution. Manufactured genes and factory-issued children (as in Steven Spielberg’s film AI) would reconfigure family values far more profoundly than gay marriages or postmodern gender theory ever could. And if the particulars of personality can be bought from Pfizer, what happens to humans’ sense of self? What happens to God?

Such questions, as voiced by the anti-biotopians, get a great deal of press, but the fact is, human germline modification may never come to pass. Reliable technology does not exist. In fact, the theory that generated such extravagant talk about human modification—that genes are programmed with single, isolatable characteristics—has recently been proven wrong. The Human Genome Project has revealed that we have approximately one-third the number of genes previously assumed. Some of these have the potential to be simple triggers for genetic diseases, but most have profoundly more complex and interwoven roles. A gene that increases analytical intelligence could, in theory, also reduce the efficacy of the immune system or prevent baldness—or both. Mass analysis of DNA will provide some clues about how sophisticated attributes arise from our genetic makeup, but taking that knowledge and using it to modify humans is a much more forbidding endeavour.

Naturally, there are some mainstream scientists who hope that we will someday be able to modify the blueprint of our species. Gregory Stock, the director of UCLA’s Program on Medicine, Technology and Society, is the most publicly visible of this group, and his recent book, Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, is both a manifesto for germline modification and an attempt to placate its innumerable foes. Stock’s vision of our future makes other biotopians’ rosy glasses look grey. He sees in vitro fertilization, self-directed evolution, genetic enhancement and the eventual splitting of humanity into discrete biological strains. Where anti-germline books present humans as flawed but noble creatures, Stock and his peers see the human race as a crude, unfinished project: science may even remove the hurdles that stand between us and immortality. The Extropian movement, spearheaded by a radical futurist think-tank founded by the self-christened Max More, exemplifies this attitude. More’s “Letter to Mother Nature,” the movement’s most controversial manifesto, complains,

You have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for0ourselves!

The arguments and case studies that Stock and More cite are effectively the same as those presented in books like environmentalist Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age and Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future. The authors just put different moral spins on the facts and different wagers on technological imminence.


Ironically, modern bio-utopianism was catalyzed not by a vision of the future, but of the past: Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Among Darwin’s earliest exponents was T. H. Huxley, the Victorian grandfather of the author of Brave New World, a professor at London’s Normal School of Science and a prominent natural philosopher—an intellectual celebrity of the late nineteenth century. Imitating Darwin’s travels on the Beagle, the young T. H. Huxley undertook epic field research aboard the HMS Rattlesnake as it surveyed the east coast of Australia. Back in England, Huxley aggressively defended his colleague Darwin’s controversial theories and contributed immensely to their popularization. The elder Huxley coined the term “agnostic” to describe his own metaphysic of scientific skepticism. One of his students, H. G. Wells, became the archetypal futurian novelist. Wells worshipped his teacher, placing Darwin and T. H. (in his Experiment in Autobiography) in “the same aristocracy as Plato and Aristotle and Galileo.”

T. H. was not the only well-connected member of the family. His son Leonard was for a while the editor of the famous Cornhill magazine, which serialized novels by the likes of Trollope, Hardy and Eliot. Leonard’s wife Julia was a niece of Matthew Arnold and (alongside the eternal Alice) one of Lewis Carroll’s favourite little girls. Of their three sons, all born in the last years of the nineteenth century, Julian, the eldest, followed his grandfather into the biological sciences; Trevenen, two years younger than Julian, may have become a writer, but committed suicide as a young man; and Aldous, the youngest, turned to literature.

Julian Huxley’s “hard” scientific work (basic behavioural studies of wild birds) is forgotten today but, like his grandfather, he attained considerable renown as a public intellectual. A highly aggressive promoter of socially engaged science, he spent much of his early career agitating for the first national parks and game reserves in Africa, and eventually rose to become, in 1946, the first head of UNESCO—the crowning achievement of his career.

Julian was also (up until World War Two) a prominent eugenicist. His immense tract The Science of Life (1930), a collaboration with H. G. and G. P. Wells, addresses every aspect of the natural sciences then under consideration: anatomy, classification, behaviour, ecology, biochemistry and the like. Lodged in its tail is a tiny section on the future of the human race, a hodgepodge of Wellsian propaganda for the World State and Huxley’s own eugenic theories. The authors advocate the “upward extension of positive eugenics by the recognition of definably inferior intelligences. If these can be detected and set aside so that, without humiliation or other cruelty, they can be debarred from breeding, then presently the mass of mankind will begin to follow its leaders up the scale of understanding.”

Julian’s next book, What Dare I Think? (1931), allowed him greater freedom to wax philosophical: “There have been Utopians from Plato’s time and before it, most of whom have dreamt of controlling the stream of the race itself—not merely in its volume and quantity, but in its quality, so that humanity would blossom into a new character.” Family allowances for the rich to encourage high-class procreation, an altruistic long-term program to sterilize “mental defectives” (that is, people too poor or unlucky to earn a steady income), all in an effort to “alter the character of the human race out of its present mould [and] lead it in to new evolutionary achievements.” Julian sincerely believed that twentieth-century humanity was in danger of genetic degeneration. He also supported ectogenesis (the rearing of fetuses inside of delicately controlled incubators) in the hope that, by removing the female pelvis from the prenatal and birthing processes, larger-headed (and therefore more intelligent) people could be created. Such programs seemed to him—and to most of his left-wing, politically moderate contemporaries—a scientific and progressive approach to social ills. Julian’s idea of eugenic breeding was more restrained than Hitler’s dream of an Aryan master race (although his reasoning is somewhat Hitlerian), but the myth that eugenics was an exclusively Nazi phenomenon disavowed by progressive thinkers is an artifact of the Second World War.

These proposals will strike most readers as grotesque. They are not, however, very far from the contemporary rhetoric of human improvement. The ghost of eugenics continues to haunt discussions of genetics today. Reading What Dare I Think? one is struck by how contemporary much of it feels. Just as contemporary biotopians predict a “great metaphysical shift,” Huxley anticipates an end to traditional religion, replaced by a “reverent agnosticism concerning ultimates.” He imagines a clerical class of scientific philosophers who would conduct community services, lead strictly meditative prayers (no more petitioning God), keep the sense of sin to healthy levels and cultivate the possibilities for mystical experience. It’s Unitarianism with the community sing.

Ironically, the second half of What Dare I Think? is pure scientific humanism—sweeping, abstract thoughts about the fragility of human nature and the individual soul. This side of Huxley’s thought anticipates much of the current resistance to biotechnology and its metaphysical implications. Julian diagnoses the problem with acuity, in terms that Fukuyama and McKibben have done little to improve on:

Man is through science being given fabulous and undreamt-of powers, yet is by no means agreed as to20how to employ them. And that in the sphere of thought, while the scientific picture of the universe, in which naturalism and determinism rule, grows ever more triumphant and complete, yet it becomes ever more sharply set off from the world of values in which the human spirit inevitably has its being. Science, in a word, both in the outer and the inner life, has come up against human nature, and each one seems in a strange confused way to be barring the progress of the other. [. . .] Science and human nature—there lies the chief unresolved antinomy of the present stage of our civilization.

What Dare I Think? served as a blueprint for Brave New World, brother Aldous’ portrait of perfection achieved with syringe and monkey wrench. Ectogenesis forms the basis of the society in Brave New World. Aldous practically invented the modern science-fiction writer’s habit of studying a proposed technology and turning it towards its nastiest conceivable application—in this case, the social engineering of a biological caste system. Julian’s treatment of religion is similarly ravaged in one of the finest comic passages in the novel. At the fortnight service of Bernard Marx’s Solidarity Group, celebrants practice a ritual orgy of sex and drugs (loosely based upon the Christian communion), sing doggerel hymns and try to become One with one another and Our Ford. However, the protagonist’s mystical experience is disrupted by his sexual partner’s monobrow, and he is obliged to fake both sexual ecstasy and mystical transcendence.

Novelists aren’t prophets or true scientific visionaries, but they’re blessed with a different kind of arrogance: they’re sure they can run more sophisticated thought experiments than any scientist, ethicist or moral philosopher can. Speculative fiction is surprisingly useful in helping us to see through the golden glare of progress and imagine a messier state of affairs. Like Aldous Huxley before them, French author Michel Houellebecq, with The Elementary Particles, and Margaret Atwood, in Oryx and Crake, have pounced on biotech’s dilithium dreams.

The Elementary Particles is, in Houellebecq’s inimitably ugly fashion, an idealistic and visionary book. Its protagonists are two half-brothers: Bruno, a disgraced schoolteacher with a libido the size of Lake Baikal, and Michel, a barely vital microbiologist. Bruno’s peccadilloes, moral nullity and crass humour gained the book much of its fame, but Michel, a kind of Man Without Qualities, is the intellectual heart of the novel.

Halfway through the book, in a scene that was the seed for this article, Michel and Bruno discuss Julian and Aldous Huxley, What Dare I Think? and Brave New World. Bruno, a reactionary visionary who writes scatological poetry and flirts with neofascism, is full of praise for the accuracy and cogency of Aldous’ novel. “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried—and so far failed—to create.”

Houellebecq takes Michel’s DNA research far beyond the reach of contemporary science, but he does so with enough assurance to convince professionals in the field of the seriousness of his intent. Michel’s discoveries are fanciful, but they are based on the author’s sound understanding of the fundamentals of genetic science. Michel develops a way to cleanly store and replicate DNA without the risk of mutation, paving the way for cloning and rendering sexual reproduction obsolete. Houellebecq envisions this development with reverence and the optimism of a zealot: “Mankind must disappear and give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, separation and evolution.”

The strange thing about Houellebecq is how close his views can come to those espoused by forward-looking liberals, and how our decade’s most interesting reactionary ironist can also be its sincerest utopian. Our Posthuman Future might have been written in response to The Elementary Particles. More recently, with his novel Platform, Houellebecq has rewritten another utopian effort by Huxley, Island, the author’s truly atrocious final fiction. Huxley’s Pala is now coastal Thailand; the cocktail of utopian sex and mysticism has become purchased sex and capitalism.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Oryx and Crake uncannily replicates Houellebecq’s arguments, albeit from a more traditionally progressive standpoint. In Atwood’s near-future world, transgenic animals are common, the upper classes live in autonomous corporate compounds and biopharmaceutical companies effectively rule the planet. Oryx, the barely present heroine, was raised as a child prostitute in East Asia before being brought to the USA; Jimmy, the hero, is an oversexed mediocrity akin to Houellebecq’s Bruno; similarly, Crake, Jimmy’s best friend, follows Michel’s footsteps in genetically engineering a posthuman species in an attempt to redeem Homo sapiens’ many failings.

Crake goes farther than Michel, however; while Houellebecq’s world hero simply produces a new species and lets social evolution do the rest, Atwood’s antihero tries to purge the world of human life by disseminating a deadly virus in strategically distributed bottles of medication. In the aftermath of the bioholocaust, Jimmy, having killed Crake, releases the Crakers—a tribal posthuman species, genetically shorn of unfortunate habits such as violence, meat-eating, monogamy and religion—into the apparently empty world. The Crakers, however, show signs of that pesky thing called human nature: they begin to develop, with Jimmy’s inadvertent assistance, their own mythology and religious practices. Furthermore, Crake’s genocidal ambitions prove to have been inadequate, and the novel ends with Jimmy approaching a handful of survivors, unsure of whether to kill them or hail them, almost ready to begin reviving the human race.

Atwood’s dystopia is based on the principle (which Stock invokes with glee) that any stirrings of metaphysical change or discomfort will be overwhelmed by a tide of consumers eager to eat cheap, fat-free transgenic chicken and eliminate their risk of prostate cancer. People won’t worry about becoming posthuman or the theology of self-engineering. They’ll line up for the pill, pay handsomely for it and be thankful.

While this dismissal of philosophy makes Atwood’s novel one of the least intellectually sophisticated takes on the subject of genetic modification, it also makes it one of the most convincing accounts of how we adopt new developments: our desires are charted, manufactured and nurtured—never satisfied—by an economic system which necessitates obsolescence and corporate irresponsibility. We know this already, of course, but we keep on buying.


I fear for the future, but I don’t believe that technology is a plague or panacea. Messing around with DNA won’t bring the world to an end. It might incite a worldwide metaphysical shift, but, more likely, things will muddle along as messily as ever. It is true that many new technologies up the ante of human destructiveness, while few can curb it in a meaningful way. It is equally true that technology can’t solve our major social woes, and that the optimism of technocrat utopians, those sophisticated snake-handlers of the digital age, is misplaced.

Utopia has declined over the centuries. It died in the nineteenth century, it died in the Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, in the fallout of Woodstock and Paris in 1968. It has become propaganda, and propaganda is still chic: we gobble up the flavours that we like best and enjoy being enraged by the rest, we exhibit Marxist posters as pop art while Orwell’s two most famous books have become key tools in the social engineer’s identikit for liberal democrats. In doing so, we relinquish our future to the opposed (and equally meaningless) poles of capitalist greed and neo-Luddite panic. Houellebecq, Atwood and the Huxleys are perhaps most interesting as antidotes to our technological slackness. If we can burn the stockades of received ideas that teach us to read their books, we just might be able to start making intelligent decisions about technology—as users, not consumers.