What happens when the future meets biology? Bioscience science fiction, of course. And that’s our focus today as we continue our journey though science-based science fiction.
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CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology
World War Z by Max Brooks
Train to Busan
Newsflesh Series by Mira Grant
Invasive by Chuck Wendig
Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy
The Windup Girl (The Windup Universe #1) by Paolo Bacigalupi
Unwind (Unwind Dystology #1) by Neal Shusterman
The Heartland Trilogy (3 books) by Chuck Wendig
The Expanse series by S. A. Corey (and TV show)
Scott Sigler’s Infected
Ancestor by Scott Sigler
The Lunar Chronicles Series (4 books) by Marissa Meyer
Updated GMO information:
Farmer Lawsuit clarification
Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription
Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 472: Modern Sci-Fi for the Science Lover, Part 4, Biopunk.
Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing?
Pamela: I’m cold.
Fraser: Yeah. I’ve been reading it. I’m not sure if it was as cold for you, but apparently – once again in Winnipeg – it was colder than Mars. So, I don’t know, but it’s closing in on being as cold as Mars.
Pamela: I need to look up what the temperature on Mars is now.
Fraser: Well, it depends where you know. At the equator in the summer, it should be fine.
Pamela: Temperature at Mars – Curiosity.
Fraser: You’re gonna get a whole bunch of news stories I’m guessing.
Pamela: Oh, it’s not telling me. So, yeah, my guess is it’s currently warmer on Mars than it is here as well.
Fraser: Oh, it’s so cold.
Pamela: It’s so cold. Without the wind chill, it’s minus three and it’s super windy. So, it’s minus 24 with the wind chill and that’s in Celsius, folks. That’s in Celsius.
Fraser: You’re speaking my language. Alright. What happens when the future meets biology? Bioscience science fiction, of course, or biopunk. That’s our focus today as we continue our journey through science-based science fiction. I’ll warn you here right now. This is my least favorite kind of science fiction mostly because it’s gross. So, “ew” is how I feel about biopunk, but I won’t even get a tattoo. No way. I’m not gonna modify my body, but people like to speculate and obviously this kind of thing is gonna happen as we get the CRISPR gene modification technique.
Pamela: This kind of thing is happening.
Fraser: Yes. Well, where do you want to start? Which super gross, sci-fi book are you most fond of in this disgusting group?
Pamela: They aren’t all gross. Some of them are simply terrifying.
Fraser: It’s possible I’m just chewing up the scenery here. So, go ahead. What’s a book that you want to talk about?
Pamela: So, have you ever read a book that it impaled itself into your brain forever in such a way that you can remember exactly where you were for different scenes in the book?
Fraser: It’s funny. So, I do listen to a lot of audiobooks and I’ll get that with audiobooks where I’ll be listening to the audiobook and then I have to go back for some reason or the file crashes and I’ll have been driving or walking or something like that and – as I’m hearing parts of the book again – I’m going, “Oh, yeah. I was going around this corner when that happened. Oh, yeah. I saw this on the ground.” It’s a very strange thing. Clearly, there’s obviously some kind of brain-memory technique here where I’m walking through my unplanned memory palace. But yeah, so you’ve got one of these?
Pamela: I do. I actually have two. So, the first one is World War Z for me is always going to be bike riding in spring, scaring the bejesus out of bunny rabbits, while hearing zombies coming up to attack, basically. And with World War Z – Well, you’ve read this one too, I believe?
Fraser: Yeah. It’s the same thing. I listened to it. I didn’t read it.
Pamela: Right, and so here – first of all – go get the full cast, unabridged recording if you don’t want to read the paper, full cast, unabridged recording is amazing and this idea that essentially you have a few people who are immune. You have people who are trying to escape. You have dogs and cats can even get infected. This is the future that we all live in fear of. So, we have the entire zombie genre.
Fraser: Yeah, and I think – I’m gonna say World War “Zed” – but sure, World War Z – I think it is by far my most favorite take on that genre – although I just experienced my number two, which is sort of an obscure movie – a Korean movie – called Train to Busan, which we just watched by accident on Netflix like a week ago and it was absolutely terrific.
So, if you’re looking for a really well done – It felt very much like World War Z. So, I highly recommend Train to Busan if you’re looking for a movie that kind of captures a moment of what it must have been like. Don’t see the World War Z movie. See the Train to Busan as a way to understand what it would be like.
Pamela: And, if you want other scientific takes on this, there’s also Mira Grant’s series, which is called Newsflesh, which is kind of a disturbing name. This is the book’s feed, deadline, blackout and it’s a series set in a future where there is essentially a virus that takes hold of you and takes over your body. But a few people have developed the ability to overcome, but they don’t know this yet – the virus.
So, it’s all about how do you survive? How do you escape the virus? How does the world get by? What are the new ways that new media changes how people communicate about this? So, it was originally pointed out to me by Moira Lafferty – who knows that I hate zombie books in general. This is how people get zombie books past me. They lie.
Fraser: It’s a zombie book.
Pamela: Yeah, I wasn’t told that. What I was told is, “It’s a science fiction series in a future where new and social media people are the journalists” and that’s what got me reading it and then it turned out to be a zombie book. So, moving past the zombie books –
Pamela: So, for me, another one that had that moment of like I can remember exactly where I was – especially for a particular scene – is Chuck Wendig’s Invasive and this is a book that our good friend, Bug Girl Gwen Pearson, was one of the science advisors for. It deals with – among other things – bioengineered ants and these are will kill you dead ants. There’s one particular scene – I can’t give away too much but – there are ants forming mats, which is something ants actually do–
Fraser: They do that. This is a thing.
Pamela: I did not know that and so I was listening to the book while walking around in Hawaii and I’m standing underneath one of the most beautiful trees I have seen in my life – the closest I’ve come to seeing a prettier tree was in Indonesia – gorgeous tree – while having the bejesus scared out of me about ants by this Chuck Wendig book.
Fraser: You felt like your skin was creepy crawling while you were reading this book?
Fraser: That is awesome. Interesting side note being the jungles of Costa Rica and seeing army ants do their thing. Our hosts were telling us that when the army ants come through, they just leave their house and the ants come in and just clean the whole place out – like all the bugs. Everything is emptied.
They give them the day because the army ants are always just on the move. They don’t have a home. They’re just always on the move and they just move back in like you don’t mess with them. You don’t try to fight them. You just let them have the place. So, and fire ants – which are I know a lot of people have to deal with fire ants. I don’t know if they’ve made it all the way up to you guys, but –
Pamela: No, thank goodness. But with Chuck Wendig’s Invasive, it talks about how using CRISPR technology you can combine the best and worst of different bugs to create something entirely new that combines all these different attributes.
Fraser: I’m sure my wife will be really keen on that – like some kind of super, best bug.
Pamela: So, here we are. We’re reaching the point where we can genetically do what we will using CRISPR technology with these little critters. We can splice and dice and add and subtract genes, which means that we have the ability to take that on the march of those army ants that you encountered in Costa Rica and mix in the “I’m going to make you regret all your life choices, especially wearing flip flops today” aspects of the fire ants I encountered in Texas into one, single “please kill me now” kind of will kill you dead actually critter.
Fraser: Sure. But why make it so complicated? Just make it genetic-based. Why actually make a bug when you can just make a virus that will just wipe you out – which is sort of back to the whole zombie concept? So, let’s get into some books about – before you continue to just like freak out. I can see your face. You’re literally making this terrified face that people who are listening won’t be able to see Pamela’s face, but she is just getting grossed out as she’s remembering this book.
But let’s talk a bit about genetic manipulation and concepts like that. So, one of the books that I’ve read is Margaret Atwood and, of course, she did the Handmaid’s Tale. But the other in this sort of dystopian – I don’t know if they’re sort of set in the same universe, I don’t think so, is Oryx and Crake, which is sort of a more – I don’t know if it’s a more actually now that I think about it – plausible future from the Handmaid’s Tale which, by the way, you should totally see the TV series if you haven’t.
Pamela: All the trigger warnings on that TV series though – all the trigger warnings.
Fraser: But the gist of it is just that it’s about genetic manipulation and sort of modifying animals and modifying people and making them more useful and that getting out of hand and then people are living in this post-apocalypse of the genetic manipulation that happened and what’s left over and what’s been able to survive and how society has been able to reform itself after spending so much time way out on a limb as it were in making things better and what are you left with? It’s a very interesting story. Margaret Atwood is a bit of a bummer when you read her books. You’re never gonna get a happy book, but they definitely make you think about where that stuff is taking us.
Pamela: It’s true. Yeah, so I haven’t read that one and I’m still being haunted by the bugs, clearly.
Fraser: See. You picked this topic.
Pamela: I know I picked this topic.
Fraser: This is all you. I said, “This is gross.” You’re like, “No, no. Let’s talk about it. There are a lot of really good books.” Now, now where are you?
Pamela: There are really good books.
Fraser: Alright. Hit us with another one.
Pamela: So, let’s go to something that is a different form of crushing your soul, but not gross this time. So, we have the Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and this is one of those heart wrenching dystopian futures where the dystopia comes about of our own making. So, this is on the list of cautionary tales where imagine a future where the latest corn seeds that get put out by – I’m not going to name a company because I live in the city where all of them are headquartered and sometimes we need to not annoy them – but imagine your favorite bioengineering company to hate has released genetically modified seed stock that is such that it becomes the only thing capable of growing, but you have to pay a licensing fee in order to grow it.
Imagine a future where people who have bioengineered the perfect cats and they then go out and they breed so prolifically that all of the original cats are no longer a thing and that you end up with runaway viruses that all naturally occurring wildlife is incapable of surviving against. So, you can only have bioengineered crop food and it gets so that your normal person – in an impoverished place that might be trying to grow a summer garden in order to augment their food – can no longer do it because all foodstuffs is completely licensed. So, that’s one side of the biofiction and the other side is they’ve started bioengineering humans so you no longer have prostitution.
You instead have these they call them windup humans. These – are they human, are they not – these things that they have bio created for certain tasks that have different skillsets that are genetically engineered into them and they also have failsafes engineered into them. Are they human or are they something different? Is it alright to enslave them? Is it not? These are the ethical questions we have to try and figure out and the book kind of smacks you on the face and says, “You have to figure this out because this is coming.”
Fraser: For sure on the case of the genetically modified crops and some large company that is creating these things and the fact that the seeds are blowing over into other people’s properties and then they’re growing and then they have to pay a license fee.
Pamela: They’re getting sued.
Fraser: Right. They have to pay a license fee because the genetically modified crops – which weren’t supposed to be able to reproduce – are starting to reproduce on their property. So, there’s some interesting ramifications that we’re gonna have to deal with this. Now, there’s a series that I haven’t read, but my daughter read and absolutely loved, which is called Unwind. I don’t know if you’ve read that series?
Pamela: No, I haven’t.
Fraser: That’s the first one is called Unwind and the gist is that essentially if you don’t like your kids, you get to take them apart again and have a do-over.
Pamela: Oh, good Lord.
Fraser: Yeah, and as the parents, you have that ability. What is it like to be in a world where your parents have decided they don’t want to be parents anymore? I don’t know why my daughter liked that book so much but – like I said – they assigned it. So, it’s young adult fiction. But I find that a lot of the young adult fiction is some of the scariest, most dystopian. I don’t know what it is about young adult fiction. That’s a whole other rabbit hole we could go down sometime is young adult fiction and talk about, “Why do teenagers like to read about dystopia and Battle Royale violence?”
Pamela: You clearly don’t remember being a teenager.
Fraser: I don’t know if I gravitated. I gravitated towards Star Trek and exploring space, but again, that’s my personality. What else you got?
Pamela: Have you read anything by Chuck Wendig?
Pamela: Okay. So, as John Scalzi is on the computer side of new fiction and Cory Doctorow is on the new side of 3-D printing and computational fiction, Chuck Wendig is coming in on the bio side of things. He’s also done a bunch of the Star Wars books – which they’re canon and they’re awesome – filling in between Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens. But the books here – so Invasive, Standalone, Over Somewhere Else – it actually has a partner book, but we’re not getting into that one today.
The other side is the Heartland Trilogy and this is another one where you have bioengineered crops. You have genetically modified humans and you have people working to essentially splice DNA to try and create that Pegasus – to try and create that unicorn – and to even bioengineer humans to better fit into the horrifying casted things that people want. So, how do you change genetics for a variety of different reasons in a society where this technology is as much aboveboard as it is black market?
So, the Corn is trying to take over. The corn has been bioengineered, in fact, to actually take over. So, be afraid of the corn, which I live in corn country. This is a very real fear.
Fraser: It’s all around you?
Fraser: I think there’s a ton of overlap really about this and the artificial intelligence thoughts that we have and the robot stories that go on. Altered Carbon I would say is as much a bioengineering book as it is a robotics book as it is an AI book as it is about reading people’s memories, recreating bodies. This isn’t science fiction, but there is – oh, what was it – Orphan Black, which it’s a TV series. I don’t know if you’ve watched that at all. It deals with cloning.
Pamela: And the actor who does it, dear God, she’s amazing.
Fraser: Yeah, plays like six different versions of herself and each one is kind of different and quite unique. It’s a great series, but this idea. We’ve talked about The Expanse and the main threat in The Expanse is a kind of bioengineered thingy. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but that is a way that you can get the one-up on the people that you deal with. I think it’s about replication. It’s about replication gone amuck. It’s about unintended consequences of the stuff that makes up our reality.
Pamela: And sometimes it gets into the intended consequences, but the person whose intentions – or the alien whose intentions – we’re discussing does not have our best interests at heart – so, the scariest. Again, I remember exactly where I was for certain scenes; bio sci-fi set with aliens the Scott Sigler set of books that includes Infected – the idea is – and I have to be so careful on what I say so that I don’t give anything away.
Fraser: Yeah. Sigler will find you and he will write a new book just for you that’s all about ants and–
Pamela: Yes. So, this is the Infected, Contagious, Pandemic Trilogy. All of Scott’s books are in the exact same universe. They’re just set at different times in the same universe.
But this trilogy is meant to be read together and what’s kind of amazing is the Infected one – and they each are different forms of biofiction – the Infected one it’s not a giveaway to say that it’s an alien species who is trying to take over the human body as basically a host that it’s one of these things where imagine you inhale a virus and that virus – instead of causing bubonic plague – which I think is actually a bacteria where you end up with these giant boils – you instead end up growing things that aren’t your own genetic material but are the virus’s genetic material.
Fraser: Well, I think like District 9. Did you ever see the District 9 movie/
Fraser: Right, and sort of this idea that you get turned into the alien. Instead of having to send your colonists – your invaders – to another world, you just send something that adapts, that uses – on location – the natural resources to make what you want from the raw materials and that raw materials might be plants, animals, rock, air, whatever you need.
So, it’s that same idea that whether you do it with a machine to make robots or whether you use some biological method of doing it, it’s that same kind of idea. So, whenever we talk about the kinds of ideas that we have – and CRISPR is a great example of this, right? You’re using one lifeform – a bacteria – to modify other lifeforms. You’re making a factory that’s gonna do something we hope that’s good. We hope. So, what else have you got?
Pamela: So, also by Scott Sigler we have the Ancestor series and here we get into what can possibly go horribly, horribly, terribly, terribly wrong when you’re trying to change the genetic structure of another animal to try and get better organs for organ donation. This again starts to get a little too real because we are trying to figure out, “How do you modify pigs so that you can get liver and heart and kidneys for transplantation that don’t trigger the human immunoreaction?”
Ideally, you’d want to create something that is basically the organ equivalent of Type O negative blood – something that just basically doesn’t have any of the antibody triggers in it – but you might instead end up with something truly evil. So, be careful what you engineer because you might regret all your life choices.
Fraser: Have you got any others? Is that your list?
Pamela: Why don’t we bounce back to why A, now that I’ve completely grossed out the entire audience. So, if you would rather read something a little bit lighter – and I will warn you. I completely overlooked it, but there is a cultural appropriation in this book; the Cinder series by Meyer. This particular series it’s in a future – this is Marissa Meyer. It’s the Lunar Chronicles series.
It’s a futuristic retelling of our favorite childhood children’s stories but – in this case – Cinder is actually a cyborg due to horrible things that happened to her as a small child and her stepmother treats her as essentially a robotic houseguest who is tasked with doing all the different things for the house. You have this society where there are essentially the robots that aren’t seen as human, but can be prostitutes, can be house cleaners, can be whatever they need to be.
You have the cyborgs and then you essentially have the normal class and the entire time they’re fighting off this horrible disease and one of the things that happens is they periodically essentially confiscate cyborgs and force them to be used for medical testing to try and find a cure for this disease that’s sweeping the planet. So, it gets at the “Who is sacrificial? Who is human? How do you define human?” and it’s YA, so of course there’s the cheesy love story in it and it’s based on fairytales.
So, of course there’s all the cheesy nostalgia going on. It’s really solid YA, other than – like I said – there’s cultural appropriation in it that I totally failed to notice the first time I read it because I just read it as being set in another country and not as cultural appropriation, but I have since been verbally corrected.
Fraser: Right. So, you’ve put in the appropriate warnings.
Fraser: Alright. Are we out of genres? Have you got any more or are we gonna wrap up this series?
Pamela: I think we wrap up this series and our next episode – which we record in 2018 – we will use to review 2017 because it will be over and there will be nothing new discovered in 2017, since it will be over.
Fraser: That’s pretty smart. You know what? We did our 2017 wrap-up over on the Weekly Space Hangout a week ago and that does leave an extra week and a bit to have some new event happen that could have been on the list. Nothing was, although we still have two more days for that bright, daylight, super visible supernova.
Pamela: Or do you remember the amazing magnetar that went off back in I think it was 2005?
Fraser: Right at the end of the year?
Pamela: Yeah. It happened between Christmas and New Years and then there was the tsunami as well. Not that the tsunami gets reviewed in the show, but the magnetar, we would have totally missed the magnetar and I don’t want to miss magnetars.
Fraser: Sounds good. Well, we’ll give people the review and the preview because there are actually also some really interesting things coming up for 2018, including SpaceX, Falcon Heavy launch, sending a car to Mars.
Pamela: Hopefully. And New Year’s is pretty much a full moon. So, everyone go out, look up. There are no planets unless you look at your feet, but full moon and Orion low in the west as the New Year comes in.
Fraser: And Quadrantids. Alright, we’ll see you next week.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 29 minutes