The Science in George Turner‘s Science Fiction Novels
by Zeke Teflon
Beloved Son (1978): Turner’s apprehensions about genetic alteration of food crops are, unfortunately, still very relevant. There are already problems because of it, one example being that the only really effective natural “insecticide,” bacillus thuringensis, has in great part lost its effectiveness because its genes have been introduced into a host of cash crops, and so insects have been afforded opportunity to develop resistance to it. With monomaniacally profit-driven seed and pesticide companies engaging in wholesale genetic manipulation of food crops, Turner’s Beloved Son is an apt forerunner of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl (2009).
Vaneglory (1981)/Yesterday’s Men (1983): Turner’s positing of a small minority of near-immortals already among us is implausible for a number of reasons, such as radiation damage and consequent cell-reproduction errors. Another is that vastly increased lifespan and perpetual youth would be a huge reproductive advantage, and one would expect the genes responsible to spread, not be restricted to a tiny minority. This concept belongs in vampire fantasies, not science fiction.
Drowning Towers (1987): Turner did his homework on climate change, and some of the predictions in Drowning Towers are already being borne out. He did, though, rather dramatically overstate the amount of sea level rise that will take place by the middle of this century, according to current climate models. Other than that, he was right on.
Brain Child (1991): Turner’s speculation about the possible results of genetic manipulation of human embryos is still relevant. A friend who’s a retired geneticist, and who worked for decades at a major research institution, read the book recently and says that, overall, Turner’s speculations are still plausible.
The Destiny Makers (1993): Turner’s speculations about genetically modified disease organisms are all too plausible. If there’s an apocalypse any time soon, such organisms will quite possibly be the cause.
Genetic Soldier (1994)/Down There in Darkness (1999): The type of human genome manipulation described in both books is plausible. It’s so crazy, though, that it would have been considered hare brained by eugenics enthusiasts in the heyday of phrenology. (Of course, as Turner describes it, it’s the product of a religious cult, which makes it plausible–nothing is too insane for religious fanatics.)
The “morphogenetic fields” conjecture that underlies Genetic Soldier is another matter. Rupert Sheldrake, a former PhD biochemist at Cambridge Universtiy, came up with the idea in the 1970s/early 1980s, and published his first book on the matter, A New Science of Life, in 1981. The basic concept is that ideas and consciousness exist independently of brains, be they human or animal; instead they exist in “morphogenetic fields”–whatever they are–and that information can be shared because of those “fields.” This is more than a bit like insisting that the information in a computer’s random access memory (volatilve memory, not its hard disk) continues to exist in a “cybergenetic field”–whatever that is–after you turn off the computer, and that it can be shared via those “fields” with other computers without physical transmission.
The other problems with this idea (which Sheldrake is still flogging on the lecture circuit) are that Sheldrake relies upon uncontrolled studies in his books, that when other scientists have replicated his experiments they’ve failed to replicate his results, and that Sheldrake’s theory is “unfalsifiable.” Followers have argued that skeptics get negative results because they “dampen” “morphogenetic fields”; thus both positive and negative experimental results can be (and are) cited as being in alignment with the “theory,” making it “unfalsifiable.”
It’s also worth noting that Sheldrake cites that old New Age talisman, quantum physics, as justification for his conjecture. Biochemists are not known for their fine grasp of quantum mechanics, and it’s very probable that Sheldrake and, especially, his New Age followers have as little understanding of quantum physics as I do–approximately the understanding that a chicken has of algebra. (The difference is that I’m honest about it. They’re not. And they make claims citing as justification an extremely complicated theory they don’t even remotely understand.)
All this was already common knowledge in scientific/skeptical circles when Turner wrote Genetic Soldier, yet he chose to base the book upon this already debunked pseudo-scientific “theory.”
There are also a few bits of scientific inaccuracy that surface occasionally in Turner’s novels, including our old friend from 1950s sci-fi, food pills, which make two brief appearances in Genetic Soldier, and, in the same book, a starship orbiting the Earth, well above the atmosphere, leaving a trail visible to those on the ground.
But Turner shouldn’t be judged too harshly for his scientific inaccuracies. He obviously took the time to inform himself about the most important scientific matters (climate change and genetic manipulation), and his books still serve as timely warnings about human meddling with nature.
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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.
- Climate change: The hottest thing in science fiction (grist.org)
- Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? Rupert Sheldrake’s ten dogmas (part one) (heterodoxology.com)