Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sonmi 451

My vote for best recent dystopian fiction featuring genetic engineering goes to the An Orison Of Sonmi 451 chapters of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Can't wait to see the big budget movie. Will they retain the Korean peninsula setting?

Honorable mention: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

Popular wisdom has it that fabricants don’t have personalities. This fallacy is propagated for the comfort of purebloods.

“Comfort”? How do you mean? To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes. ...

Did your second day outside provide any answers? Some: but yet more surprises. The first stood across the anteroom from my cot as I awoke. A pylonic man, over three meters tall and dressed in an orange zipsuit, was studying the bookshelves. His face, neck, and hands were scalded red, burnt black, and patched pale, but he did not seem to suffer pain. His collar confirmed he was a fabricant, but I could not guess his stemtype: lips genomed out, ears protected by hornvalves, and a voice deeper than any I heard before or since. “No stimulin here. You wake when you wake. Especially if your postgrad is as lazy as Boom-Sook Kim. Xec postgrads are the worst. They have their asses wiped for them. From kindergarten to euthanasium.” With a giant, two-thumbed hand, he indicated a blue zipsuit half the size of his. “For you, little sister.” As I changed from my Papa Song’s uniform into my new garment, I asked if he had been sent by a seer. “No seers, either,” said the burnt giant. “Your postgrad and mine are friends. Boom-Sook called yesterday. Complained about your unxpected delivery. I wished to visit you pre-curfew. But Genome Surgery postgrads work late. Unlike slackers here in Psychogenomics. I’m Wing027. Let’s find out why you’re here.” ...

What sort of fabricant was Wing-027? A militiaman? No, a disasterman. He boasted he could operate in deadlands so infected or radioactive that purebloods perish there like bacteria in bleach; that his brain had only minor genomic refinements; and that disastermen’s basic orientation provides a more thoro education than most pureblood universities. Finally, he bared his hideously burnt forearm: “Show me a pureblood who could stand this! My postgrad’s Ph.D. is tissue flameproofing.”

Wing027’s xplanation of deadlands appalled me, but the disasterman anticipated their approach with relish. The day when all Nea So Copros is deadlanded, he told me, will be the day fabricants become the new purebloods. ...

Huamdonggil is a noxious maze of low, crooked ramshacks, flophouses, pawnshops, drug bars, and comfort hives, covering perhaps five square miles southeast of Old Seoul Transit Station. Its streets are too narrow for fords to enter; its alleys reek of waste and sewage. ShitCorp goes nowhere near that quarter. Hae-Joo left the ford in a lockup and warned me to keep my head hooded: fabricants stolen here end up in brothels, made serviceable after clumsy surgery. Purebloods slumped in doorways, skin enflamed by prolonged xposure to the city’s scalding rain. One boy lapped water from a puddle on his hands and knees. “Migrants with enceph or leadlung,” Hae-Joo told me. “Hospitals drain their Souls until they’ve got only enough dollars for a euthanasia jab—or a ride to Huamdonggil. These poor bastards made the wrong choice.”

I could not understand why migrants fled Production Zones for such a squalid fate. Hae-Joo listed malaria, flooding, drought, rogue crop genomes, parasites, encroaching deadlands, and a natural desire to better the lives of their children. Papa Song Corp, he assured me, seems humane if compared to factories these migrants ran away from. Traffickers promise it rains dollars in the Twelve Cities, and migrants yearn to believe it; the truth never filters back, for traffickers operate only one way. Hae-Joo steered me away from a meowing two-headed rat. “They bite.”

I asked why the Juche tolerates this in its second capital.

Every conurb, my guide answered, has a chemical toilet where the city’s unwanted human waste disintegrates quietly, but not quite invisibly. It motivates the downstrata: “Work, spend, work,” say slums like Huamdonggil, “or you, too, will end your life here.” Moreover, entrepreneurs take advantage of the legal vaccuum to erect ghoulish pleasurezones for upstrata bored with more respectable quarters. Huamdonggil can thus pay its way in taxes and bribes. MediCorp opens a weekly clinic for dying untermensch to xchange any healthy body parts they may have for a sac of euthanaze. OrganiCorp has a lucrative contract with the city to send in a daily platoon of immune-genomed fabricants, similar to disastermen, to mop up the dead before the flies hatch. Hae-Joo then told me to stay silent; we had reached our destination.

More excerpts here. See also this.

Paris Review interview with David Mitchell.


Steve Sailer said...

I haven't read Cloud Atlas, but I liked his most recent book, The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, about the Dutch trading mission confined to an artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor in 1798. But the book about the Dutch and Japanese takes off when an English sea captain shows up toward the end and raids Nagasaki (which happened in 1808). Mitchell is outstanding at explaining all the decisions, physical and political, that an Age of Nelson captain had to rapidly make. Mitchell could become the new English sea story writer in the tradition of Conrad, Forrester, and  O'Brian. 

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

A thing he also does nicely is to indirectly address HBD.
 "All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities." /Cloud Atlas.

jaim klein said...

The idea is that North Korea conquers the world through genetic engineering? Because they are not signed to any convention and they have no moral restraints regarding human experiments? 

Sam H said...

Prof. Hsu, what is your personal viewpoint towards genetic engineering?

steve hsu said...

The dangers are obvious but I think it is inevitable.

5371 said...

In general, the same people who think dramatic progress in this area is inevitable, also think unrelated marvelous technologies are inevitable which would make genetic engineering not worth bothering with.

steve hsu said...

Genetic engineering is easier than singularity-level AI. I can see a clear path to the former, but no one knows how we will get to the latter.

Justin Loe said...

I recommend City and the Stars, 1956, Arthur C. Clarke: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_City_and_the_Stars
"In Diaspar, the entire city is run by the Central Computer. Not only is the city repaired by machines, but people's lives are created by the machines as well. The computer creates bodies for the people of Diaspar to live in and stores their minds in its memory when they die. At any time, only a small number of these people are actually living in Diaspar, the rest sleeping in the computer's memory banks."

Guy_Brodude said...

What technologies? AI strikes me as even more perilous. At the very least, it would render a pretty large percentage of the world population expendable.

Fred__R said...

It's funny because in the New Yorker review James Wood attacked that raid section as unworthy of Mitchell's talents by specifically bringing up O'Brian: 
"A lesser writer like Patrick O’Brian fills out the genre so completely that staginess suffices, but Mitchell “o’erflows the measure,” spills himself beyond boundaries."  

But disliking historical fiction is just his journey, I suppose.  

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