science fiction

CRISPR or Not, You Can't Genetically Enhance Humans, Says Sci-Fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Designer babies. The term means many things to many people. To some it means kids only dressed in Gucci.

Some say that by doing pre-implantation genetic screening, we are already living in the age of designer babies. Others have been holding out for that time when humans edit their own germline offering the new progeny not only disease repair, but also enhancements. It's also argued there’s a third category in the middle there somewhere, a protection against disease in the future. That’s what He Jiankui attempted.

We don’t know yet if Jiankui was successful. But we know that if he wasn’t, he showed us that the next success is just around the corner. And the next.

“This story is getting more sci-fi every minute. Michael Crichton couldn’t have made this stuff up,” tweeted Eric Topol of the Scripps Institute as the He Jiankui saga unfolded.

“That tweet is in many ways wrong. Science fiction of course can imagine it. Michael Crichton could and did make it up. But other science fiction writers who are more skillful than Michael Crichton have been talking about messing with germline for a long time now."

That’s today’s guest, award winning sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson (The Mars Trilogy, Red Moon) at the outset of today’s show. What sets Stan (as he's called) apart from many of those other sci-fi writers, is that he doesn’t think it practical to enhance humans genetically. He’s thought about it his entire career, and like going faster than the speed of light, it’s one of those impractical barriers, he says.

"What would you change? How would you know that was going to make it better without running human experimentation which can't be done. It's not just ethics, it's practicality. We wouldn't know what to do to make ourselves smarter or stronger."

Wait. Did you hear what I heard?! This is a sci-fi writer who specializes in thinking into the future, and he doesn’t think humans can be enhanced!

Well, either he has some mighty big convincing to do, or this was the biggest bomb of an interview ever. I mean, come on, of course humans can be enhanced.


A Few Notes on Tomorrow's Holiday Special with Sci-Fi Writer Kim Stanley Robinson on the Gene Edited Baby Story

It was the headline of the decade in genomics. Humans had monkeyed with their own gene pool.

When Chinese scientist He Jiankui came to the podium at the 2nd International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong last month, journalist Kevin Davies, author of “The $1,000 Genome” wrote that he hadn’t seen as much press coverage of a genomics event since the announcement of the sequencing of the human genome. Genomics journalists have been in a tailspin.

Not to mention genomics podcasters.

Sci-Fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Talks Life Science 2015

At the end of the year our goal is to bring the audience some unusual programming, some new outside perspectives on the topics we cover. As with last year, we talk today with science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, 2312, and Shaman

Known for working with science and technology that are feasible today, Stan goes out on his yet furthest journey into the future with his newest novel, Aurora. As the novel begins, we are with the descendants of a group of people who left our solar system a couple hundred years previously for the solar system of the star Tau Ceti. This star is eleven light years away, and the novel starts as the ship begins “deceleration” with the goal of landing down not on a planet in the “Goldilocks” position, but on that planet’s moon, Aurora. We learn right away that Stan is not really in Gene Roddenberry space here (creator of Star Trek). For once the travelers begin the process of trying to settle, the biology already on Aurora isn’t what you’d call friendly or indifferent.

In Aurora, Stan faces head on a notion we’ve pursued here on Mendelspod: the field's overly reductionist approach to the study of biology. The best example I can think of here came from one of our guests, John Dupre, who asked the question, "if you took all the atoms of an elephant into space and were able to reassemble them, would it still be an elephant?”

No, is Stan’s clear answer with this latest novel.

“This idea that we’ve had for a hundred years, or two thousand years, however long—of travel to the stars: it’s an impossible idea."

Not only does Stan bit by bit deconstruct biology and ecology, arguing that earth’s ecological success has as much to do with it’s size as other factors, he also deconstructs the process of formulating narrative and of  novel writing itself. On the spaceship is a computer which over the course of the first part of the book receives extensive training in doing narration.  Stan reads from one of these passages where the computer is wrestling with the idea of whether to use metaphor or not.

“A quick literature review suggests the similarities in metaphors are arbitrary, even random. They could be called metaphorical similarities. But no AI likes tautological formulations, because the halting problem can be severe, become a so called “ouroboros” problem, or a whirlpool with no escape. Ah hah, a metaphor.”

In Aurora, Stan is fascinated by problems which underlie current trends in the life science industry. For example, what training will IBM’s Watson need to receive as it is used more and more in the clinic? How important is our microbiome and the environmentalome to our own health?

We also push Stan to talk about the issue of drug pricing. To fully flesh out his ideas, he has to go quite far into a post capitalist society, but he does agree that price controls at this point might be a first tool. As for the power of the new CRISPR gene editing technique, Stan says doing gene drive on humans is an old science fiction idea.  "But I always thought that it was a hundred or two hundred years off. So I was wrong.  Now we have to decide how to keep it safe, and what we should allow.”

It's a fun time with Kim Stanley Robinson.  Enjoy.

The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip: Sci-fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Talks Life Science


Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Listen (3:30) Creating plot when science wants to be boring

Listen (3:22) Genetics and the distant past

Listen (5:09) The mental voyage

Listen (6:35) Why don't we value diagnostics?

Listen (4:58) Medicine has always been utopian

Listen (4:28) The Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip

Listen (9:12) The open question of aging

Since first interviewing sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, I find myself wondering what he might think about this or that topic that comes up on Mendelspod. So we invited him back to weigh in on themes that continually resurface here on the program.

For example, what are his thoughts on why we value therapeutics so much higher than diagnostics? And what level of regulation is appropriate? Should there be government imposed controls on drug pricing?

Stan is never short of a well reasoned answer. In today’s interview he takes on what he calls the Silicon Valley Fantasy Trip and the naivety of futurists—who he reminds us are also sci-fi writers—such as Peter Diamandis.

“Two or three billion people on this planet go to bed hungry every night and don’t have basic healthcare, don’t have toilets,” he says. "So the researchers on the edge of biotech are like the games the French aristocracy were playing right before the revolution, and they got their heads chopped off. Here’s what you have to say to them, ‘Get real. Just because you’re a trillionaire doesn’t mean the world is in good shape.'”

We start the interview with a chat about two of Stan’s recent works, Shaman and Galileo’s Dream.

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Who Do You Want to Hear From During the Holidays?

It's a tradition at Mendelspod to bring you unique shows that go off the beaten track at the end of each year. In the past, we've brought you interviews with a science historian, a science comedian, sci-fi writers, and futurists.

We're just planning our lineup for holiday season 2014, and we want your suggestions. On the list so far are a philosopher, a popular sci-fi writer, and the former Deputy Director of the NCI.

Make your suggestions here.

Thank you, Theral & Ayanna

The Perfect 46 with Brett Ryan Bonowicz, Filmmaker


Brett Ryan Bonowicz, Filmmaker
Bio and Contact Info

Listen (4:00) Where is the "fiction" in your science fiction?

Listen (4:47) Upcoming screenings

Listen (3:51) Learning where to draw the ethical lines

Listen (3:43) What would a biotech company look like with Steve Jobs or Elon Musk as CEO?

Listen (2:42) Would you personally try a service like GenePeeks?

Listen (6:53) Tackling the topic of GMO's next

In today’s interview, we talk with filmmaker, Brett Ryan Bonowicz. He’s the writer, director and producer of The Perfect 46, a new film exploring the future of direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Whereas our industry often gets demonized by Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters that are full of special effects and fancy sets, Brett’s film seeks to ask tough ethical questions and show the industry in a more nuanced way.

“I knew I wanted to get into science fiction. And I knew I wanted to get into discussions that didn’t have definitive answers, where I could explore a lot of grey area where each person was right in their own way,” he says in explaining why he chose his topic.

While the film is set just barely into the future, and there is no company existing today like the one in the film, the screenplay unfolds in a very plausible way. A geneticist creates a website called "The Perfect 46" that pairs folks with their genetic match for having children.

To better describe his interest in portraying events that might be right around the corner, Brett calls his work “science-factual,” a term he says he borrowed from some Walt Disney work.

Brett was first attracted to the topic in 2008 when he read about 23andMe in Time Magazine and subsequently used their service. Watching his film and talking with Brett gives us a chance to see the industry from an outsider’s perspective.

The film’s next screening is at Stanford on August 4th, accompanied by a panel discussion with local life scientists.

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Science and the "Great Delusion" with David Brin, Sci-Fi Author

This show originally aired on February 14, 2013.


David Brin, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 Who's doing the heavy lifting of creating the future?

8:13 Imagination the great tragedy and boon of human nature

11:24 Science one of the four great pillars that freed us from the "Great Delusion"

15:35 When did you go from astronomer to writer?

24:23 Where are we going in the life sciences?

27:13 A contrarian on immortality

33:00 Renunciationism, stopping the forward rush of science

37:46 "The American Revolution stuns me."

40:55 BONUS: The author reads from Existence

Sci-fi author, David Brin, is the final guest in our series, Creating the Future. He says that everyone, that civilization is creating the future. However, he concedes that if you were to compare civilization to a human brain, that "a few of us are the pre-frontal lobes . . . who poke sticks in the sand, in the trail ahead of us that we're charging into so that we can find the quicksand pits . . . before we step right into them."

Brin is one of those sci-fi authors who was actually a scientist, an astronomer first. Why and when did he begin writing? And how does his inner scientist feel about it? David talks of the "Great Delusion" that man fell and falls into on account of his imagination. And it was Science, one of the four pillars of the Enlightenment, that freed us from the delusion. We have trained the imagination and are no longer subjects to the oligarchs of the past. Brin is an actor as well as writer and scientist. You're bound to be captivated by his command of science, history, politics, and by his entertaining wit.

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Living in a Sci-Fi World with Author Kim Stanley Robinson

Note: This show was originally posted on January 20, 2013.


Kim Stanley Robinson, Sci-Fi Author Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:47 How do you choose date and time?

5:14 We live in a science fiction world

9:25 Who's creating the future, the scientists and engineers, or the sci-fi writers?

11:22 The philosophical battle between science and capitalism

16:07 How does one go about creating the future on paper?

25:10 Is science becoming too much like a religion?

29:24 Fiction is the steady instrument, science is what evolves

33:00 Audience Question: On which planet or astroid or community from your novels would you most want to live?

35:55 KSR reads from 2312

Interviewing scientists and those who are in the field has led me to the question, are scientists and engineers the new world leaders? Are they setting our direction more than any other group? Are they creating the future? And these questions have led often to the answer, “We got it from the sci-fi writers.”

You’ll no doubt understand my pleasure, therefore, in interviewing the award winning sci-fi author of the Mars Trilogy, Stan Robinson. The Mars Trilogy is Robinson’s most popular work, a series of novels about the settling and terraforming of Mars over nearly two centuries. And it is this series which has been most oft cited by our guests as the source of their crazy ideas about settling Mars.


I’ve been reading the first of the novels, Red Mars. The opening shows off Robinson’s more poetic, lyrical side.

"Mars was empty before we came. That’s not to say that nothing had ever happened. The planet had accreted, melted, roiled and cooled, leaving a surface scarred by enormous geological features: craters, canyons, volcanoes. But all of the happened in mineral unconsciousness, and unobserved. There were no witnesses--except for us, looking from the planet next door, and that only in the last moment of its long history. We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had." (Red Mars)

Red Mars tells of the initial colonization of Mars and delves deeply into the relationships and politics of the first 100 settlers. It provides Robinson another platform (he wrote a similar series about the future of California) to pit science (the expedition to virgin territory, a planet untouched as yet by man, is made up almost entirely of scientists) against capitalism (the earth is taken over by transnational corporations as resources become scarce and war breaks out).

For Stan, science and capitalism--born around the same time, he says-- are engaged in an epic battle for man’s future. Science is the greatest hope for mankind, he quips matter of factly in today's show. For Stan, capitalism is the greatest threat to this hope. It’s a provocative idea. One I must admit that plays out before me each day as I make my way through the news.

Stan has an inspiring notion of science. And midway through the interview, as I listen to him, I begin to sense his definition and wonder to myself how I would define science. Try it. It’s not easy. Feeling it his duty as a writer to probe the difficult questions, Stan is comfortable talking on the philosophical plane. He acknowledges and expands upon the “loop” between scientist and science fiction writer in creating the future. He’s willing, if not anxious, to theorize about politics in his utopian fashion. “Science is egalitarian. . . and it’s always for human good. . . . In capital[ism], there is no sense of sufficiency, or adequacy, or of what’s it all about. It’s just, more is better. And more is not always better," he says.

(There is fertile ground for a series on the subject of science vs. capitalism where we could have Stan back to the program to argue his point with a venture capitalist who might argue that there is an important symbiosis here between the two forces.)

This series is named Creating the Future, so I push Stan to tell us about the actual writing process. How does one go about creating the future on paper? Is it the futurist writers who do the heavy lifting for the rest of us? Extrapolation is the main tool at work, but what gives Stan his confidence to go out so far and say, "hey, this is how it’s going to be?"

I haven’t read or met many sci-fi writers with whom to compare Robinson, but he, and his writing, strike me as very grounded. He doesn’t write about technology which is not feasible now. He admits that he is evolving in the direction of going further and further out there. His latest novel 2312 is set in that year, a time when interplanetary travel between Mercury and Neptune takes just 16 days. This is the furthest he’s gone.


KSR at his writing table in Davis, CA

Stan lives in a quiet community in Davis, CA surrounded by the fields of industrial agriculture. He was eager to show us his writing station located outside his front door, where he writes, rain or shine, warm or cold. It was unusually cold last week, yet he persists, writing in a ski coat and gloves. His home and place in what he calls a “village” community with common garden space bears no resemblance to any place in his novels. Except perhaps the odd rock collection he keeps on his writing table.


KSR and Host, Theral Timpson in the garden

As he proudly points out which winter greens he attends to in the garden each morning, he tries to explain to me that a 16 day trip from Mercury to Neptune would only require that we go at 1 g. Standing between a patch of lettuce and some healthy looking carrots, watching children play in the distance, I’m entirely convinced that such a trip is possible.

“I’m as 'here' as anybody,” he says in the interview. “This science fiction thing is a way of thinking about now and a way of understanding now more fully. . . It’s a very boring and stable life, which for a novelist is a great thing.”

Be sure to get to the end of the interview, where Stan reads from the opening chapter of 2312.


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