David Ramirez, author of The Forever Watch – is here today to talk about breeding programs in genre fiction. If you haven’t run across one before well then I guess you better read his book.
Why Do Breeding Programs Keep Showing Up in Stories?
Eugenics, the management of genetic traits across a population, is an old idea.
It is a powerful theme in fiction, one that never seems out of fashion. It was done by Lensman’s benevolent Arisians, it produced longer-lived and then functionally immortal humans in Heinlein’s novels, it ruined the planet in Star Trek’s Eugenics Wars, it was inherent to the society of GATTACA, it found its way into Man of Steel’s Kryptonians, and it is even touched upon in the very un-futuristic 300, in which the Spartans kill their deformed children.
It has been around since Plato. Why does eugenics have such longevity?
Stories portray eugenics-crafted societies as being orderly and full of exceptional people. Its related offshoots like embryonic genetic manipulation, or more recently, transhumanist technological augmentations, are portrayed as cure-alls for diseases, for inequality, as transitional steps during The Singularity, as producing necessary superhumans to survive a crisis, and more.
As an ingredient of dystopia, eugenics stories cover the politics of inequality, sometimes handled softly, sometimes taken to extremes.
Eugenics, rarely considered a sexy subject, is intrinsically linked to sex and fertility. Historical romances in which the heroine and hero face the barrier of class or tribe or caste also have to do with eugenics. When the main obstacle is that one must not marry beneath oneself, when the upper class or the nobility has an obligation to continue its divine bloodline and not taint it with lesser strains—that’s as much a part of eugenics as sterilizing the mentally ill. There are few freedoms that matter to people as much as the freedom of each individual to choose with whom one can have children.
Its use can seem wonderful and can seem terrible, just like other great ideas that show up again and again in SF, like nanotechnology, AI, and robotics. Tied into science and technology, it also has heavy consequences for relationships and society. It encompasses both the hard and soft sides of Science Fiction.
It appeals to the idea of a better future through better humans, and it frightens as a tool of oppression. A recent treatment of eugenics as a part of this type of world-crafting is Veronica Roth’s excellent Divergent, in which society has tribalized according to a caste system of virtues, with an underclass of Factionless. As is often the case with these stories, it all works at the start until the cracks of the problems beneath that society show through.
But eugenics has something extra that most SF concepts don’t—it was enacted in real life with real and horrifying consequences. It was not just the Nazis that had a eugenics program. The rest, I leave to readers to Google. It is a dangerous idea, one with a lot of baggage that is difficult to separate from its historical past.
As a dangerous idea, it is one that keeps on giving to the world of stories.
Specific to The Forever Watch, why is Breeding Duty, in which women sleep through forced pregnancy with genetic partners selected for them, important for the ship’s society? It is part of an exploration of the extremes to which a society can be driven. For more than that, please read the book, which I hope will surprise most readers with the direction that TFW’s dystopian elements take.
DAVID RAMIREZ is an ex-scientist who divides his time between Oakland, CA, and Manila, Philippines. Once a molecular biologist who worked on the Human Genome Project, Ramirez returned to the Philippines to get married. He currently dabbles in computer science and programmed part of the information system for the chronobiologists of EUCLOCK, a cooperative project between European research groups on the study of circadian rhythms in model organisms and humans.