Monday, September 29, 2014

We Have Met the Alien and He Is Us

In The Methuselarity Transformation, I envision a religion based upon messages embedded in our genetic code by an alien, and presumably long extinct, civilization. This new twist on Intelligent Design neither invokes an omniscient or eternal designer nor requires evolution to be invalid. It only assumes that some piece of our genetic code has been deliberately written at some stage of its evolution and propagated forward unchanged.

Genomic SETI, the search for intelligent messages within our genetic code, has been discussed in an earlier post: By looking for linguistic patterns within segments of our DNA that don’t clearly code for function, scientists have made a case that these sequences are not only non-random, but bear the signature of an intelligent entity.

How advanced would a civilization have to be in order to be able to tinker with the genome and embed messages within it?  In the process of decoding the genome, we have begun to reverse engineer many of the processes that build and modify it, and have come to the point that we can begin to edit DNA precisely in order to eliminate functions that are detrimental to the organism and introduce functions and qualities that enhance its ability to survive and to thrive. And we are already capable of constructing strands of DNA from scratch out of standardized building blocks ( in order to make biologically based digital components or to modify nature.

The ability to use DNA as a communication medium is an almost trivial outgrowth of this technology. As early as 2005, researchers developed an alphabet based upon triplets of DNA nucleotides and encoded the first verse of a Christmas poem into the genome of a strain of the bacterium E. coli. As we become increasingly sophisticated in our ability not only to compose sequences of DNA, but also to stabilize selected sequences over many generations as organisms mutate and propagate, it is entirely conceivable that this medium will become the most enduring and practical means of recording the history of our civilization across the ages, embedded within the biology of a future world for an intelligent species to decode once it has sufficiently evolved.

Why then would it be less plausible that an ancient civilization has endeavored to tell its story in this manner than that ours will strive to do so in order to preserve our history for eternity? To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s venerable character Pogo ( we have met the alien and he is us.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Wooden Puppets and Four Dollar Words

While serious fiction writing began for me later in life, my love of words has roots in early childhood. My father, who was a young adult during the Great Depression, was both frugal and articulate. Conversations with him were liberally sprinkled with four dollar words, for none of which he ever paid more than a buck ninety eight. His epistles (a word he would definitely have favored) to his children and grandchildren have become treasured remembrances of him and his distinctive way of communicating.

A couple of exceptionally talented creative writing teachers in high school made writing fun, Dr. Campbell in the 10th grade and Miss (not Ms!) Busse in the 11th. (We were never privy to our teachers’ given names, even in yearbooks.) Early in the year, Dr. Campbell asked us to rewrite a fairy tale in the style of a favorite author. Here is what I wrote:

As it may have been told by Robert Penn Warren

After my fight with Eve Stevens, I went fishing. I drove home and got my permit and gathered my tackle and tossed my rod and reel into the trunk and sped off. For fishing is where you go when you’ve assassinated the President or stolen a candy bar or fought with Eve Stevens. You go to fish for bass or trout or pickerel. It’s where you go to catch a perch. It’s where you go to catch a boot or a cold. And sometimes, you pull up the line, and there, all shriveled up in the hot sun, tiny and pathetic, curled into a little ball, lies a truth. You don’t see it at first. But then, there it is with the point of the glittering stainless steel hook sticking out the top. I went fishing.

I caught a truth.

For it was at the Cambridge Reservoir that I first learned the truth about Pinocchio. You can be just sitting there fishing. You’re waiting for a tug on the line and suddenly you look up and there above you is a tree. I looked up and saw a tree. And you think, “That’s an oak tree. Pinocchio was once an oak tree. Maybe that’s Pinocchio.” It’s a warm, secure feeling to be alone and suddenly realize that you have company and that company is a tree and that tree is like a person and it is not a person. And then the tree is Pinocchio, not the flesh and blood Pinocchio, not even Pinocchio the living puppet, but the essence of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet, the real Pinocchio. The living Pinocchios were not the real Pinocchios. They were something else. They were but corruptions of the Carven Switch. The second Pinocchio, the wooden boy, the living puppet, was not the same as the oaken figure. It told a lie and its nose grew. But the nose grew from the lie and the lie from Pinocchio. And each piece of nose was but the incarnation of a lie and became an outgrowth of the Big Switch. The lie became the nose and the nose took root in the body and circulated its poisons throughout the fibers and the puppet became the lie and was no longer Pinocchio, no longer just a Carven Switch.

Take a puppet and give it life and make it into a living lie. Then give it flesh and a heart and a pair of kidneys and you have even a bigger lie. Give it life so the skin sweats and the eyes weep and the gall bladder secretes its resinous fluids. You know that all you have is still just a lie incarnate. The Kindly Old Toymaker thought he’d created himself a son. You want to tell him that this is not a son, but only a lie incarnate evolved from a Big Switch. Then you stop. You, too, are just flesh and blood. No more real, less real perhaps, than Pinocchio, for he was once a Big Switch and you, from the day of your birth, are a lie incarnate. You can no longer point to anything and say, “That is a lie.”

So you look up at the tree and now you know the truth about Pinocchio and about the Kindly Old Toymaker and about the Big Switch. And you feel secure in the knowledge. And you look around and see all those people who are really just lies incarnate. And you pity them because they don’t know about Pinocchio.

I knew. I had gone fishing.

(circa 1962)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Immortality and the future of OCD

What business does a psychiatrist have writing science fiction? Creating future worlds provides an opportunity to explore how timeless psychological conflicts might unfold within novel circumstances. While imagining the future draws on my background in the physical and biological sciences, discovering how changes in our surroundings might affect our emotions, idiosyncrasies and relationships intrigues me even more as a social scientist.

Ray Mettler, one of my protagonists, is a deeply flawed man who struggles with crippling compulsions and obsessions, not the least of which is his overwhelming fear of dying. The extreme measures he takes to prevent death stymie his capacity to experience pleasure or to live a meaningful life.

Early in The Methuselarity Transformation, Ray is offered an extraordinary opportunity to continue to live long after his body has died. In a single stroke, his prospect of oblivion vanishes forever. How might he change once the driving force behind his most prominent behaviors no longer exists? Will those behaviors vanish or will their hold upon him, and the demons from his past that lie beneath them, remain too strong to resist?

Our ability to thrive is intricately entwined with our quest for connectedness with others as well as our capacity to be alone. Our shared mortality can be both a powerful force that binds us together and the source of crushing loneliness. Imagine then how Ray’s newfound immortality might affect his relationships with those in his life who are still mortal and whom he will eventually leave behind.