The Big Idea: Jon McGoran
Posted on September 29, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 13 Comments
What’s the next step beyond gnarly tattooing? Jon McGoran has an idea, which makes up the central conceit of Spliced. But how he got there is another story entirely.
I came up with the idea for Spliced while researching my book Dust Up, an adult thriller about biotech in big food and pharmaceuticals. Researching science thrillers is a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun—sometimes too much fun, especially when you’re under a tight deadline and find yourself absolutely engrossed by some little nugget that is only tangentially relevant to the story that you should, at that very moment, be writing.
One topic that I came across, which I knew was only slightly relevant to the book I was writing, but which I also knew I would write more about later, was bio-hackers. Much like the people who built computers in their garages in the seventies and eighties, these amateur scientists are doing basement biotech in their own homes. Some of them know exactly what they’re doing; others not so much.
Part of a long tradition of citizen-scientists, I found it fascinating and compelling, but also vaguely terrifying in an, “Oh, so that’s where the plague that kills us all is going to come from,” kind of way.
I knew immediately that I wanted to write about this somehow. The most obvious idea to me was that plague, mentioned above. But I wanted to do something a little subtler, and slightly more removed from the garage science aspect of it.
That’s when I thought about gene splicing as a form of body modification: people splicing animal genes into their own to change themselves in subtle or drastic ways, to become chimeras. Given some of the extreme forms of body modification out there, and the ubiquity of tattoos and piercings, it seemed to me almost obvious that if such technology was available, there were those who would use it. Then I started to explore why.
One of the great aspects of writing science fiction is the opportunity to build and explore worlds of your own design, and when writing about the near future, I find especially fascinating the combination of outlandish and familiar, the changes both expected and unexpected, intended and unintended.
But when I decided that I would be writing in about a future several decades from now – enough time for gene splicing to become a low-tech, garage-based procedure – I realized it had to be a world dealing with much more acute effects of climate change. To ignore that in the future would be too much like denying it now.
It was a fascinating aspect of writing the book, made easier by a devastating series of rain and snow storms that repeatedly knocked out power infrastructure and crumbled roads in my area.
While climate change and gene splicing were initially separate but coincident aspects of the same future, I came to realize more and more how much one informed the other. For many of the chimeras, getting spliced wasn’t simply about a certain look or an act of rebellion, it was a statement – about oneness with the natural world, or separation from a humanity that so disregarded it, or even an homage to one of the many species rapidly going extinct.
As I continued to flesh out the world in which the story would take place, I quickly realized that the central premise—young people getting spliced and becoming chimeras—would have an impact on the world in which it took place, and would provoke a reaction from that world. Looking at the world around me – even back in the quaint, naïve days of a year or two ago – I knew that reaction would not be entirely pretty, and that the bigotry and intolerance I saw wouldn’t likely have disappeared by the time Spliced takes place (although, to be honest, I had hoped it wouldn’t have gotten so much worse so quickly).
That reaction became the final major component of the premise of Spliced—a religious and political backlash of intolerance against chimeras that coalesces around a law—The Genetic Heritage Act—that defines anyone whose DNA is not 100 percent human as no longer legally a person. It’s a stupid law, written by ignorant people, but with devastating effect. And as we’ve seen too many times in human history, when people define other people as less than human, it opens the door for wrongdoings of the most horrific kind.
With the themes and ideas and setting of Spliced largely in place, I was able to focus on the story itself: Who are the people involved, what do they do and say, how do they drive events and how are they impacted by them. Those fundamentals of story are obviously incredibly important to the book, but they are also incredibly important to me as story-teller, and as a person who spends more time with imaginary people than real ones. I absolutely develop emotional attachments to my characters (which is one reason I’m so fond of writing series).
But apart from the joy of bringing these characters to life, one of the things I love most about writing the books I do is the intellectual journey from cool idea to cooler ideas to deeper meanings, and wrapping it up in a believable world, compelling characters, and, hopefully, a kickass story.
Spliced: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
I wonder… does your story address inheritability? Do those engaging in splicing pass those traits along to their progeny? A (monstrous) legal argument could be made for removing status of those people doing this to *themselves*, but what about their offspring?
This could be a perfect example of punishing children for the “sins of their fathers”, something modern society continues to do without a thought. I know it’s not possible to follow every thread of an idea to its logical conclusion in the space of a single novel… just wonderin’.
I wonder too… about heritability as mentioned above and how that may affect evolution down the line.
Also splicing as adaptation to the changing climate, for instance, using skin modification as a sunscreen as the ozone continues to deplete. And what about splicing as illness prevention. Naked mole rats don’t get cancer and leeches don’t carry blood-borne disease, I want those genes please, although I’d rather not look like a naked mole rat or a leech. So much to think about here! This is an intriguing book and I’m adding it to my list.
Thanks! Yes, I did consider inheritability, but as with the virus-vector gene therapies on which the Spliced technique is based, the splices here are somatic, so they are not passed down. I thought about that a fair amount, but apart from the scientific basis of the technology, the jumble of splices that could result after a generation or two seemed potentially problematic.
this sounds FASCINATING :) *click* bought!
Immediately placed on my wish list! I’ve always enjoyed the ways Warren Ellis plays with this sort of thing – as a background item in TRANSMETROPOLITAN and front-and-center in the 5-issue series MEK – so this is right up my alley.
After being in biotech for 15 years professionally, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do it for a hobby, but to each their own. Body mods through genetic engineering sounds interesting, and I can’t think of a few people I know who would be into it, though I wonder how the human immune system would react to cells modified to produce cat whiskers or goat hooves or butterfly wings or what have you. You’ve got me hooked though, I’m going to look for this one in the stores.
Wow, so many ideas running around in that. I’m hooked.
I wonder too about the inheritability. (But I see the author limited that.) I wonder about unexpected side effects.
The bit about “garage biotech” does sound very much like a cross between the old mad scientist in his secret laboratory, and the geeky kid with the junior chemistry set…and maybe an ill-advised self-tattoo thing. (I cringed when I heard some podcaster say he’d done a self-tattoo.) — So such a thing with gene-splicing (or body modifcation) could go good or bad or somewhere in between real fast.
Hmm, and it also has me wondering about any critters or neighbors or workers who accidentally get into a mess. You know, like the vat of goo. Or a broken vial of mutagen from the TMNT, for example. ;)
All sorts of other interesting potential ideas, uh, spawning there!
Of note: I still miss James Cameron’s Dark Angel TV series. It was a very mixed bag, especially the 2nd season trying to redefine where they were going, with the unrealized 3rd or future seasons. But I enjoyed the show a lot regardless.
That sounds very, very cool!
[affixes chemistry professor pedantry hat]
The thymine structure on the cover is missing some atoms.
That sounds very, very cool!
Well now this certain seems fun and thought provoking. Certainly adding this one to me ports for plunder list. Arrrr!!!!
x The Captain
On my list!
It is a fascinating plot device – a little over a decade ago Caitlin R. Kiernan began writing about such a thing in various of her science-fiction stories (her invention was a movement she referred to as “parahumanism” with its’ first appearance in the novella “Riding The White Bull”) and like any consideration of extreme body modification it can be portrayed in a variety of ways. Driven by motivations of transformation, vanity, alienation, and rebellion. I look forward to reading this particular take on it all.
This sounds like another winner! Ordered it and looking forward to reading it.