The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

Wiping out a terrible disease that kills millions each year: An unmitigated good, yes? Well, hold on there — Nancy Kress is here to explain how there are consequences to every action, and what those consequences mean for you, and her new novel, Terran Tomorrow.


Why should you care about gene drives?

Right now, I can see you thinking: I don’t! Next! But give me five minutes to explain why you should.

First, the five-second-or-so version (depending on how fast you read): Genes drive can, and soon will try to, eliminate an entire species.  Sparrows, wolves, mosquitos, and you are all species.

The five-minute version: A gene drive is an artificial “selfish gene” capable of forcing itself into 99% of an animal’s offspring, instead of the usual 50%. Theoretically, they could affect promoter genes, which are in charge of turning other genes on and off. In actuality so far, we know that they can affect reproduction by turning all males or females (pick one) of a species sterile. We know this because London researchers, supported in large part by the Gates Foundation, have succeeded in creating this gene drive in females of the malaria-carrying mosquito Anopheles gambiae sterile. At the same time, as part of the international effort Target Malaria, a small field trial with sterile male Anopheles will begin in Burkina Faso by the end of 2018. If all goes well, Anopheles may eventually be eliminated, and with it malaria.

What if all does not go well?

What if it does?

What if the same technique is used to eliminate other species?

These are the places that hard science fiction looks for stories—the impact craters of major technological advances like gene drives. I write hard SF, and my new novel, Terran Tomorrow, is interested in the impacts, good and bad, of genetic engineering on the natural world. Since those impacts are made by people, Terran Tomorrow deals not only with how people mess around with genes but also, and more importantly, why.  For what good or bad reasons, under what circumstances, with what consequences. How do we clean up other people’s genetic messes? How do we clean up our own—and at what personal sacrifices? Science is much more about people than petri dishes.

Terran Tomorrow is the conclusion of my Tomorrow’s Kin trilogy, which began with the Nebula-winning novella “Yesterday’s Kin.”  In the first book, aliens came to Earth. In the second book, humans went to World. In this third book, humans and a few aliens return to Earth, and are startled and shocked by the changes since they left. Environmental changes, personal changes, a complete upending of the social order. Time dilation, if it brings a decade of genetic warfare, can do that.

Marianne Jenner, evolutionary biologist, is caught between the clashing philosophies of her now-grown grandsons, ecologist Colin Jenner and his brother, U.S. Army Colonel Jason Jenner. Geneticist Zack McKay and his fractious scientific team are trying under impossible conditions to create a planet-saving gene drive. Alien visitors are rebelling. So are ex-wives. A civil war rages. And sparrows are now deadly.

Sparrows? Yes, because, as I mentioned in the five-minute version of why gene drives matter, they can theoretically affect other genes besides those regulating the reproductive system. There are also promoter genes affecting various metabolic pathways in organs such as the brain.

In real life, scientists are exploring links between microglia, a form of brain cells, and both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s, in which microglia don’t seem to be functioning optimally. Could a gene drive change that? Or cause it? What else in the brain can be permanently changed with a gene drive?

In Terran Tomorrow, people must confront and act on two of the most difficult questions in genetics: How much risk do we undertake in experimenting with the building blocks of life? And if others have experimented and the results are catastrophic, how much risk do we undertake trying to clean up their disaster?

There are no easy answers to those questions, not in real life nor in fiction. That’s what makes the questions worth doing what SF does best: rehearsing one possible future. Because gene drives are already here.


Terran Tomorrow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Facebook.


11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Nancy Kress”

  1. Sounds a little along the lines of “ice-nine” in “Cat’s Cradle”…i.e., rushing forward pell-mell with a new tech that solves a problem somebody wanted solved. Only in this case, the first instance wasn’t as catastrophic, and the author is looking further down the road.

  2. Oh goody, something else to worry about at 3 in the morning when I can’t sleep… Book sounds really good, wish it was all fiction!

  3. Interestingly, the Chinese tried something similar to this approach, though much lower tech, with Mao’s campaign to eliminate sparrows based on the misguided (not to say idiotic) belief that the sparrows ate too much grain from farm fields ( It ended about as badly as you’d expect if you know anything about ecology and food webs.

    So eliminating mosquitoes? Almost certainly a bad idea. We like to think we’re so much smarter than Mao and his spiritual kin (e.g., Lysenko), but we’re really not so smart as we think. But maybe with your help and help from other clueful folks, we’ll learn enough wisdom not to tamper with things we don’t fully understand. Not being a Luddite here; just pointing out that complex systems are complex.

    Other examples? Geoengineering, pace Dr. Brin.

  4. There are so many species of mosquito, and they cause so very, very much human suffering and death that I think it would be OK to work on getting rid of one of them. Anopheles gambiae is only one of many species that carries malaria. But fear not, the species that carry West Nile are totally different (dusk feeding rather than day feeding), for example. And presumably when one species of mosquito is removed another will take it’s place. As long as the new mosquitoes don’t transmit the same (or new or more) diseases, then the desired outcome will be accomplished without too much damage to the ecosystem.

    But these are the interesting questions of near-future hard sci-fi, and they’re important to ask.

  5. The first two books of this trilogy are great reads; Nancy always comes through with thoughtful SF powered by compelling plots and detailed characterizations. I’ve been looking forward to this one for months!

  6. I’m having a little trouble grasping the concept of a gene that causes sterility and also shows up in 99% of the affected organism’s offspring.

    Book sounds interesting though.

  7. Chris, this works if the gene is recessive, that is, it acts only if there is one from each parent. Normally, this would mean that some, but not all, direct decendents would have the either one or two copies of the gene, depending on whether one or both parents have the recessive gene.
    If the former, some direct decendents would have one copy of the gene and most would have none. If the latter, some direct decendents would have one copy, some would have two, and be sterile, and some would have none.
    The point of the “drive”, which is a molecular mechanism, is to make sure that most to all of the direct decendents have at least one copy of the gene.

    Feel free to correct me or expand my understanding, fellow posters!

  8. The first two books were pretty good. Wouldn’t have known about them if not for the big idea. Got my copies signed at a book festival last year. One day I am going to get a silvery permanent marker and get my e-reader signed.

  9. I wonder how much of the fear of sterilizing mosquitos is a reasonable risk assessment, and how much is simply an irrational fear that has decided the devil you know is always better than the devil you dont. Malaria kills half a million people a year. The cure would have to be doomsday proportions to be worse than the disease. Anything less than that and its an improvement.

    I find it interesting that there are two common ways in superhero stories for people to get their superpowers: genetic manipulation (all the xmen) and radiation (spiderman bitten by a radioactive spider, superman gets his power from the sun and is weakened by the radiation from kryptonite, etc). I assume its because the vast majority of readers are still willing to accept that genetic manipulation and radiation can literally do anything.

    The irrational terror of gene editing that we see now is following the same footsteps as th3 irrational terror of nuclear power and radiation thats been around for decades.

    Nobody today would build a plant like chernobyl. It was an out of date design when it was built. And there are much better designs now. But mention nuclear power, and some luddite will inevitably bring up chernobyl. Its like arguing against the latest electric car design by always bringing up the crashes of the Pinto.

    One earthquake and tsunami in japan killed 16000, but nuclear fear mongerers only talk about the nuclear reactor failure the earthquake caused at fukushima. Which caused 1 confirmed death. And new designs like molten salt thorium reactors would be able to naturally shut down into a safe mode in a situation like fukushima that wiped out all external power. But fear mongering has essentially brought new plant design research in the US to a halt.

    So what do we end up with instead? Coal is still a big part of powering the grid. Solar and wind just cant replace it. And coal causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Coal ash is more radiactive than nuclear waste.

    Restrictions on radiation emissions from a nuclear plant are so insanely restrictive that livivin within 50 miles of a nuclear plant for a year will expose you to additional radiation equivalent to eating one extra banana for that year. Coal plants vent their radiation into the environment like it was going out of style. But its the devil we know. So people cling to it. And nuclear power is just a big unknown for people and inside that argument from ignorance, they insert doomsday scenarios happening every day. Not based on any real understanding of nuclear power, but an idea spawned from massive and wilfull ignorance driven by fear.

    Malaria kills half a million people a year. And the only outcome that would be worse than that would be a doomsday scenario. And a lot of people pushing those doomsday scenarios understand gene editing and environmental effects about as well as they understand how genetics give the Xmen their superpowers.

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