The Big Idea: Nancy Kress
Posted on May 22, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 11 Comments
In today’s Big Idea, Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress takes a look at controversy, science, and change — Sea Change, as a matter of fact.
At parties in my city—environmentally conscious, crunchy-granola, high-tech and socially activist Seattle—it is easy to start a flaming argument. Just walk up to a group, tilt your head, and say inquiringly, “What do you think of GMOs?” Then stand back to avoid being scorched.
Genetically modified organisms have passionate denouncers and equally passionate supporters. This is especially true for GMO crops, since the genemod bacteria and animals are usually hidden away in labs, ranches, or manufacturing facilities. But there is GMO food right out front on your table, plated in front of your kids. Everybody has an opinion.
But I didn’t want my new novella from Tachyon, Sea Change, to be a polemic for one side of the controversy. I wanted to explore in a balanced way both sides of the myriad questions involved. In this corner of the boxing ring: GMOs aren’t natural! We don’t know what they do to the human body long-term! GMO crops will contaminate wild flora and/or kill animals, possibly including us! There are studies! Look at the science!
And in the opposite corner: Neither is most of medical science “natural” to the human body, from Tylenol to heart transplants! There are decades of research already! Not one person has ever died from a GMO! If we don’t engineer crops, climate change and a growing world population will starve billions of people! Those studies have been invalidated! Look at the science!
The pugilistic metaphor is a deliberate choice. It isn’t only in Seattle that “GMO” is a fighting word, and with reason. There is a lot at stake: money, scientific reputations, food security, perhaps the future of the planet. The politics of genetic engineering, of agribusiness, of food regulation are all more complicated than they first appear. Both sides have waged wars of disinformation. Sometimes the war of words has spilled over into actual violence, with test farms attacked and crops destroyed, or Monsanto employees bodily threatened.
I am not a scientist. I think I would make a very bad scientist: not detail-oriented enough, or patient enough, or logical enough. Science fascinates me (forget rock stars and movie actors—I’ve always been a science groupie, sometimes embarrassingly so). But what I find really compelling are people. Why does a given person believe, act, love as they do? This is fortunate, because a writer cannot make a story solely out of controversial arguments. The science needs to happen to characters.
Sea Change happens to Renata Black. As I age, my protagonists get older (eventually I expect to be writing about octogenarians), partly because I get tired of brash, young, badass heroines. So Renata is a middle-aged woman in a near-future Seattle. Her life is not going as expected. She is a mother, a wife in a difficult marriage, an activist in a secret organization. An idealist, but one who recognizes that realizing ideals happens slowly, with effort, imperfectly, and sometimes at great personal cost.
Sea Change also happens to Jake, Renata’s actor husband. To their chess-loving son, Ian. To thirteen-year-old Lisa, a member of the Quinalt Nation. To Kyle, an ex-NFL wide receiver turned teen counselor, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold together a revolutionary cell of talented, utopian-minded misfits.
Finally, the novella is about other things as well as GMOs. Ocean blobs. Legal jurisdiction fights. Love and loss (if I hadn’t thought of it too late, I would have called my story Sea Change: A Love Story). The Quinalt Peninsula northwest of Seattle, which contains the world’s only temperate rainforest: wild, coastal, and beautiful.
A section of the Peninsula belongs to a Native American tribe, the Quinalt Nation, and so they, too, are part of my story. For this, I had the help of a Native American sensitivity reader. The Quinalt, who have occupied their land for 1,000 years, depend heavily on salmon fishing, which is threatened by modern agricultural run-off, in addition to the host of other threats the outside world poses to Native American cultures.
Sea Change spans twenty-eight years. It begins in 2005, the year that Switzerland banned genetically modified foods and the United States added sugar beets to the GMO foods available to consumers, which already included summer squash, soybeans, papayas, and tomatoes. Renata is in college. When the novella ends, she and the world are both very different. But the battles over science go on.
And, as I read the news each day, it seems that they always will.
Sea Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit the author’s site.
Treading carefully to avoid the mallet (hopefully)
I’m convinced that a large fraction of the GMO fear/hatred comes from the history of one particular company that I won’t mention here, but was involved in (non-GMO) herbicides used in wartime, and years later sells seeds whose offspring can’t legally be used for next year’s planting stock. So to avoid defamation suits, all GMOs were then tarred with that same brush.
I’m a proponent of GMO crops, and especially GMO-developed medicines (less certain about GMO fish). Anything that helps feed the world should be a good thing. I’m less fond of the political-economic situation around GMOs (the seed licenses, for instance, and patenting genes).
Nancy Kress’ work is usually great and I bet this one is too, but saying the Quinalt Peninsula contains the world’s only temperate rainforest is just wrong. There are temperate rainforests on six continents.
A lot of the anti GMO sentiment is found among very privileged people. That does not make them wrong, but it does mean that their opposition comes at very little personal cost.
Take Golden Rice (http://www.goldenrice.org/); I think preventing blindness is a good idea, but anti-GMO folks often argue that Golden Rice makes the problem worse because it is not a “real” solution. The real solution they offer is a better, balanced diet—but they don’t offer any way for vulnerable populations to achieve that.
There is also the “tain’t natural!” group. I generally find it difficult to talk to them, as they are impervious to information and so cannot either change their minds or offer coherent arguments.
And I will not even start on conspiracy addicts, of either opinion.
A little promotional note, not so much for me as for Locus, which is occupying the same rough patch as many organizations navigating our pandemic-roiled economy. There’s a review of Sea Change at Locus Online (one can Google up the precise URL). Nancy Kress seems incapable of writing a plain old one-dimensional tech/science story, and this one is indeed about whole lives lived in the world made by technological and environmental machineries–and by plain old Life Itself, as lived or endured.
Yes, I agree with Chukg. Even the more restrictive definitions that would exclude some of British Columbia’s forests leave room for Temperate Rainforest in BC, and the only thing particularly unique about the Quinault Rainforest would seem to be the size of some of its trees.
@joelfinkle – it’s not about avoiding defamation suits; it’s that one particular very large player in that industry exemplifies some serious concerns about GMOs that go beyond a simplistic “crunchy granolas vs. the scientists” narrative. Such as the worry, which you note, that farmers are forced into dependence on GMO seed suppliers. And concerns that genetic admixture from GMO drift will lead, not to horrible dangerous plants that will kill us, but to financially squeezing farmers who, through no fault of their own, are now growing “patented” crops.
I’m optimistic that the novel goes beyond the simplistic narrative and looks at the big picture.
Thanks for the pointer, bought the book.
Nancy Kress is a good author, generally no matter what the subject. GMOs are a hot button topic around here as well, that same certain company has an outpost here for GMO research, which has people on both sides of the fence in a lather, both because of the financial Big Corporation boot, and a fear of unfettered genetic tinkering. I may have to pick this one up for the library, if they ever give us a budget again.
It only takes one really Bad Idea to turn me off on any work of fiction and the “GMOs are evil” trope does it for me. Joelfinkle above is the most generous approach to the subject. So this is a big pass. Does one really have to be reminded that there are NOT two legitimate sides to every argument?
Minor nitpick: isn’t it Quinault, with a U?
Coolstar: With respect, what Kress describes in the post above is not “GMOs are evil,” nor is that what I saw in the book–the protagonist works for an underground organization *doing* gene-modification in the hope of staving off malnutrition and starvation. If there’s an “evil” in the story, it’s the human propensity to overreact and fix things by making them worse.