The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt
Have you ever wanted a pet dragon? If the answer isn’t yes, is it because you never thought it was possible? And now that the idea’s on the table, hey, do you want one now? Author Dan Koboldt shows us a world in which that’s possible in his newest novel, Domesticating Dragons. Read on to see how man’s best friend could end up breathing fire.
It’s no secret that genetic technologies have rapidly advanced in the past few decades. The initial draft of the human genome sequence was published in 2001. It had taken an international team of scientists ten years and about a billion dollars in research funding to reach that critical milestone. Now, we have instruments that can sequence a human genome in three days for two thousand bucks. Hundreds of thousands of human genomes have been sequenced. Genetic testing is increasingly used to diagnose diseases, guide cancer treatment, and catch serial killers. Even you, the average consumer, can buy a test that tells you your genetic ancestry, how much Neanderthal DNA you’ve got, and whether you really are part Native American like Grandma claims.
That’s all well and good. Some of it is part of my day job as a genetics researcher. At the same time, I wondered how soon we might be able to apply genetics to something really exciting, like making dragons.
Genetic engineering technologies have also improved considerably in recent years, notably with the discovery of CRISPR-Cas. This system, which was discovered in bacteria, allows us to make precise “edits” to the DNA of living cells. Both of these features – the precision and the part about living cells – represent major advances, which is why the scientists who discovered CRISPR-Cas recently won the Nobel Prize. We can also synthesize DNA molecules – write the code, in other words.
Put all of that together: vastly improved knowledge of the genome, custom synthesis, and precision editing tools for the code of life. It doesn’t take a significant leap to begin designing organisms from scratch. The sensible approach would be to start with single-cell organisms. I say screw that. Let’s go for something big. While there are countless creatures of myth to choose from, nothing simultaneously fascinates and terrifies humans the way that dragons do.
When I started writing a book about a genetic engineer who designs dragons for a living, the same issue kept coming up. Why dragons? When some of my early readers asked this, I had trouble understanding the question. Dragons are awesome. I’ve managed to insert some form of dragon into every book I’ve written. Why not dragons? My friends gently pointed out to me that not every reader would accept dragons no matter what. They need some reason to exist in the fictional world.
Many of the authors I admire have accomplished this with particular style. The dragons of Pern (Anne McCaffrey) were created to fight the falling of Thread, an alien invasive species. The dragons of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire have been trained for war in the Napoleonic era. And in The Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon), ancient dragons exist to bring chaos to the world.
So yes, I had to justify dragons. I decided that in this book, the world needs dragons because a canine epidemic has all but wiped out the dogs (believe it or not, a global pandemic affecting the population seemed like science fiction in 2018). Think of all the roles that dogs play in our modern society. We raise them to be pets, outdoor companions, security guards, and emotional support animals. Without dogs, we’d need some other animals to fill that role. And I think we all know that cats wouldn’t step up.
The company in my book, the Build-A-Dragon Company, designs dragons to fill some of the voids left behind by canines. Hunting dragons. Junkyard dragons. Pink-and-purple birthday dragons. Developing these models requires sophisticated laboratory equipment and computing infrastructure. That’s why the main character truly wants to work there. He has a brother with an as-yet-incurable genetic disorder, and with resources like these it might be possible to find a cure.
In case you hadn’t guessed, this is where the events in the book begin to intersect my life in the real world. My colleagues and I sequence the genomes of children with undiagnosed disorders in hopes of discovering new disease genes and eventually providing a diagnosis. I’ve gotten to know a bit about the patient experience as a result. By the time they enroll in my research program, patients have usually undergone extensive testing, all of which failed to reveal the underlying problem. We call it a “diagnostic odyssey” because it can be a long and arduous journey for the patient and his or her family. We only find an answer (a likely diagnosis) for about one-third of families, but each time it brings about a profound sense of relief.
There are absolutely parts of Domesticating Dragons that draw on my experiences in genetics and in academia. It was hard for me not to inject a lot of hard science into the book. After all, I spend my days thinking about genes and genetic conditions. However, I’m keenly aware – mostly from my experiences in social situations – that the science is more interesting to me than it is to anyone else. So I tried to strike a balance between realistic hard SF and a story that anyone can enjoy.
As long as they love dragons.