This page updated on 21 February, 2008
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Learning episode 7:

 

Purpose and use of this learning episode: genetic engineering as a weapon in "Outbreak", with short stories 'Blood Music' and 'Soft Blows'


On the myclasses portal where this learning episode was found there were links to the story by Stableford in full text, announced from learning episode two, as well as to the fine short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear. These full texts are withdrawn here for copyright reasons although the commentaries on them remain. The full text of the Rade story 'Soft Blows' remains as it is offered under Creative Commons, as per the note at the bottom of this page.

 

Students attending a face-to-face class for this study watched the DVD version of the film Outbreak as part of their studies in class with computer and overhead projector, while students studying as flexible learning were offered a copy of the film on CD-ROM, copied under the special provisions of local Copyright laws.

Image for learning episode seven of the 'brave new world' theme area of the mySF Project

Index:

Forum topics for discussion
Greg Bear and 'Blood Music'
A genetic engineering comedy, Stableford's 'The Furniture ...'
'Soft Blows' by David Rade
Full text of 'Soft blows' by David Rade
Genetic engineering as a weapon, Outbreak
Resource list
Readings and links
Further reading and links

 

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The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.

 

Forum topics for discussion:

 

 

Comment on the image of genetic engineering as a WMD as seen in Outbreak

 

Are the 'smart colonies' of cells seen in Greg Bear's 'Blood Music' a sign of hope for humanity, or something to be feared as a competitor?
  How is genetic engineering used for good and evil in 'The Furniture of Life's Ambition'? Also, would you sit on a live sofa?

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Greg Bear and 'Blood Music'

 

Greg Bear's 'Blood Music' (2002) was first written as a short story and then rewritten as a novel of the same name. The story won several awards and several stories similar have appeared since 'Blood Music' arrived, including episodes of The Outer Limits SF television series.

 

'Blood Music' is a very different short story from the earlier offerings from Leiber ('The Dead Man'), Sturgeon ('It'), and Stableford's 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions'. In these earlier stories the focus is mostly on the doctors and scientists who create some monstrous creature that ends up destroying the creator and many others. But in 'Blood Music' the focus is not on the scientist but is instead on what happens to the scientist himself because of his radical experiment.

 

There is a good deal of technical language about the genetic experiment that Vergil undertakes to engineer the bacteria. Vergil goes too far and his experiment is shut down but before he can be shut out from his laboratory, he injects himself with the smart bacteria. These tiny organisms can communicate and they have a level of intelligence. More important, the bacteria can learn. These micro-organisms organise and venture out through Vergil's body, working out how to communicate across the distances within Vergil's body.

 

The smart bacteria in Vergil's body do not turn him into a great, hulking brute that wants to eat human flesh. In fact, the smart bacteria improves Vergil. The bacteria improves his diet, fixes his eye-sight and turns flab to muscle. In this story, the way the bacteria gre and organised became more important that one of the lead characters, Vergil. 'Blood Music' was the first short story where a trillion cells were the main protagonist. The miracle of mutation  (Nicholls & Clute, 1995) seen in the colonies of cells building a new species became the most important part of the story.

 

After the success of Greg Bear's 'Blood Music' published in 1985, a series of stories about genetically-altered humans (Kirby, 2000) began. The science in 'Blood Music' is "inspired doubletalk" (Csicsery-Ronay, 1996) with a mad scientist and handy-man genius Vergil but these familiar ideas from this theme area are still less important that other aspects, such as the bodily change that overcomes Vergil.

 

While the tiny colonies improve Vergil in so many ways, it soon becomes apparent that they will not stop with improvements. When the smart  cells communicate with Vergil himself through the blood-brain barrier (where we find the title of 'Blood Music') they understand that Vergil is not God but just another being. They change Vergil so much that they are ready to become a completely new form of life, in which every cell in the organism is intelligent and the whole organism is literally unable to be stopped or killed.

 

In the novel form of Blood Music, the creature that was Vergil merges with many other humans in an apartment building and eventually becomes a huge, gossamer-thin creature that rises into the sky and sets sail for the stars as a new organism, a sort of jelly-fish like collective of minds and capabilities. While the bodily change of Vergil and the others is deeply unsettling to some readers (Vint, 2004), the promise of the transformation into an interstellar, conscious organism is welcomed by others.

 

In the same way that the smart cell colonies changed Vergil into an entirely new type of being, so does the short story 'Blood Music' change the way genetic engineering stories have been written. Now, writers and film-makers can see so much more potential from harvesting the amazing power of our own genetic code.

 

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Comedy and irony in Stableford's 'The Furniture of Life's Ambition'

 

One of the oldest stories in the world has been the love triangle. This is when two men love one woman, or two women love the same man. The drama in this often results in a duel, a murder, or at least a fist-fight. Sometimes the result of the love triangle can be comedy, like one man hiding under the bed when another man walks in, and so on.

 

The Stableford story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambition' is a love triangle and one of the three people in this triangle is a talented scientist, obsessed with the possibilities of genetic engineering. This is a familiar picture after the other readings in this theme area. However, the second side of the triangle is the beautiful wife of the talented scientist. She is fabulously lovely and she just manages to put up with her scientist husband.

 

The third side of the triangle is the money man. While the scientist has great ideas for genetic engineering and can carry them out, he needs the money man to bankroll his experiments and leave him in peace. The trouble is, the money man and the scientist's wife become more than friends and then the scientist finds out about it.

 

The scientist chooses a particularly nasty way to punish the lovers, so this short story also ends with a double murder, or does it? The story tells us that the jury could not really decide if a piece of furniture was dead or still alive.

 

This short story by Stableford is offered as a rare piece of comedy with genetic engineering.

 

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'Soft Blows' by David Rade

 

Looking through the short stories, films and novels in the brave new world theme area it might seem that they all paint a gloomy picture of the use of genetic engineering in society. This is certainly the case with Gattaca as seen in learning episode six, even though individual human will does triumph over the enhanced majority. Even though it is not clear in this theme area, throughout SF there has also been a strand of writing and films that celebrate the possibilities of genetic engineering in the future.

 

Writers who imagine more positive outcomes from the use of genetic engineering include: the great Australian novelist and short story writer Greg Egan; English author of Mortal Remains, Christopher Evans; author of Fairyland, Paul McAuley, Greg Bear (who also wrote 'Blood Music') and his Darwin's Radio, as well as many more. We do not study these texts in the mySF Project because of the size, level and availability of these novels.

 

Some of the visions these writers and others have written include personal transports that are not powered by combustion or fusion engines. Instead, they are engineered insects that eat plants and they have a special carapace for carrying passengers. These huge, eight-legged creatures walk to a destination across any terrain with their jointed legs, so no roads are needed and planets are given over again to living creatures, not machines.

Other writers have imagined a future when genetic engineering is so available, rapid and effective that young people going out at night can choose to be a female or male for the night, or to change their bodies into some other, fantastic form.

 

The story 'Soft Blows' by David Rade follows this tradition looking to the more positive aspects of genetic engineering, or at least at some aspects of possible genetic engineering that are less negative than so many of the other texts presented here.

 

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Full text of 'Soft blows' by David Rade

 

The Colinton Council gave Matt Dunach the task of talking with Chi-2. He left the meeting and turned up Baker Street and pulled up his Ford 250 utility at a little, timber cottage. The lawn was recently cut and the fence painted. A plaster stork stood beside the front door. Matt stood at the door and waited but he could hear no sound from inside, then made out the faint tinkling of SnowFM’s theme jingle. Matt’s hearing was better than most due to his bionic implant and he heard a high-pitched humming sound, running with the jingle. This meant that Chi-2 was using some sort of throat and some sort of ears.

 

There were three Chi in Colinton. They were no trouble, as a rule, and the Auxiliary Council tried to give them as much room as possible during their Exile. The Chi gave each other room, too. Matt had never seen the Chi-X together, instead they seemed to prefer the company of humans.

 

The last time Matt saw Chi-2 was at the Snowgoose Hotel. Chi-2 was picking up a bottle of wine across the counter. He looked like many of the other young men in from the farm, in shorts and boots, dusty shirt and a hat. Chi-2 looked fit and tanned with the hands of a man who worked with fence posts, cattle and a shovel. It was a great copy but an infringement of the rules. Matt’s implants let him ‘see’ DNA profiles but all the enhancements needed by the Auxiliary Council were far less than the natural abilities of the Chi. Matt calmed himself and pushed open the door. The rule for these visits was to show no surprise, be patient and speak softly with many repetitions.

 

Chi-2 was in his kitchen, humming along to the requests hour on SnowFM. He was an old man with a fringe of pale hair around a freckled pate. He shuffled around in baggy clothes and socks and his hands trembled as he poured a cup of tea. He pretended he did not hear Matt come in and feigned surprise, then offered a cup of tea. Matt declined. Chi-X were the best chameleons, but they did not learn the skills that went with the façade. They sat around the little linoleum table as the radio propped against the window tinkled an ancient pop song. It was a clear, late summer afternoon streaming in from the backyard. Chi-2 was facing across the table to Matt so could not see a magpie picking at a flower-bed. The last thing they needed was a distraction.

 

“What do you think?” Chi-2 asked with a little smile.

 

“Excellent,” Matt replied, nodding. “Is it that old man from the television serial … Neighbours?”

 

“Yes,” Chi-2 beamed, delighted. He gathered himself and added, “I know I am not meant to …”

 

“Don’t worry about that now,” Matt interrupted. They could revisit the various transformations at a later stage, when Chi-2 was not needed. “I’ve come to see you about Chi-3. We need your help.”

 

For a moment Ch-2 did not remember who Chi-3 was. The Chi did not use names as they could taste DNA profiles from a good distance, depending on molecular currents. As a generic descriptor, Chi-fi was used for married males and Chi-de was for married females. The unmarried were all Chi-X but these terms were not used often as the Chi used puffs of molecular tags to name individuals, indicating the DNA profiles of another Chi, or any other creature, for that matter. It was all perfectly comprehensible to any Chi and seemed perfectly sensible to them for all creatures. Chi-X were often heard to feel pity for the species without this ability.

 

When the first Chi were Exiled they were intrigued by the use of the human soft palate, tongue and lips and were more adaptable to their imposed forms than almost all other species. They picked up speech readily but were much more unwilling to give away the ability to taste DNA profiles. Some tried to argue for dog noses as an addition to the human form but this was disallowed by the Auxiliary Council. A compromise was made so Chi-X kept modified sense organs at the back of the scalp, flapped like gills to open up when required.

 

“Is he dead?” Chi-2 asked.

 

Matt was startled. “Why do you ask that?”

 

Chi-2 shrugged and sipped tea. It was clear that it was the first question that came to him. Matt continued with his account.

 

“So this has been through the full Council, understand that. The Auxiliary told me to ask help from you, before using more drastic measures. You understand what I mean?”

 

Chi-2 seemed excited. He sipped at his tea nervously, as he had seen done on television. His internal plumbing was a little stray and a droplet of tea formed at his right nostril. Matt ignored it, taking the silence as assent.

 

“On good account from at least three witnesses, Tom, Parksy and Kevin, Chi-3 was seen walking straight down the bitumen to the Old Colinton road at eleven-thirty-five Friday night, drunk and excited.”

 

Chi-X chose to use alcohol quite frequently. This was considered a steadying influence by the others, as a rule. They could choose to be drunk, to stay drunk or even to be sober by altering their brain chemistry. This was an ability many of the Exiles envied. If they chose, they could simulate drunkenness with some practice and time but Chi-X seemed to prefer to do it like the humans, standing at the bar of the Snowgoose Hotel and drinking beer or wine.

 

Chi-2 chipped in, “That is typical of Chi-3, he has always relished the full experience. Once he told me that he was drunk for a week on vodka and then enjoyed, his words ‘enjoyed’ a hangover for another day. No wonder you worry about him.”

 

Matt doubted the story but let it pass. He nodded gravely, “Yes, we worry about him, of course, but there is more to it than just caring for Chi-3.”

 

“Aha,” Chi-2 agreed, as if he expected more. This was the most interesting day he had enjoyed for weeks and he hoped for more.

 

“I will explain the situation as it was told to me. Chi-3 arrived at the main bar of the Snow Goose and joined Tom, Parksy and Kevin. Salty and Dot joined the group and chatted with the four ‘men’ for an hour and then left. The four stayed on talking, watching television and drinking. The others figure Ch-3 bought three rounds in all and would have drunk eight glasses of the house white. They watched the news, the end of the cricket match, then a documentary called ‘Ocean’s Deadliest’.”

 

“Goodness me,” Chi-2 said. The old man on Neighbours used this phrase when he was frustrated and it always interested Chi-2, who could see no meaning in it at all. Chi-2 saw there was no tea left but he did not want to seem rude. As Matt was looking out of the window Chi-2 took the opportunity to regurgitate the tea into the cup as gently and quietly as possible.

 

Matt tried not to notice Chi-2 and gazed out at a cloud filleted in the darkling sky.

 

“I mention ‘Ocean’s Deadliest’ particularly. During the film Chi-3 became more than usually animated. He drank his wine quickly and repeated the words of the documentary. His friends were also drinking and applauded his impressions, but Chi-3 stopped suddenly and watched a section on the White Pointer shark.

 

“This was special footage. You might remember the footage, last year, when the surfer was attacked out from the Cape Byron lighthouse. There was a diver with a camera phone who captured the whole thing. Chi-3 was shaken and seemed upset. The footage was graphic, do you remember the scene?” he asked Chi-2, who was sipping at his tea again, now mostly full and with a piece of sweet corn floating at the rim.

 

“No,” Chi-2 said distantly. I try to avoid the nature documentaries, after that time when you … when the Council ordered me … I avoid them,” Chi-2 added.

 

“I wish Chi-3 avoided them. You see, he was talking about the stingray, the sea snake, the electric eel. He was going on about how interesting the Ocean was and how dull Lake Selwyn was. On and on. Then the white pointer came on and he ‘went very strange’ as Parksy said. He sat there for ten minutes without speaking. Then he went wild, shouting and laughing, saying he had the answer, saying it was the most important project he had ever taken on.”

 

“He used those words, ‘the most important project’?” Chi-2 asked.

 

“Yes. He did. And I know what a ‘project’ is, for a Chi.” Matt looked directly at Chi-2, who was trying to avoid his gaze. “I have seen some of your projects.”

 

Chi-2 shuffled over to the sink and tipped out his tea. “So you think his project is …”

 

Matt interrupted, “I am very afraid that his project is to get to Lake Selwyn and remake himself into a freshwater White Pointer. As you can see, this would be not only very bad for Chi-3, possibly for someone water-skiing or swimming in the lake, and very definitely for Colinton because we do not have freshwater White Pointers. Many questions would be asked. The Council does not want these questions.”

 

He looked at Chi-2, stood and took two large paces forward, “And you do not want these questions.”

 

Chi-2 could barely contain himself. He covered the rush of blood by deadening his skin colour and telling the muscles to relax, but he could not dull the rising song in his mind.

 

“So,” Chi-2 began, “what can I do to help?”

 

Matt sighed, put his large fists on his hips and spoke to Chi-2’s ear. The old man was completely flaccid, which was better than other choices, Matt thought. “The Auxiliary Council was asked to deal with the matter by the full Council and on a vote of seven to one they agreed to ask you to go to Lake Selwyn as quickly as possible, find Chi-3 and return him here for disciplinary action. This is not a request.”

 

“Find Chi-3,” the old man said in a whisper, “and return here with him.” He was so relaxed that he started to dribble.

 

“Also understand that I voted against this solution. We have other ways of finding and retrieving Exiles, but they are certainly more drastic.”

 

There was a hint of a smile on the old man’s pallid lips. His faded blue eyes were sparking.

 

“Finally, understand that I have been given authority to retrieve Chi-3 any way I see fit after five days. I will also retrieve you. If there is any accident or …” he paused and shook his head, “any attack before five days, I will retrieve you both immediately. In this case your Exile here will be ended and you will be sent away to a less pleasant Exile.”

 

Chi-2 knew what this meant. The very worst exile for Chi-X was a sterile, airless rock in space.

 

On a barren rock in a vacuum existing in any form was the problem, there was no fun to be had. Chi-2 was acutely aware that Colinton was the easiest Exile, for the least offence, at least for Chi-X.

 

“Five days may not be enough for the change and then to find my dear comrade” Chi-2 said. “This is a large proj … er, task, and it takes some time.”

 

“How long?”

 

“Two days for the change,” Chi-2 said. Already there were signs that he was straightening from his old man’s stoop. The network of wrinkles under his chin was fading and a million pinpricks of black hair were starting on his scalp. Matt couldn’t bear to watch.

 

“At sunset tomorrow I pick you up here. I’ll be in my truck with a tarpaulin over the back, you see what I mean? If you’re not ready then I deal with the problem myself, my own way.”

 

“I will work non-stop to prepare”, Chi-2 promised. He was fresh-faced now and Matt thought he was reverting to the form he was asked to take on arrival. “I will do my best!”

 

Matt started to turn away and then turned back. “How you find Chi-3 is your business. But I don’t want two sharks and I definitely don’t want you to be seen, by the naked eye or by sonar or by satellite, see?” He pointed a finger at Chi-2 and jabbed a warning. “Don’t let this go to your head. Keep it simple and useful, right?”

 

Chi-2 nodded eagerly. “Of course,” he agreed. He thrust out a hand to shake Matt’s but Matt was gone, the door slamming behind him.

 

In his old life, before his terrible mistake and Exile, Chi-2 was an advanced designer, enjoying considerable success with living furniture and tree-houses for the poor. Chi-2 laughed and clapped his hands together. He skipped around the house as he drew the curtains and locked everything. He stripped, kicked his clothes into the corner and sat on the sofa in the warm dark.

 

After two hours, when the street lights were glowing palely through the curtains, Chi-2 worked out the design for the neck float and forty minutes after that he worked out a simple addition for a crumpled feeler at the top of his head. Then there were the loose and floppy tentacles with sensing organs as a ridge along their opaque, invertebrate length. Unlike a jellyfish, he would not have stingers but sniffers, to find and track Chi-3 through the cold waters of Lake Selwyn.

 

Matt visited the Colinton shops the next morning and midday. He left grocery bags of vegetables at the back door of Chi-2’s house but did not attempt to look inside the house. When he came back at noon with a bag full of cabbages the morning bag was gone. There was a trail of viscous, clear fluid on the back step, leading back into the house. Matt knew that changing body form was hard work, requiring energy through food. He tried not to think about Chi-2 somewhere inside the darkened house, doing whatever it was that Chi-X did to change. There was a sickly, sweet smell emanating faintly from inside and for some reason his eyes started to become watery when he reached the back door.

 

He returned with his Ford 250 at sunset and parked in the driveway. He brought gardening gloves and a face mask and there was a large, green tarpaulin in the ute’s tray back. At seven-thirty Derek from his property at Bereit Creek and then Michael Patterson from the Country Club Motel arrived in his Subaru. Michael had brought a six pack of beer. They stood around Matt’s Ford and then walked up to Chi-2’s front door. Just as he climbed the front step Michael reeled back and gagged.

 

A few minutes later the three, large Colinton men went through the front door as a clear and fine night gathered about them. They were inside the house for just a moment before Matt returned to the Ford and pulled out the canvas. He tucked it under one arm and went inside. There were no lights on inside and anyone walking past would have heard grunts and curses. Then someone knocked over something that broke like china and there was a lull. Only a minute later Derek backed out of the front door straining over something bulky in the tarpaulin. Then came Michael and finally Matt. Matt knocked over the plaster stork that stood on the grass fringe and the figurine lost its black head against an edge of a garden stone.

 

There was no-one out and about even though it would have been normal for the neighbours to be hosing their gardens. Somehow, the neighbours both sides of Chi-2’s house decided not to hose that night and instead turned up their televisions and fixed dinner with a good deal of clattering of pots and pans.

 

The men struggled over to the driveway and slid the great bulky canvas onto the tray. They stood back, panting. They climbed into the Ford’s cabin and drove away after Matt put up the tailgate and spoke to the canvas in warning tones. As he drove down to Baker Street and turned right Matt could see there were two of the Auxiliary Council in the Snowgoose bar. They were blocking the view out to the street. The Ford 250 utility with the three men sitting in the front cruised past the hotel, past a few blocks of little cottages, the BP service station, and then changed gears to climb the hill out of town. As the truck pulled steadily up the slope the canvas bulge in the back shifted position and bumped with a soft and wet sound and there was a thin, piping wail from the back. The men in the front ignored the sound and continued talking about the way digital cameras had changed their lives: with their proliferation almost any tourist or unknowing local could pull out a camera for a snap and there it would be, an image saved on a thousand home computers and moved around the Earth in minutes. It was an invasion of privacy, Derek said. Michael said digital cameras saved money, were easy to use and foolproof, so they would have to be accepted and processes put in place to maintain privacy for all of Colinton’s inhabitants.

 

The truck turned left and gathered speed after it had passed the Colinton dump. Matt put on the high beam and the men watched for kangaroos acting stupidly by the road. They drove for twelve kilometers and then turned off down Denison Road to the boat ramp. Sheep had cleared the low ridge running down to the water from when Old Colinton was originally Colinton but now the area had only a few large houses set apart to the south, and beyond that the caravan park. This was late summer and the school holidays were over, so most of the tourists had left but there were always fishermen for the rainbow and brown trout that came into Wyoming Bay after dark to feed amongst the reeds. One group was already out on Lake Selwyn in their boat, a yellow spot of light in the middle distance.

 

Matt backed the Ford down the boat ramp and the men lifted the canvas bundle from the tray.

 

Michael made a soft joke about dumping a corpse in the lake but the others did not respond. They waded along the concrete ramp in their runners and jeans and put the long bundle in the shallow water. They could have been gentler, but Matt was running the show and he was gruff and rough.

 

“Right,” Matt said in a low, focused voice to the canvas bulge that was wriggling around in the dark water. “Now we pull the canvas back and you shoot out. Mind the dead trees and head into deep water. Maybe someone has a fish detector out in a boat, so do whatever you need to hide and stay that way until daylight.”

 

“I will not let you down,” a thin voice came back from the canvas.

 

“On the count of four,” Matt said, starting with zero and at four they pulled up the canvas and spilled out the big, blubbery mass into the water with a broiling of pale foam against the black water. Chi-2 said something but his speaking tube turned and hit the water and his words were lost. The men held the dripping canvas and stood to see the mass of translucent tentacles push outwards and the nobly frill of the neckfloat blew out air and it was gone, leaving a bow wave that lapped the concrete ramp. The men threw the canvas into the back of the utility. It smelt like musk, seaweed and rancid flesh. The men turned back and looked over the lake but could not see Chi-2 or even a ripple of his passing.

 

They watched the lake and then Derek nudged Matt with his elbow, gesturing at a line in the water down on the left. For a moment it looked like a fin carving through the water and fracturing the moonlight sheen on the shallows. They watched as a water rat crawled up into the gritty brown sand at the edge of the lake, shook itself, and trotted away into a little gully towards the road.

 

“He won’t let us down,” Michael said. Matt could see he was smiling.

 

“What was the Council thinking?” Matt asked them, but no answer came.

 

Michael said, “Worst case scenario, a few fishermen are eaten on Lake Selwyn. Best case scenario, the Chi-X drown and feed the trout.”

 

Matt swore and shrugged. He had done his job. “Let’s go get a drink,” he said. Michael and Derek agreed and as the Ford crawled up the boat ramp with its tyres crunching gravel none of the three men glanced back at the vast lake in its velvet darkness sitting still and lovely with just a patina of cross-hatching from a gentle breeze disturbing the reflection towards Cemetery Point.

 

It was a slow drop below the night sky and down through veils of shadow along the clay bank. The water was cold, moved by currents without coherence, with low reeds giving way to rubble and rotted logs. The slimy clay base of this vast artificial lake ran smoothly down, following the contours of a gentle hill sloping down to the stream. Chi-2 took some time to work out an arrangement with his tentacles for propelling motion sideways and he found himself tilted to one side. The rough circle of gills just below the neckfloat puffed air to his left side and his attitude improved. The design was sound. He was finding plenty of oxygen. Chi-2 had used gills before but had never needed a swim bladder for dropping and staying below the surface of such a dense liquid.

 

His receptors told him the fishing boat was moving on an electric motor closer to shore so Chi-2 flailed the end of his tentacles, stirring up a dark blanket of suspended clay and blew a tiny stream of air from his speaking tube. He felt the cold water move past his neckfloat the sensation like being tickled on the left shoulder. Chi-2 giggled a few tiny bubbles and dropped down into deeper water. His adapted eyes could still see a blur of stars above through a swirl of purple and grey. He pushed on at the same depth and then paused to let his receptors search. The fishermen were heading for Wyoming. Chi-2 focused different arrays of cells that ran up the tentacles from the necessarily fleshy and calloused tips, drawing to a crown. He shut down all other senses and held his breath, a function that felt like holding human breath but meant his gills were sealed by a thin and gluey mucous secretion.

 

A thousand DNA profiles flowed over Chi-2’s senses and then there was a cross-current of another ten thousand as he floated around the end of Marys Point and headed slowly in his eastern drift into Springwood Bay. With the Chi-X the filtering, grouping and organizing of profiles was an automatic function so Chi-2 did not need to do more than just watch the arrangements and try to recognize a particular scent.

 

There were plant forms, insects, bacteria, fish, of course and Chi-2 enjoyed the way he could almost see the hierarchies of genus and sub-genus. He could not discount any species, except perhaps bacteria, because Chi-3 had days to change from a Great White, if he was ever a shark. There was no sense of shark in this region but it was a big lake and there was a lot of water. It was the particular pattern of the junk DNA, the spaces between junk and the command code that Chi-2 was searching for. He spread his tentacles and raised his concentration to the highest point, awash with ancient, old and current profiles of species to which he could find no name. He started to feel a bright orange headache and rose a little, opening his eyes, secreting anti-coagulant to open the gills. There was a current of slightly warmer water closer to the surface, moving away from the flow of the Waruna River. He rose a little and opened his eyes.

 

Chi-2’s design was not pleasing to humans and certainly eccentric although the choices were workable, after a fashion. There was the great mass of rubbery tentacles below, translucent and rubbery with traces of pale blue nerves and a myriad pink lines for blood supply. The tentacles could flail about in concert or individually, enough to propel motion. The neckfloat was a stubbly football shape that was little more than a flesh sack with valves and a fluid centre for balance and directional systems. The neckfloat supported a pale blue melon shaped head with actual eyes, in this case just two, quite like the front of a human face, but much larger to cope with the water and with side-opening eyelids. At the top of the fat melon head was a design to look like a broken reed or perhaps the thin and jointed bone of a dead bough. This was a sort of periscope and Chi-2 could funnel air through it to talk, although the articulation was poor. It was better served for thin, hooting sounds as well as sampling the air and running the results through the processors in the melon head. Chi-2 believed that the final innovation was worthy of a prize as he had built an eye on the interior of the skull between the other two. This eye was sheathed in a strong, extraocular muscle with the optic nerve at the centre and a flexible, assymetrical eye held in the middle, like a python that had swallowed a rabbit. On demand, the muscle rose through erectile tissue and blood flow and pushed the eye to the top of the speaking stalk. This made speech impossible but allowed for a periscope function to an eye crafted for fine detail and distance with an enlarged fovea with reflective cup for magnification.

 

Floating just below the surface Chi-2 pushed his eye up and out and looked around by rotating his body with an undulating weave of tentacle tips. The fishing boat was in Wyoming and there were only a few lights left on at the camp ground above Old Colinton. Chi-2 turned again and was astonished to find an aluminium dinghy straight behind, with two rowers stroking silently towards him. He had no time to lose and tried to let out air but of course his eye was blocking the tube. He sucked his eye back in and hissed out air and felt himself drop.

 

These were more fishermen, stealthily gliding over the lake with spinners behind. A faint whisper of air down his tube before it filled with water and hit the intake valve told him that they were human. He remembered one of the DNA profiles from the bar at the Snowgoose. Chi-2 dropped rapidly and searched the area through the water. The aluminum from the hull was nearby, he tasted, passing over in a few seconds. Using his other innovation, Chi-2 felt the floor of the lake below and flattened himself down, all his tentacles outspread, his neckfloat empty and flat and his speaking tube the only protuberance. He matched the lake bottom temperature with his skin temperature to avoid an infra red signature. Any sonar would see nothing but an unmoving, irregular shape with a dead branch in its middle. Chi-2 stayed still and tried to be calm and counted away minutes. He tasted the water and found it clear then gasped for air through his gills.

 

His short, sharp breath before diving had told him more than the fact that he should have designed in a way to trace metal in the lake. He had also tasted Chi-3’s signature, very faint, but airborne and to the north-west. It was a long way and it was not in the water. Chi-2 inflated himself to full size and flexed his tentacles, giving his neck floats a good twitch to set the balance again. So, either Chi-3 was washed up on the banks of the river, a Great White shark bloated and dead on the clay bank, or he was living close to but above the water.

 

Chi-2 regretted not eating more before setting off. He was hungry and would need energy for a vigorous and rapid push upstream against the flow of the largest river supplying the lake. He decided to consume a few tentacles every hour, especially those at the front of his body to streamline his passage. He started pumping, flailing the tentacles out and then pushing them together before curling up for another burst. He set off three metres below the surface heading straight up Seymour Reach.

 

By morning he was just passing Observation Point, deeper now to avoid detection, his skin colour matching the grey-green-blue of the water around him. He was longer and sleeker with a head now elliptical held into the current and a neckfloat shaped for least resistance behind his neck. He marveled at the sights below: a Ford Escort that had somehow arrived near the deepest part of the lake six hundred metres from the shore; ruins of the brick or stone walls that made up the cottages of the original Colinton before the valley was flooded for the hydro-electric; and the most exciting of all, a large rainbow trout that had darted up from nowhere and nipped off the touch sensitive pad of his longest tentacle. Chi-2 had howled with pain through his speaking tube then swallowed water and tried to cough before realizing he had no throat to speak of and he was breathing water.

 

Opposite the camp-ground at Old Colinton the Waruna National Park ran right down to the water, on the southern side, running a jagged line westerly. Little bays and rivulets dense with trees and native grasses touched the clay banks. Narrow streams with steep gullies led upwards into the wilderness, snagged with fallen timber and choked with native reeds. By mid morning Chi-2 had dropped down and become invisible twice, when fishing craft came too near, and he had poked up his tube and eye to sample the air in the early afternoon, finding Chi-3’s scent strong. It was to the south now.

 

Chi-2 powered around Waterhen Bay and turned at Beacon Point, angling across the narrow straits of the Waruna Reach past Providence Arm. It was late afternoon and dark was coming. Chi-2 had eaten the smaller tentacles and left just fourteen as thick as arms. He was hungry and very excited, full of purpose and enthusiasm. As he approached the shores of the national park thousands more profiles were received through the water with no human taste for many kilometers. Chi-2 rose closer to the surface and thrust out his speaking tube with his eye peering forward then fell below the surface rapidly. He felt like one of those U-boats he had seen in the historical footage on History Channel.

 

Chi-3 was very close and so were the steep banks of James Creek Inlet. It was quite deep up to a rocky shore and before running in too far Chi-2 checked behind to see that the inlet was hidden from direct sight from Observation or Beacon Points. The sky was falling into a glowering orange. Chi-2 let himself rise to have his full head showing above the water and he bobbed a little as he tried to navigate. The inlet had a second stream running in to the right, from between low and rounded hills. There were animals all around that Chi-2 could taste and he saw quiet, brown eyes looking up at him with their blank stares. There were many fish in the water and crustaceans and insects everywhere. Chi-2 wondered if the insects would find his skin attractive. He secreted a little mucous over his face and neckfloat to be dissuade the blood-suckers. He reminded himself to make a sticky variety of mucous next time so that insects who dared to land could be devoured for protein.

 

He expected to find Chi-3 on the banks of the stream running straight down to the inlet but he was not there. Instead there was open ground with prickly bushes and some dead trees that seemed to have drowned in years gone past.

 

Then one tree trunk caught his eye. The bark was a pearly and dappled white with a sort of moist luster and that was not correct for a dead tree. Its roots were deep in the soil of the bank above the narrow stream but the pale grass looked gouged. They were new roots and there were scrape marks up the side of the bank to the thin tree trunk that rose up above the others in uneven bends almost like hinges.

 

It was difficult for Chi-2 to look up because of his neckfloat. He had not expected to need to look upwards. He brought his tentacles beneath him and pushed with three at the front leveraging himself back in the brown water.

 

The tree trunk was ghastly, a spindly and pale fleshy substance with odd patches of pale pink and even a jagged line that looked like stitches. Chi-2’s gaze traveled up and then along the only branch higher to a completely vertical cylinder of very white trunk that suddenly stopped, without leading on into thinner branches. Immediately, Chi-2 knew that Chi-3 was unwell. This was not a matter of change and experimentation, this was a terrible design for some sort of form that could never pass as animal and only vaguely resembled a plant. It was more like a cartoon fantasy of a malformed Ent, a one-legged tree with no arms and a flat face pasted around a spongy cylinder at the top of the form.

 

Chi-2 tilted forward to keep his speaking tube above the cold water.

 

“Hello, Chi-3,” he called through his woody pipe. “Can I have a quick word?”

 

Chi-3 did not respond. A few large, male mosquitoes investigated Chi-2’s face and left unimpressed. The gathering darkness of the ridge behind gave Chi-3’s pale form a narrow halo that seemed to be glowing.

 

Like all Chi-X, Chi-2 could speak with pheromones as well as sound, although there were fewer distinctions in taste speech. It went:

 

Chi-2 Here I well, you well? Need talk now.

 

There was no response so Chi-2 continued:

 

Chi-2 Need-talk-taste. You taste? You talk?

 

A vertical flap more scale than bark opened at the base of the trunk. There was a low, reverberation and then Chi-2 could make out the words. Chi-3 had fashioned a mouth in his trunk and the breeze blowing across his head was forming words down a living fiber cone.

 

“What are you doing here?” Chi-3 asked in Bb more like a wheezing, hand-pumped organ than a voice. “Have I gone back, or am I dreaming?”

 

Chi-2 did not know Chi-3 well. There had been some professional jealousy many years ago, on the home planet, so their Exile together was never comfortable. Chi-3 preferred human company and found alcohol to his taste while Chi-2 liked to stay in his quaint little cottage and take on long-term, polished projects from which he could learn new skills when he returned home. On the other hand, Chi-3 was known for flashy, extravagant and sometimes dangerous projects and the Auxiliary Council had once hinted to Chi-2 that Chi-3 would be staying much, much longer than the other Chi-X. Chi-2 had too much sense to ask what Chi-3 had done.

 

“They sent me to find you,” Chi-2 said. A trout-cod was nuzzling against one tentacle under the stream bank and this was distracting to Chi-2. “They thought you could have hurt someone, they thought you were a shark.”

 

“A shark?” Chi-3 droned and sputtered.

 

“Yes,” Chi-2 said with a sigh and he shifted his position and whisked at the fish that had come to explore his nether regions. “Something about a television show and you were drinking …”

 

“Not a shark,” Chi-3 droned. It was hard to tell, but Chi-2 thought there was sadness, or a deep melancholy in the voice. “Not a shark. Much better than a shark. Much more useful than a shark. Something to help the … what do you call them?”

 

“The humans?”

 

There was a pause. “No,” Chi-3 replied. “The mariners, on the stormy seas. To save them from the sea.”

 

Chi-2 looked about at the sunset on the still waters, the sirocco of warm breeze making the water reeds sway. It was beautiful here and very interesting. There was so much life and it was more varied, more complex and more evolved than around Colinton. If only he did not have to be here trying to talk sense to Chi-3, he could be trying new projects, learning from the multiple inquisitive lifeforms about him.

 

“Right, to save them,” Chi-2 said a little unkindly. “So you have become a …” He paused but Chi-3 did not answer.

 

After a moment Chi-3 whispered, “Can’t you tell what I am?”

 

Chi-2 considered him gravely. He was about to be very rude when he remembered he had promised Matt to return with Chi-3. A speedy return would allow him to try some new projects, based on a water-spider he watched skating by the shore near Marys Point, on his first morning. Could the same trick be done in his home bath-tub?

 

“You seem to be insectoid,” Chi-2 said. “Is there a praying mantis waiting to come out?”

 

Unexpectedly, Chi-3 swore horribly at him, mixing pheromone speech with spoken language. When he had finished he told Chi-2 to leave him alone. “You are not ready to understand what I have become. I do not want you to see, to know! You will steal it.”

 

Chi-2 was interested in spite of his willingness to leave the unpleasant Chi-3. He looked at him again. It was darker now, shades of silken grey and thick velvet were falling above the little hills. Chi-3’s head was certainly unusual. It seemed featureless and purposeless, but the more he looked at it the more it seemed to be pulsating. It was growing brighter. Then Chi-2 understood what Chi-3 was becoming.

 

“It’s a sort of bioluminescence,” he cried, with a thrill he could not keep from his voice. “You’re not a tree, you’re a …”

 

“A light-house,” Chi-3 moaned. “Like on the television. To help the mariners, to steer clear of the rocks, to make it safe here. It’s where I am needed.”

 

And Chi-2 could see that Chi-3’s head was becoming brighter as the light fell away. But this was terrible! The light would be seen by fishermen, they would come to investigate and they would find a talking-tree-lighthouse with a voice like a cathedral in the wind. It would be the end of Colinton and the end of their Exile on the delicious Earth. Then where would Chi-2 find himself, on a frozen rock hurtling through space with with an even longer sentence?

 

“You can’t do this!” Chi-2 declared. “You’re endangering us all.”

 

The volume grew a little in Chi-3’s response. “No, you don’t understand. No-one ever understands. I’m here to keep danger away. This is where I’m needed. I’ve come to save the humans from the rocks.” He ended with a heaving moan that could have been the sobbing of a hillside of pine.

 

“You must stop,” Chi-2 demanded. “Turn it off, now! You’ll destroy all Exiles.” Chi-2 clawed his way a little closer, turning away to the west to allow his largest tentacles to face towards Chi-3. He focused all his energy on giving strength to three tentacles and tried to grow emergency hooks in the tentacles opposite Chi-3.

 

There was nothing but isolation and a dogged clinging to a desperate purpose in Chi-3’s moan. “I’m a lighthouse,” he said and then the trunk-mouth sealed shut.

 

There was no choice for it. The night was upon them and Chi-2 could see the end result of all the work Chi-3 put into his crazy, new project. A slit opened in his head and a pearly light as from a tungsten neon or a Venusian dawn reached out into the dark. The slit became a circle and the beam focused, hosing the opposite bank and beyond with a shimmering violet light. The cone from which the bioluminescence poured shuddered and then started to turn. Chi-2 realised that Chi-3 was a brilliant designer. Brilliant but utterly mad. His head was rotating and it was meant to. He was a living lighthouse.

 

Chi-2 flung his tentacles up and caught Chi-3 off guard. Chi-3 had been dining well on minerals in the rich soil and the plentiful water. He was much larger and stronger than Chi-2 but to reach his height to strobe over the lake from the inlet he had sacrificed solidity for growth upwards. Chi-2’s tentacles wrapped around the base of his trunk and heaved. The bank gave way just a little and the light from his rotating head jumped and swayed. Then the stream bank gave way completely and there was a crash as Chi-3 toppled to the side and fell across smaller saplings. His lighthouse head smacked against an outcrop of rock and the light sputtered and then faded to nothingness.

 

It is very difficult to do serious damage to Chi-X. Chi-3 struggled as best he could and wriggled his trunk at the joints, scraping shrubs and grasses away from the stream bank and making a terrible noise.

 

The hooks in the back of Chi-2’s tentacles held in the rocks below the silted clay of the inlet. He pulled again and let himself fall backwards, submerging his whole body. He beat his limbs furiously and shouted streams of bubbles through his speaking tube and finally the long, twitching mass of Chi-3 followed gravity over the bank of the stream and into the water.

 

When Chi-3 went under the water Chi-2 was afraid he would not float but Chi-3 had done a great job with his modified wintergreen wood and he bobbed up again. His his mouth was turned under the water so he could not speak but Chi-3 gave out waves of foul curses and protestations.

 

Chi-3 did not give up the fight easily. His form as a lighthouse did not allow him much movement but he tried everything he could to no avail as he was fighting in a medium for which Chi-2 was expressly designed. Chi-2 flailed his tentacles and pushed the water away, then again, then again. He propelled himself backwards. There was no chance at all to hide his form or dive under the black sheen of the surface. He would have to take his chances with the humans and their boats.

Chi-3 was still when they pulled out from James Creek Inlet and into the deeper, faster flowing water of Providence Arm. He was still because he was focused on changing himself as he was abducted back to Colinton. Two could play at that game and as hungry as Chi-2 was, and as tired, his fleshy tentacles were much easier to adapt than the springy fiber of the tree trunk. As he swam and let the current push him gently to the east Chi-2 focused his mind on modifying the suckers and the pads on the three tentacles that held the thin trunk of Chi-3. He was hungry and they were easy to modify as simple mouths, like adventitious, clinging roots with sharp thorns to pierce into the phloem to suck out the nutrients from the sieve cells.

 

As the cold, slow current eased the Chi-X back towards Old Colinton, through that tense and sometimes combative night, Chi-2 drank deeply from Chi-3 and grew heavier and stronger. By the time they reached the boat ramp near midnight on the next night Chi-2 was strong enough to hold a much thinner and much shorter Chi-3 under water as he jetted through the shallows to the Ford 250 and the men in their dark coats gathered around it in their waders and raincoats.

 

In the end, Chi-3 was not the problem. Matt, Derek and Michael took Chi-3 carefully from the grappling thorns and simply broke him up into stackable parts then arranged him in the utility tray. This pleased Chi-2 as he was heartily sick of Chi-3’s insipid taste, pleading and abuse. Then the men turned back to Chi-2 and of course he was far too large to lift onto the truck tray. They would not hear of his staying in Lake Selwyn on his own to trim down, which was disappointing, so Chi-2 spent two angry hours pulling his own tentacles apart after having told his pain centres to switch off. He flung all but the last tentacle into Wyoming Bay and knew they would be food for the fish, as they had so often on his journey.

 

He pushed with his last, most central tentacle and was able to support himself just a little as the three men heaved his neckfloat and melon head and dumped him on the metal tray. They covered the two Chi-X with the tarp and did not speak much. They did not even thank Chi-2 for his work in finding Chi-3. As they turned right from Denison Street and started along the bitumen single lane through the paddocks to Colinton in its little, green valley Chi-2 stuck his speaking tube out from under the tarp and pushed his eye up. He watched the rolling hills move past, the farm houses with their lights coming on for the dawn milking and the farm animals standing by the fences watching the Ford through blank eyes.

 

Then Chi-2 smelt another familiar profile. He hoped Matt driving the Ford was not able to pick it out from the hundred life forms that flowed past the truck. As the Ford turned right and down to Colinton Chi-2 saw him there, a shortish Hereford steer standing near the fence in a paddock beyond the Rainbow Pines caravan park west of Colinton.

 

“What doing like that?” Chi-2 puffed with pheromones at Chi-1, lowing a reply that answered in chemical traces.

 

“Want try being this,” Chi-1 answered.

 

Chi-2 had only a moment to signal, “Why?”

 

“Want try being eaten,” Chi-1 answered. There were tones of humour, of ease and of the excitement in a bold new project in his scent message.

 

Chi-2 pulled himself back under the tarp. He lay in an ooze of drying mucous secretion near stacked wood that was ignoring him completely, sending him to Coventry as they rattled along the road back to the Council hall where Chi-3 would be dumped for transport back home. Psychiatric help and then discipline awaited him, then perhaps a frozen, barren rock.

 

Chi-2 was heartily sick of projects, at least for the moment. He would take a long time to become his mandated human form again, to please the Auxiliary Council if he had to be questioned over the whole affair, then perhaps when the whole thing had cooled down he would have a week off in his bath, skating.

 

ends

 

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Genetic Engineering as a Weapon - Wolfgang Peterson's Outbreak

 

In the theme area called the enemy within students watch a Wolfgang Petersen film about a human and an alien caught on a small asteroid, called Enemy Mine. In this theme area of the brave new world, the Wolfgang Petersen movie Outbreak (Petersen, 1995) is offered for learning episode seven. This movie fits neatly into the focus area of genetic engineering because it presents a story of a naturally occurring and very serious virus that is then engineered for use as a weapon by defence scientists. As might be expected, the virus escapes with one of the original carriers, a cute little jungle monkey carrying one of the original strands of the virus. The virus threatens to spread across America and then across the world. Like the virus in the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995), the virus has an extremely high mortality rate and is very difficult to stop.

 

Of course, there is a solution to the deadly virus found in Outbreak. A scientist and his military assistant chase and find the original carrier (the cute monkey) and can create a inoculation and cure for an entire town who are otherwise about to be turned to ash by a very large bomb.

 

This movie is a story of a few courageous scientists battling the deadly virus, some less friendly scientists working for the military who wish to use the virus as a weapon, and the military-industrial complex itself that can wipe out towns with bombs and have truck loads of military in full infection garb arrive at isolated towns.

 

In many ways Outbreak is a standard action movie that features a few good people who battle a vastly superior force on a very tight timeline. Its elements of technology are of course linked to both the engineering of the virus and its use as a weapon of mass destruction. This use of technology as a main feature of the story and the setting in the present or often in the near future makes the film Science Fiction, though often video shops might put these movies into different categories, like Action or Drama.

 

Outbreak is used here as just one example of the use of genetic engineering as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). It is a very mild example compared with many, many others where an engineered virus, or an engineered killing creature (shark, blob, snake, etc.), or even an engineered human is released as a weapon. As with Frankenstein and The Island of Dr Moreau, what may have started as a good or a bad idea by a few scientists quickly becomes a terrible disaster that could destroy all of humanity.

 

A recent example of this use of genetic engineering as a WMD is 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle. As with many other movies better and much worse, a deadly virus infects the world and a very few survivors have to make their way through a wasteland where people have become zombie flesh eaters, or just extremely cranky. As might be expected from these stories, the films are more often placed in the Horror section of the video shop. Also, these movies are often categorised as suitable for older audiences than is the mySF Project and often for much dumber audiences.

 

Outbreak is offered here in learning episode seven as just one representative of a SF narrative that again shows genetic engineering in a very negative light, in this case where the technology creates a WMD that threatens all human life.

 

 

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Resource list:

 

Bear, G. (2002). 'Blood Music'. The Collected Stories of Greg Bear. New York: Tor Books.

 

Bear, G. (1985). Blood Music. New York: Ace Books.

 

Bear, G. (2000). Darwin's Radio. Harper Collins.

 

Boyle, D. (Director) (2004). 28 Days Later. Written by Alex Garland. 20th Century Fox Movies.

 

Csicsery-Ronay, I. (Jnr.) (1996). 'The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #70, Volume 23, Part 3, November 1996.

 

Evans, C. (1996). Mortal Remains. Orion Publishing.

 

Gilliam, T. (Director). (1995). 12 Monkeys. Written by Peoples D. and Peoples, J. Universal Release.

 

Kirby, D. 'The New Eugenics in Cinema: Genetic Determinism and Gene Therapy in GATTACA'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #81 = Volume 27, Part 2. July, 2000.

 

McAuley, P.  (1997). Fairyland. Eos Publishing.

 

Nicholls, P., & Clute, J., (Eds.)     (1995). Grolier Science Fiction: the multimedia encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing.

 

Petersen, W. (Director). (1995). Outbreak. Produced by Arnold Kopelson, Written by Wolfgang Petersen and Gail Katz. Warner Home Video.

Stableford, B. (1991). ‘The Furniture of Life’s Ambition’. From Sexual Chemistry: Sardonic Tales of the Genetic Revolution. Sydney: Pocket Books.

 

Vint, S. (2004). 'Empowering Girls Who Read SF'. Science Fiction Studies. Number #92, Volume 31, Part 1. March,2004.

 

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Readings and links:

  Wikipedia link to Peterson's film, Outbreak
 

Wikipedia page on Greg Bear, author of 'Blood Music'

 

Wikipedia page on 'Blood Music'

 

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Further reading and links

 

 

Short story 'It' by Theodore Sturgeon

 

Short story 'The Dead Man' by Fritz Leiber

 

Short story 'The Furniture of Life's Ambitions' by Brian Stableford

 

Short story 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1a - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

 

Brave new world theme area podcast 1b - an introduction to genetic engineering in SF

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ends

Michael Sisley

 

 

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