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  • Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age by Everett Hamner
  • Katherine Thorsteinson
Everett Hamner. Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age. Pennsylvania State UP, 2017. xii + 264 pp.

In Editing the Soul: Science and Fiction in the Genome Age, Everett Hamner takes a sober-minded approach to the question of how (stories about) genetics encode our lives. Refusing extremist dichotomies such as science versus religion, fact versus fiction, and empiricism versus constructivism, Hamner explores how "an expanding knowledge of genetics is reshaping narratives about the soul" (41). His book traces these historical changes through three subgenres of genetic fiction—fantasy, realism, and metafiction—which have been more cumulative than successive. Genetic fantasy did not disappear years after Robert Hooke's 1965 discovery of the cell but rather continued throughout the 1990s even while the Human Genome Project inspired new forms of genetic realism, and both subgenres now merge in the metafiction that mirrors our epigenetic age. For Hamner, [End Page 400] the differences are primarily epistemological: while suspension of disbelief has been the key element for fantasy, realism has placed increasing weight on memetic accuracy, and metafiction explores this very dichotomy by exposing text as another form of technology. This historical dimension to Hamner's work should not be ignored in the excitement over his more theoretical engagements. His model may help sequence the genre of science fiction more broadly, from the "fantastic pulps and Golden Age works that dominated the early- to mid-twentieth century to the increasing realism and self-reflexivity of the later New Wave and cyberpunk" (9). Nevertheless, this pattern is even more compressed with genetic fiction due to the explosive discoveries which have made our last half century the so-called Genome Age.

Relevant to anyone working on postsecularism, genre studies, and the histories, ethics, or popular representations of science, this book responds to central themes in literary studies today. Avoiding the esoteric prose in much of this criticism, Editing the Soul engages debates about defining the Human, using scientific methods in the descriptive turn, and theorizing predisposed agency all through the patient exercise of historically situated close reading. This patience recurs in the motif of textual/genetic "editing" (named in the book's title), which emerges as both an ethics and a methodology. On the one hand, Hamner challenges "efforts to freeze scientific knowledge in place" (50) and warns that it may thus "harden into an unquestionable, all-encompassing ideology." On the other hand, he considers how a field like genetics starts to look a lot more like "interpreting literature than it might appear" (46) when we move away from empirical work and toward "the data's significance for individual human futures." As an imperative to embrace change as well as a shared scholarly practice, editing might be the antidote to disciplinary entrenchment. The DNA double helix comes to symbolize this editing as the spirals capture both "circularity and linearity, repetition and difference" (125). Ultimately, Hamner spirals out from under the rock of "genetic determinism" (16) and the hard place of "genetic dismissivism," which both entail totalizing and constrained visions of the future. Organized into five chapters along with an introduction and coda, this ambitious project traverses a broad array of texts.

Offered in this spirit of reconciliation, chapter 1 outlines "key differences between common cultural perceptions of genetics and the actual laboratory science" (26). But unlike those popular science books that simply patronize to outsiders, Hamner also translates "key humanistic resources" such as how "genetic fiction engages long-standing [End Page 401] epistemological questions." It is also here that he articulates how postsecular theory may contribute to science studies more broadly. By chapter 2, we learn that genetic fantasy emerged in the pre-Human Genome Project period when successful cloning was still confined to thought experiments. He traces the "Carbon-Copy Clone Catastrophe" (27) plot throughout Ursula K. Le Guin's "Nine Lives" (1968), Pamela Sargent's Cloned Lives (1976), and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis/Lilith's Brood trilogy (1987–89). While such stories have an enduring life in blockbuster cinema, the chapter focuses on their novelistic development "immediately before and after the pivotal 1975...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 400-403
Launched on MUSE
2019-06-19
Open Access
No
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