- Editing the Soul: Science Fiction in the Genome Age by Everett Hamner
Everett Hamner's Editing the Soul is a book both impressively thorough in its examination of genetic fiction and far-reaching in its theoretical scope. Indebted to decades of feminist science studies scholarship, Hamner interrogates fundamental questions about the objectivity of science, and particularly about genetic science, probing the ways in which cultural texts about genetics reimagine the terms of identity and the nature of the soul. The book performs skilled and engaging readings of a remarkable number of genetic fictional texts, and ultimately leads to a coda that reflects back on the key contributions genetic fiction as a genre makes to the study of science and literature. In addition to key insights about the relationship between scientific knowledge and religious and spiritual experience, the book demonstrates how genetic science and genetic sf challenge the sequential temporality of experience and identity, and reimagine the construction of the self and others in our biotechnological present.
The coda, then, is perhaps as an appropriate place to begin as any other. The central text here somewhat surprises; Hamner turns to the 2016 film Arrival (Villeneuve US/Canada/India) even though, as he acknowledges, it is not really genetic fiction. Instead, the coda serves as a crucial reflection on the concepts of nonlinear temporality, narrative structures, non-sequential knowledge and the complexities of living-in or experiencing a present thoroughly imbued with misconceptions about genetic determinism. Through Arrival, Hamner emphasises the ways in which each of the previous chapters have challenged sequential assumptions about time, scientific progress and identity through genetics. But the coda is also very much about loss and mourning, a closing that asks deep and difficult questions about the ways we might engage with the future if we had knowledge about what was to come. In Arrival, Louise experiences glimpses of a future in which she learns she will experience both unconditional love and, as a result, inconceivable loss. Hamner reads her decision to continue to live in her present and embrace both love and the loss that will inevitably follow. How will humanity negotiate a future within which the genetic sciences will likely make more of the future knowable, [End Page 149] more pliable? As Hamner writes, he is 'moved by her willingness to accept the mourning with the dancing' (222), which, I think, usefully frames the stakes of the previous chapter's engagements with genetic fiction.
In the first chapter, 'Genetics as Science, Ideology, and Fiction', Hamner offers readers a primer in genetics that attempts to differentiate, for diverse audiences, the distinctions between popular perceptions of genetics and 'actual laboratory science' (26). In a move that is becomes central to the book's structure and method, the chapter demonstrates the ways in which genetic fiction engages fundamental questions of transcendence that value both religious studies and post-secular theory. It is, after all, a book-length investigation into genetic narratives about 'the soul' and how religious beliefs and myths are central to techno-transcendent genetic fictions.
Chapter 2 turns to genetic fantasy in feminist sf written before the Human Genome Project. Here, Hamner tracks the carbon-copy clone across four decades of sf from Ursula K. Le Guin's 1968 short story 'Nine Lives', Pamela Sargent's Cloned Lives, Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy and Duncan Jones's film Moon (UK/US 2009). Especially notable was Hamner's readings of Butler's trilogy, in which he reads her queer, non-human and anti-colonial genetic fantasy (mixed in her response to 'the lures of biotechnology', Hamner notes) as an earnest exploration of the ways in which we might engage intimacies and relationships in radically new ways required in the genome age, an 'unapologetically weird form of love that reaches beyond the most ingrained of biological and cultural categories' (82).
Hamner attempts to lay out the tropes of genetic realism in Chapter 3, examining texts that share many attributes and attitudes with genetic fantasy, but which rely more heavily on...