Monday, November 2, 2009

Hugh Nissenson's The Song of the Earth and “Science Fiction and Biology”

About six or seven years ago I was thumbing through my public library’s Science Fiction section and came across The Song of the Earth, a novel by Hugh Nissenson. I was probably a little younger than the author’s intended audience and so a lot of the thematic issues went over my head, but I was able to get through it with a minimal amount of life scarring. It’s about an arsogenic metamorph—a person genetically enhanced to be an artist at conception—who grows up in world that distrusts his gift. He also deals with issues of sexuality and religion, but it’s his genetic make-up and the consequences begot from it that fuels those issues as well as the majority of the plot.

When we read Reading Science Fiction, particularly the chapter by Pamela Sargent entitled “Science Fiction and Biology” I thought immediately of Nissenson’s novel. Sargent writes that “biological change…can seem like a ‘perversion’ even blasphemous to some.” In the novel there was a large amount of public outcry against one of the arsogenic metamorphs. She was killed at a young age because of her engineered talent and is referenced consistently when the other characters talk about their fear of others because of their unnatural nature. Many of the characters of the novel are artists and, when Johnny, the main character, reveals his history to them, they treat him differently, often times the same way one might treat a person who’d cheated on a test.

The novel attempts to merge the scientific (particularly the genetic) with the natural. Johnny, the protagonist and subject of the book, is another arsogenic metamorph and joins a cult that worships the Earth. He is a product of science, but feels trapped within his manufactured gift and therefore gives it up to try and gain “Gaian Consciousness” (which was a kind of connection to the Earth). In this connection we see a blending of technology and nature as well as the merging of gender, another point brought by Sargent who writes briefly of the “increasingly mutable” sexual identifications. In order for Johnny to be accepted into the cult he must grow a pair or breasts (the novel was pretty weird) and so again, he must use technology to enhance himself. Even as he tries to merge with the world around him he must take part in the science within it which brings up another point of.

Ultimately one aspect of Johnny, the technological side (at the behest of his mother’s suicide), wins out and he takes up his artistic gift and becomes famous within a very short amount of time. Nothing really works out in this book though, and another arsogenic metamorph kills him out of jealousy. Reading about Johnny and his unique circumstance, the reader watches this battle for dominance take place and is left to rely on his own interpretation in order to determine which aspect of him—the scientific or natural—is the winner (since he dies at nineteen one might argue that it is neither, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to leave that open-ended). This internal struggle within Johnny again represents the point brought up by Sargent, referencing the overall unease of the world around him, though it’s interesting that another one of the enhanced artists is the one to kill him.

The Song of the Earth speaks for and elaborates on a traditional theme within science fiction through its unique spin on genetic engineering. Sargent’s essay helped me place the book within this realm and helped me to find meaning where before I might not have been able to. Reading Nissenson’s book was far more enjoyable with Sargent as a guide than it was when I was younger.

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