In literature and especially in science fiction, genetic engineering has been used as a theme or a plot device in many stories.
In his 1924 essay Daedalus, or Science and the Future, J. B. S. Haldane predicted a day when biologists would invent new algae to feed the world and ectogenetic children would be created and modified using eugenic selection. Aldous Huxley developed these ideas in a satirical direction for his 1932 novel Brave New World, in which ectogenetic embryos were developed in selected environments to create children of an ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’, or ‘Gamma’ type.
The advent of large-scale genetic engineering has increased its presence in fiction. Genetics research consortia, such as the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, have felt the need to distinguish genetic engineering fact from fiction in explaining their work to the public, and have explored the role that genetic engineering has played in the public perception of programs, such as the Human Genome Project.
Beyond the usual library catalog classifications, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the NHGRI have compiled catalogs of literature in various media with genetics and genetic engineering as a theme or plot device. Such compilations are also available at fan sites.
In the 2000 television series Andromeda, the Nietzscheans (Homo sapiens invictus in Latin) are a race of genetically engineered humans who religiously follow the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, social Darwinism and Dawkinite genetic competitiveness. They claim to be physically perfect and are distinguished by bone blades protruding outwards from the wrist area.
In the book 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, genetic engineering of humans, plants and animals and how that affects a society spread over the solar system is explored.
In the Animorphs book series, race of aliens known as the Hork-Bajir were engineered by a race known as the Arns. Another race, the Iskhoots, are another example of genetic engineering. The outer body, the Isk, was created by the Yoort, who also modify themselves to be symbotic to the Isk. Also, a being known as the Ellimist has made species such as the Pemalites by this method.
In the 1983 film Anna to the Infinite Power, the main character was one of seven genetically cloned humans created by Anna Zimmerman as a way to groom a perfect person in her image. After her death, her work was carried on by her successor Dr. Henry Jelliff, who had other plans for the project. But in the end we learn that her original genetic creation, Michaela Dupont, has already acquired her creator’s abilities, including how to build a genetic replicator from scratch.
The 1996 video game series Resident Evil involves the creation of genetically engineered viruses which turn humans and animals into organisms such as zombies, the Tyrants or Hunters by a worldwide pharmaceutical company called the Umbrella Corporation.
In the video game series BioShock, most of the enemies in both BioShock and BioShock 2, referred to as “splicers”, as well as the player, gain superpowers and enhance their physical and mental capabilities by means of genetically engineered plasmids, created by use of ADAM stem cells secreted by a species of sea slug.
The novel Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress and its sequels are widely recognized by science fiction critics as among the most sophisticated fictional treatments of genetic engineering. They portray genetically-engineered characters whose abilities are far greater than those of ordinary humans (e.g. they are effectively immortal and they function without needing to sleep). At issue is what responsibility they have to use their abilities to help “normal” human beings. Kress explores libertarian and more collectivist philosophies, attempting to define the extent of people’s mutual responsibility for each other’s welfare.
In the Battletech science fiction series, the Clans have developed a genetic engineering program for their warriors, consisting of eugenics and the use of artificial wombs.
In The Champion Maker, a novel by Kevin Joseph, a track coach and a teenage phenom stumble upon a dark conspiracy involving genetic engineering while pursuing Olympic gold.
In the CoDominium series, the planet Sauron develops a supersoldier program. The result were the Sauron Cyborgs, and soldiers. The Cyborgs, who made up only a very small part of the population of Sauron, were part highly genetically engineered human, and part machine. Cyborgs held very high status in Sauron society.
Sauron soldiers, who made up the balance of the population, were the result of generations of genetic engineering. The Sauron soldiers had a variety of physical characteristics and abilities that made the soldiers the best in combat and survival in many hostile environments. For instance, their bones were stronger than unmodified humans. Their lungs extract oxygen more efficiently than normal unmodified humans, allowing them to exert themselves without getting short of breath, or function at high altitudes. Sauron soldiers also have the ability to change the focal length of their eyes, so that they can “zoom” in on a distant object, much like an eagle.
The alien Moties also have used genetic engineering.
In the science fiction series Crest of the Stars, the Abh are a race of genetically engineered humans, who continue to practice the technology. All Abh have been adapted to live in zero-gravity environments, with the same features such as beauty, long life, lifelong youthful appearance, blue hair, and a “space sensory organ”.
In the 2000 TV series Dark Angel, the main character Max is one of a group of genetically engineered supersoldiers spliced with feline DNA.
In military science fiction 1993 television series Exosquad, the plot revolves around the conflict between Terrans (baseline humans) and Neosapiens, a race of genetically engineered sentient (and sterile) humanoids, who were originally bred for slave labour but revolted under the leadership of Phaeton and captured the Homeworlds (Earth, Venus and Mars). During the war, various sub-broods of Neosapiens were invented, such as, Neo Megas (intellectually superior to almost any being in the Solar System), Neo Warriors (cross-breeds with various animals) and Neo Lords (the ultimate supersoldiers).
Genetic modification is also found in the 2002 anime series Gundam SEED. It features enhanced humans called Coordinators who were created from ordinary humans through genetic modification.
In Marvel Comics, the 31st century adventurers called the Guardians of the Galaxy are genetically engineered residents of Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto.
The 1997 film Gattaca deals with the idea of genetic engineering and eugenics as it projects what class relations would look like in a future society after a few generations of the possibility of genetic engineering.
In Marvel Comics, the Inhumans are the result of genetic engineering of early humans by the Kree alien race.
Rather than deliberate engineering, this 2017 novel by British author Steve Turnbull features a plague that carries genetic material across species, causing a wide variety of mutations. Human attempts to control this plague have resulted in a fascist dystopia.
In the Leviathan universe, a group known as the Darwinists use genetically engineered animals as weapons.
The 2000AD strip, Lobster Random features a former soldier-turned-torturer, who has been modified to not feel pain or need to sleep and has a pair of lobster claws grafted to his hips. This state has left him somewhat grouchy.
In Metal Gear Solid, the Genome Army were given gene therapy enhancements.
Also in the series, the Les Enfants Terribles project involved genetic engineering.
The Moreau series by S. Andrew Swann has as the central premise the proliferation of humanoid genetically-engineered animals. The name of the series (and of the creatures themselves) comes from the H. G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. In the Wells novel, humanoid animals were created surgically, though this detail has been changed to be genetic manipulation in most film adaptations.
The Neanderthal Parallax novel by Robert J. Sawyer depicts a eugenic society that has benefitted immensely from the sterilization of dangerous criminals as well as preventing the 5% least intelligent from procreating for ten generations.
In the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, the character Rei Ayanami is implied to be a lab-created being combining human and angelic DNA. (compare to the Biblical Nephilim)
Genetic engineering (or something very like it) features prominently in Last and First Men, a 1930 novel by Olaf Stapledon.
Genetic engineering is depicted as widespread in the civilized world of Oryx and Crake. Prior to the apocalypse, though, its use among humans is not mentioned. Author Margaret Atwood describes many transgenic creatures such as Pigoons (though originally designed to be harvested for organs, post-apocalyptic-plague, they become more intelligent and vicious, traveling in packs), Snats (snake-rat hybrids who may or may not be extinct), wolvogs (wolf-dog hybrids), and the relatively harmless “rakunks” (skunk-raccoon hybrids, originally designed as pets with no scent glands).
In Plague, a 1978 film, a bacterium in an agricultural experiment accidentally escapes from a research laboratory in Canada, reaching the American Northeast and Great Britain.
Using a method similar to the DNA Resequencer from Stargate SG-1, and even called DNA Resequencing, the Operation Overdrive Power Rangers were given powers of superhuman strength, enhanced hearing, enhanced eyesight, super bouncing, super speed, and invisibility.
Quake II and Quake 4, released in 1997 and 2005, contain genetically-engineered Stroggs.
In the long-running 2006 series Rogue Trooper, the eponymous hero is a Genetic Infantryman, one of an elite group of supersoldiers genetically modified to resist the poisons left in the Nu-Earth atmosphere by decades of war. The original concept from the pages of 80s cult sci-fi comic 2000 AD (of Judge Dredd fame).
James Blish’s The Seedling Stars (1956) is the classic story of controlled mutation for adaptability. In this novel (originally a series of short stories) the Adapted Men are reshaped human beings, designed for life on a variety of other planets. This is one of science fiction’s most unreservedly optimistic accounts to date of technological efforts to reshape human beings.
In “The Man Who Grew Too Much” episode (2014), Sideshow Bob steals DNA from a GMO company, thus making himself the very first genetically engineered human, and attempts to combine his DNA with that of the smartest people ever to exist on Earth.
In Sleeper, a 1973 parody of many science fiction tropes, genetically modified crops are shown to grow gigantic.
The short-lived 1990s television series Space: Above and Beyond includes a race of genetically engineered and artificially gestated humans who are born at the physical age of 18, and are collectively known as InVitros or sometimes, derogatorily, “tanks” or “nipple-necks”. At the time of the series storyline, this artificial human race was integrated with the parent species, but significant discrimination still occurred.
The Ultimate Life Form project that produced Shadow the Hedgehog and Biolizard in the Sonic the Hedgehog series was a genetic engineering project.
In the Star Trek universe, genetic engineering has featured in a couple of films, and a number of television episodes.
The Breen, the Dominion, Species 8472, the Xindi, and the Federation use technology with organic components.
Khan Noonien Singh, who appeared in Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was a product of genetic engineering. His physical structure was modified to make him stronger and to give him greater stamina than a regular human. His mind was also enhanced. However, the creation of Khan would have serious consequences because the superior abilities given to him created superior ambition. Along with other enhanced individuals, they tried to take over the planet. When they were reawakened by the Enterprise, Khan set himself to taking over the universe. Later, he became consumed by grief and rage, and set himself on the goal of destroying Kirk.
Others of these genetically enhanced augments wreaked havoc in the 22nd century, and eventually some of their enhanced DNA was blended with Klingon DNA, creating the human-looking Klingons of the early 23rd century (See Star Trek: Enterprise episodes “Affliction” and “Divergence”).
Because of the experiences with genetic engineering, the Federation had banned it except to correct genetic birth defects, but a number of parents still illegally subjected their children to genetic engineering for a variety of reasons. This often created brilliant but unstable individuals. Such children are not allowed to serve in Starfleet or practice medicine, though Julian Bashir is a notable exception to this. Despite the ban, the Federation allowed the Darwin station to conduct human genetic engineering, which resulted in a telepathic, telekentic humans with a very effective immune system.
In Attack of the Clones, the Kamino cloners who created the clone army for the Galactic Republic had used engineering to enhance their clones. They modified the genetic structure of all but one to accelerate their growth rate, make them less independent, and make them better suited to combat operations.
Later, the Yuuzhan Vong are a race who exclusively use organic technology and regard mechanical technology as heresy. Everything from starships to communications devices to weapons are bred and grown to suit their needs.
In the show Stargate SG-1, the DNA Resequencer was a device built by the Ancients, designed to make extreme upgrades to humans by realigning their DNA and upgrading their brain activity. The machine gave them superhuman abilities, such as telekensis, telepathy, precognition, superhuman senses, strength, and intellect, the power to heal at an incredible rate, and the power to heal others by touch.
In the futuristic tabletop and video game series, Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man uses genetic engineering to enhance the abilities of various militant factions such as the Space Marines, the Grey Knights, and the Adeptus Custodes. A sample or a synthesized version of the gene seed, a “part” of the original Primarch’s or leaders DNA is used in the transformation of these superhuman warriors.
At the same time, the Tau Empire uses a form of eugenic breeding to improve the physical and mental condition of its various castes.
In the e-book, Methuselah’s Virus, an ageing pharmaceutical billionaire accidentally creates a contagious virus capable of infecting people with extreme longevity when his genetic engineering experiment goes wrong. The novel then examines the problem of what happens if Methuselah’s Virus is at risk of spreading to everyone on the entire planet.
In World Hunger, author Brian Kenneth Swain paints the harrowing picture of a life sciences company that field tests a new strain of genetically modified crop, the unexpected side effect of which is the creation of several new species of large and very aggressive insects.
Genetic engineering is an essential theme of the illustrated book Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future by Dougal Dixon, where it is used to colonize other star systems and save the humans of Earth from extinction.
The Survival Gene e-book contains the author Artsun Akopyan’s idea that people can’t preserve nature as it is forever, so they’ll have to change their own genetics in the future or die. In the novel, wave genetics is used to save humankind and all life on Earth.
A series of books by David Brin in which humans have encountered the Five Galazies, a multitude of sentient species which all practice Uplift raising species to sapience through genetic engineering. Humans, believing they have risen to sapience through evolution alone, are seen as heretics. But they have some status because at the time of contact humans had already Uplifted two species chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins.
Eugenics is a recurrent theme in science fiction, often with both dystopian and utopian elements. The two giant contributions in this field are the novel Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, which describes a society where control of human biology by the state results in permanent social stratification.
There tends to be a eugenic undercurrent in the science fiction concept of the supersoldier. Several depictions of these supersoldiers usually have them bred for combat or genetically selected for attributes that are beneficial to modern or future combat.
The Brave New World theme also plays a role in the 1997 film Gattaca, whose plot turns around reprogenetics, genetic testing, and the social consequences of eugenics. Boris Vian (under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan) takes a more light-hearted approach in his novel Et on tuera tous les affreux (“And we’ll kill all the ugly ones”).
Other novels touching upon the subject include The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. The Eugenics Wars are a significant part of the background story of the Star Trek universe (episodes “Space Seed”, “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12”, “The Augments” and the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Eugenics also plays a significant role in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy where eugenics-practicing Neanderthals from a near-utopian parallel world create a gateway to earth. Cowl by Neal Asher describes the collapse of western civilization due to dysgenics. Also Eugenics is the name for the medical company in La Foire aux immortels book by Enki Bilal and on the Immortel (Ad Vitam) movie by the same author.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune series of novels, selective breeding programs form a significant theme. Early in the series, the Bene Gesserit religious order manipulates breeding patterns over many generations in order to create the Kwisatz Haderach. In God Emperor of Dune, the emperor Leto II again manipulates human breeding in order to achieve his own ends. The Bene Tleilaxu also employed genetic engineering to create human beings with specific genetic attributes. The Dune series ended with causal determinism playing a large role in the development of behavior, but the eugenics theme remained a crucial part of the story.
In Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, Ender is only allowed to be conceived because of a special government exception due to his parent’s high intelligence and the extraordinary performance of his siblings. In Ender’s Shadow, Bean is a test-tube baby and the result of a failed eugenics experiment aimed at creating child geniuses.
In the novels Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein, a large trust fund is created to give financial encouragement to marriage among people (the Howard Families) whose parents and grandparents were long lived. The result is a subset of Earth’s population who has significantly above-average life spans. Members of this group appear in many of the works by the same author.
In the 1982 Robert Heinlein novel Friday, the main character has been genetically engineered from multiple sets of donors, including, as she finds out later her boss. These enhancements give her superior strength, speed, eyesight in addition to healing and other advanced attributes. Creations like her are considered to be AP’s (Artificial Person).
In Eoin Colfer’s book The Supernaturalist, Ditto is a Bartoli Baby, which is the name for a failed experiment of the famed Dr. Bartoli. Bartoli tried to create a superior race of humans, but they ended in arrested development, with mutations including extrasensory perception and healing hands.
In Larry Niven’s Ringworld series, the character Teela Brown is a result of several generations of winners of the “Birthright Lottery”, a system which attempts to encourage lucky people to breed, treating good luck as a genetic trait.
In season 2 of Dark Angel, the main ‘bad guy’ Ames White is a member of a cult known as the Conclave which has infiltrated various levels of society to breed super-humans. They are trying to exterminate all the Transgenics, including the main character Max Guevara, whom they view as being genetically unclean for having some animal DNA spliced with human.
In the movie Immortel (Ad Vitam), Director/Writer Enki Bilal titled the name of the evil corrupt organization specializing in genetic manipulation, and some very disturbing genetic “enhancement” eugenics. Eugenics has come to be a powerful organization and uses people and mutants of “lesser” genetic stock as guinea pigs. The movie is based on the Nikopol trilogy in Heavy Metal comic books.
In the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a fictional character called Pastor Richards, a caricature of an extreme and insane televangelist, is featured as a guest on a discussion radio show about morality. On this show, he describes shooting people who do not agree with him and who are not “morally correct”, which the show’s host describes as “amateur eugenics”.
In the 2006 Mike Judge film Idiocracy, a fictional character, pvt. Joe Bauers, aka Not Sure (played by Luke Wilson), awakens from a cryogenic stasis in the year 2505 into a world devastated by dysgenic degeneration. Bauers, who was chosen for his averageness, is discovered to be the smartest human alive and eventually becomes president of the United States.
The manga series Battle Angel Alita and its sequel Battle Angel Alita: Last Order (Gunnm and Gunnm: Last Order as it is known in Japan) by Yukito Kishiro, contains multiple references to the theme of eugenics. The most obvious is the sky city Tiphares (Salem in Japanese edition). Dr. Desty Nova, in the first series in Volume 9, reveals the eugenical nature of the city to Alita (Gally or Yoko) and it is further explored in the sequel series. A James Cameron movie based on the series is due for release on 2018.
In the French 2000 police drama Crimson Rivers, inspectors Pierre Niemans (played by Jean Reno) and his colleague Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) attempt to solve series of murders triggered by eugenics experiment that was going on for years in university town of Guernon.
In the Cosmic Era universe of the Gundam anime series (Mobile Suit Gundam SEED), war is fought between the normal human beings without genetic enhancements, also known as the Naturals, and the Coordinators, who are genetically enhanced. It explores the pros and cons as well as possible repercussions from Eugenics
The Khommites of planet Khomm practice this through the method of self-cloning, believing they are perfect.
The book Uglies, part of a four-book series by Scott Westerfeld, revolves around a girl named Tally who lives in a world where everyone at the age of sixteen receives extensive cosmetic surgery to turn into “Pretties” and join society. Although it deals with extreme cosmetic surgery, the utopian (or dystopian, depending on one’s interpretation) ideals in the book are similar to those present in the books mentioned above.
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