issue 217 - March 1991
Imagine a world where children play with do-it-yourself
genetic engineering kits and we can all change our body
forms at will. Paul McAuley takes us there.
On Evan’s eighth birthday, his aunt sent him the latest smash-hit biokit, Splicing your own Semi-sentients. The box-lid depicted an alien world throbbing with weird, amorphous life; a double helix spiralling out of a test-tube was embossed in one corner. ‘Don’t let your father see that’, his mother said, so Evan took it out to the old barn, set up the plastic culture trays and vials of chemicals and retroviruses on a dusty workbench in the shadow of the shrouded combine-harvester.
His father found Evan there two days later, watching the amoebae he’d created coalesce into a slimy blob soon to be transformed into a jellyfish. Evan’s father dumped the culture trays and vials in the yard and made Evan pour a litre of industrial grade bleach over them. The acrid stench made Evan cry.
That summer, the leasing company foreclosed on the livestock that Evan’s father rented. The rep who supervised repossession of the supercows drove off in a big car with the test-tube and double-helix logo on its door.
Next year the wheat failed, blighted by a particularly virulent disease. Evan’s father couldn’t afford the new resistant strain, and the farm went under.
Evan lived with his aunt in the capital. He was 15. He had a street bike, a plug-in computer, and a pet microsaur (also known as a triceratops with purple funfur). Buying the special porridge – all the microsaur could eat – took half of Evan’s weekly allowance. So he let his best friend inject the pet with a bootleg virus to edit out its dietary dependence. It was only a partial success: the triceratops no longer needed its porridge but developed epilepsy triggered by sunlight. It shed fur in great swatches, so Evan abandoned it in a nearby park. Microsaurs were out of fashion anyway. There were dozens wandering the park. Soon they disappeared, starved to extinction.
The day before Evan graduated, his sponsor firm called to say that he wouldn’t be doing research after all. There had been a change of policy: the previously covert gene-wars was going public. When Evan began protesting, the woman said sharply, ‘You’re better off than many. With a degree in molecular genetics you’ll make a sergeant at least.’
The jungle below was a vivid green blanket in which rivers made silvery forked-lightnings. Evan leaned from the helicopter’s hatch; the harness dug into his shoulders. He was 23, a technology sergeant. It was his second tour of duty.
Flashes on the ground. Evan hoped the peasants only had Kalashnikovs. Last week some gook had downed a ‘copter with an antiquated SAM: the tech sergeant had been too busy aiming sticky virus-suspension spray to kill the maize crop.
Afterwards, the pilot, an old-timer, said over the intercom, ‘Business gets dirtier every day. In the past we just used to take a leaf from Third World plants and clone it to get our supercrops. You couldn’t really call it theft. But this stuff … I always thought war was bad for business?’
‘Not in this case,’ Evan said. ‘Our company owns the copyright to the maize that those peasants are growing. They haven’t got licences to grow it.’
‘Man, you’re a real company guy,’ the pilot said admiringly. ‘I bet you even know what country this is.’
‘Since when were countries important?’
Rice fields spread across the floodplain like a hand-stitched quilt. In every paddy, peasants bent over their reflections planting seedlings.
In the centre of the UNESCO delegation, the Minister for Agriculture stood under a black umbrella held by an aide, explaining why his country was starving to death after a record rice crop. Evan was at the back of the little crowd, bareheaded in the warm drizzle. He wore a smart one-piece suit, yellow overshoes. He was 28 and had spent two years infiltrating UNESCO for his company.
The Minister was saying, ‘We have to buy pesticide-resistant seed to compete with our neighbours, but the rice has to be exported to service our debt. We are starving in the midst of plenty.’
Evan stifled a yawn. Later, at a reception he got the Minister on his own. The man was slightly drunk.
‘Look in our cities,’ the Minister said slurring his words. ‘Every day a thousand refugees pour in from the countryside. We have kwashiokor, beri-beri.’
Evan popped a canape in his mouth. (One of his company’s new lines, it squirmed lasciviously before he swallowed it.) ‘I may be able to help,’ he said. ‘The people I represent have a new yeast that fulfils all dietary requirements and will grow on a simple medium.’
Evan explained as the Minister, no longer drunk, steered him towards the terrace. The Minister said, ‘You understand this must be confidential. Under UNESCO rules…’
‘There are ways around that. We already deal with five countries that have trade imbalances similar to your own. We lease the genetic material of the yeast to support governments who look favourably on our other products …’
The gene pirate was showing Evan his facility for editing genetic material, when the slow poison finally hit him. They were aboard an ancient submarine somewhere off the Philippines. Missile tubes had been converted into fermenters. The bridge was crammed with the latest manipulation technology.
‘It’s not facilities I need,’ the pirate told Evan, ‘it’s distribution.’
‘No problem,’ said Evan. The pirate’s security had been easy to penetrate. He’d tried to infect Evan with a zombie virus, but Evan’s designer-immune system had easily dealt with it. Slow poison was so much more subtle: by the time it could be detected it was too late. Evan was 32. He was posing as a Swiss grey market-broker.
‘This is where I keep my old stuff,’ the pirate said, rapping a stainless steel vat. ‘From before I went big time. Remember when the Brazilian rainforest started to glow? That was me.’ He dashed sweat from his forehead, frowned at the room’s complicated thermostat. Grossly fat and completely hairless, he was wearing only bermuda shorts and shower sandals. He had been targeted because he was about to break the big time with a novel HIV cure. The company was still making big money from its own cure: they ensured AIDS had never been completely been eradicated in Third World countries.
The pirate rapped the thermostat with shaking hands. ‘Hey, is it hot in here, or what?’
‘That’s the first symptom,’ Evan said. He stepped sideways as the gene pirate crashed to the deck. ‘And that’s the second.’
The company had bought the pirate’s security chief. Evan had plenty of time to fix the fermenters. By the times he was ashore, they would have boiled dry. On impulse, against orders, he took a sample of the HIV cure with him.
‘The territory between piracy and legitimacy is a minefield,’ the assassin told Evan. ‘Definitions shift according to convenience – and that’s where I come in. My company likes stability. Another year and your company would have gone public: probably the shares would have made you a billionaire. No-one else has cats these days. We thought their genetic material was eradicated back in the twenties. Very astute of you, going for the luxury market.’ She frowned. ‘Why am I talking so much?’
‘For the same reason you’re not going to kill me,’ Evan said. ‘It seems a silly thing to want to do,’ the assassin admitted. Evan smiled, ‘I need someone like you in my organization. And since you spent so long getting close enough to seduce me, perhaps you’d do me the honour of becoming my wife. I’ll need one.’
‘You don’t mind being married to a killer?’
‘Oh, that. I used to be one myself.’
Evan saw the market-crash coming. Gene-wars had reduced cereals and many other cash crops to gene sequences stored in computer vaults. Three global companies held patents on the calorific intake of 98 per cent of humanity. But they had lost control of biotechnology. Pressures of the war economy had simplified it to the point where anyone could directly manipulate their own genetic material, and hence alter their own bodies.
Evan had made a fortune in the fashion industry, selling templates and microscopic self-replicating robots which edited DNA. He guessed that someone would eventually devise an artificial photosynthesis system to imitate the way that plants turn organic compounds into food using chlorophyll (which makes plants green) by absorbing sunlight. Evan’s stock-market systems were programmed to correlate research in the field. He and his wife sold controlling interests in their company three months before the first green people appeared.
‘I remember when you knew what a human being was,’ Evan said sadly. From her cradle, inside a mist of spray, his wife said, ‘Is that why you never went green? I always though it was a fashion statement.’
‘Old habits die hard.’ The truth was he liked his body the way it was. These days, going green involved getting body cells to mutate into a metre-high black cowl to absorb sufficient light. Most people lived in the tropics, swarms of black-caped anarchists. Work was no longer a necessity but an indulgence. Evan added, ‘I’m going to miss you.’
‘Let’s face it,’ his wife said, ‘we never were in love. But I’ll miss you, too.’ With a flick of her powerful tail she launched her streamlined body into the sea.
‘They wish to honour you by taking your genetic material to Mars,’ the little purple microsaur said . Evan sighed. ‘I just want peace. To rest. To die.’
‘Oh Evan,’ the microsaur said patiently, ‘surely even you know that nothing really dies any more.’
Paul McAuley lectures at St Andrews University, UK. His novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, is winner of the Philip K. Dick award, and Gollancz have just published his short story collection, The King of the Hill and other stories.