Friday, May 27, 2005

Stem Cells and Treason

In 2000, Orson Scott Card, Mormon SF-fantasy writer, began a response to a reader's question about his early novel Treason by remarking that
For some reason, this second novel of mine has suddenly started to surface again in the past few months -- I get asked about it more than any other book outside the Ender and Alvin series. Maybe its time has come.
He might be engaging in self-congratulatory hyperbole, and then again, he might not. Since I don't make a habit of perusing Card's website and in fact searched for information about this book, the beginning presumption of this quote is, rather, not. Explanation below the fold.

Back in 1978, a young editor at Ensign published a little SF novel, A Planet Called Treason, about a planet of peoples who had evolved highly specialized genetic characteristics. As the novel and planet reveal their secrets, it becomes clear that the peoples are descended from a cargoload of transported convicts, each of whom gave a name to the tribe/subspecies that subsequently developed. One of the tribe was named "Niggers," a name Card quietly changed to "Inkers" (better?) in the book's 1988 revision and republication under the simpler title Treason.

The structure of the book is a kind of Bildungsroman: Lanik Mueller, a young misfit--a genetic failure, even--leaves his community (over which he, as an hereditary prince, might have reigned, perhaps a weak point), wanders through the various societies of the planet, and comes to understand that the diverse peoples are perpetuating their imprisonment on the planet when the resources to leave it are available if everyone would share their abilities and knowledge.

As I recall my early teen impressions of Treason, it leaves one with a deep sadness: the idea of an entire planet's civilizations' being punished--and worse, that the genetic evolution of future generations should have been encouraged as divisive--struck me as an extraordinary injustice. It is to the book's credit that these foundational concepts are revealed gradually and logically.

Since this is an older book, it's hard for me to tell offhand what its sales figures were, have been, or are. Amazon seems only to offer used copies, and the (eight, glowing but vague) reviews of it are mostly older.

So much for the neutral description. What really sticks in one's memory (besides the concept of an entire planet's being left in speciefied ignorance) is the description of the community that Lanik left. Lanik is a "regenerative," meaning that his body has the ability to grow new parts. In the Mueller community, which descended from a geneticist, this ability is fairly common, but Lanik has little control over his body: it grows unnecessary and cumbersome parts. Lanik is one of the comparatively common group of "radical regeneratives." Card in the abovelinked response suggests that Lanik's feeling of being separate from his out-of-control body had its origins in Card's own feelings of being alienated from his physical self. This existential version of the life of a "rad-regen" does still evoke sympathy, but Card's dystopian vision of how the Mueller community deals with its rad-regen off-spring has left a permanent trace in my mind.

The rad-regens are kept in prison compounds. They are thrown scraps of food, treated like animals. Their excess limbs and organs are harvested. According to the mores of the Mueller society, rad-regens should be considered as precisely the value of their parts, on the resale market. I've forgotten exactly to whom the Muellers sold these parts, given that this people seems defined by its ability to regrow parts; still, I'll never forget my thirteen (or was it earlier?) year-old self reacting in horror to the muddy pens where the rad-regens were kept, and to the sub-human category they were filed under.

Now, *flash* to real life and the present.

Stem-cell research, as I understand it, entails the use of either less flexible adult cells or more flexible (in the sense of "able to develop into therapeutically useful") fetal cells. Pro-life opponents of this sort of research envoke imagery similiar to Card's Rad-Regen gulag: potentially intelligent beings are being kept in laboratories for harvesting.

Myself, I am pro-choice, pro-stell-cell research, and pro-definitions of "life" that remember that born human babies, unlike those of many other species, require massive committment on the part of the mother.

All that said, Card's dystopia of human harvesting continues to haunt me, and perhaps others. There are many important differences between using therapeutically embryonic fetuses and enslaving adult mutant regeneratives for harvesting: the key one being, of course, the distinction between "fetal" and "adult." All this I rationally know, but, perhaps fifteen years after last reading Treason, I remember the holding pens.


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