On Arthur C. Clarke's death and the ethics of genetic engineering

One of the big three science fiction master writers (and one of my four favorite authors, the others being Isaac Asimov, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt), Arthur C. Clarke has passed away at the age of 90, in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.

A lot was written about Clarke's life and works and I will not repeat it here. There is an excellent article in space.com that can be looked up and it is one of the best I read before writing this post. What I want to do to honor Clarke's memory is add my recollections of how I came to know his works and add an interesting train of thought related to my first read.

I remember first reading Clarke's articles in the Reader's Digest, 40-something years ago. He wrote for the RD occasionally and I read the spanish translations. Then, when I was in school, one of my friends who also liked to read, recommended Rendezvous with Rama. I was enthralled wth the story. I even started making my own translation into spanish but I gave up... it was too much to write. I eventually got the spanish version (with a much poorer translation than my own) for my father to read. To this day, it is one of my favorite science fiction stories and I read all the sequels.

In Rama, Clarke introduced me to the concept of artificially made lifeforms. In the novel, there are beings which he names biots (obviously a contraption of biological robots) which behave as very specialized robots but are living entities, purposefully created for a specific job: surveillance, cleaning, repair and maintenance, etc. These entities appear as Rama which is a large spaceship, approaches the sun and everything inside it thaws and returns to life; the biots then perform all sort of housekeeping duties for the ship.

At that time I was 15 or 16 and the concept was fascinating. Years later I read another excellent work of science fiction, Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein and in it, Heinlein did go overboard with the idea of artificial beings. Friday, Heinlein's heroin, is an AP (artificial person): a genetically enhanced and designed human being born out of an artificial womb and raised in an institution.

Clarke and then Heinlein introduced me to the concept of the ethical challenges of creating artificial life. In Clarke's case, biots are made whenever Rama requires maintenance. As soon as their duty is completed, they are destroyed and their components recycled. One wonders if this would be an ethical treatment of living beings but at least biots appear to have very limited consciousceness and they are driven by their specific purpose. But then Heinlein brings up the ethical challenge of stepping up the bar and tinkering with human (and other species) DNA. In the novel, Friday is a stunningly fast, strong, intelligent and beautiful woman; she is also deeply traumatized by her upbringing and the fact that she is discriminated for being artificial. In the end she conquers her demons and lives out her life as a normal human being but she is also surrounded by living artifacts, which are also artificial beings made out of (mostly) human DNA but are not human in shape. While reading the novel, you get a glimpse at the bitterness one of these beings would posses, being of above average human intelligence but also being specifically built in size and shape to perform a specific function (like one of Clarke's biots): crane operator (with five arms and enhanced telescopic eyesight) or whatever else might be necessary.

Clarke, like other SF Masters, introduced us to many of the mysteries and challenges humanity faces going forward and I am thankful to him and all the others for that. By expanding our imagination, we may be able to prepare for the ethical dilemmas we will, no doubt, face in the coming years. Already there is someone marketing an hypoallergenic cat and who knows what else is on the pipeline. I am not against this type of development but the understanding of the ethics involved is crucial for our survival as a morally upstanding species.

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