Monday, February 12, 2007

Some secrets, we might not want to know

For the past several days, I've been reading The Secret by Eva Hoffman. Yes, the same Eva Hoffman who wrote the autobiography Lost in Translation that I might or might not have read before. I put that one on hold when I acquired a copy of her fiction, and for the moment I'm glad I did.

This book really deserves a worthy, thoughtful review rather than a quick summary, and so I shall do my best, but there are spoilers, so be forewarned. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, about 20 years or so. The world is recognizable as our world, but it is like looking into a mirror with cracks in it. You may still recognize the features, but they don't fit together the way you think they are supposed to. Global temperatures are increasingly uncomfortable, every part of the body can be replaced to prolong life or heal, and your fast-food meal comes with a (presumably) harmless "feel-good" pill. Everything that looks a little different in this futuristic world is recognizable as a potential, if not inevitable, step from where we are today.

I like my fiction laced with philosophy. This book explores some profound, fundamental questions about the nature of man. What, exactly, is a person? When I read non-fiction, I keep a pencil in my hand, and freely mark my book. I virtually never do this with fiction, but I found myself unable to resist making comments in the margin of the The Secret. Is a person only physical substance? How do emotions fit into that model? If we are more than physical, what is the nature of the "more," and how can it be recognized?

If Frankenstein was a "monster," and Dr. Moreau's dreadful "human" animals were monsters, would a human clone be a monster? Would a human clone feel like a monster? Would a human clone resent his origins?
"How could you do what you did?...You never thought about me, did you?" I said quickly, "You never thought about what it would be like for me."

"Why..." he said again, looking baffled, "it was what your mother wanted. We did it with your mother's full consent."

"But what about me? I said. "Didn't anybody think, didn't anybody imagine what it would be like to be me?"
This exchange made me shiver a bit, thinking about what our society currently allows "with a mother's full consent." I felt it was a reminder that the mother is not the only person to be considered.

The story also considers the question of knowledge. We cannot undo our knowledge. Never can we do that. The great question, when it comes to science has always been, "What can we do?" Far, far too rarely has science asked the question, "what SHOULD we do?" If our knowledge empowers us to act in a certain way, does that mean it is okay to do that? We already know that the knowledge of how to build and detonate nuclear weapons does not mean we are not constrained by other things--moral reasons--not do use them. We should be asking the same kinds of questions about other areas of science too--just because we "can" clone a human does not mean that we should do so.

Throughout this book, which looks at the idea of cloning in its infancy, I had visions of Huxley's Brave New World in my head. One of the things they are able to do in this book is create live pets "to order." That is, if you can imagine some kind of pet, it can be biologically engineered and brought to life. Never spoken, but simmering beneath the more direct questions this book asks, is the possibility that such engineering could be used on humans--to make us smarter, stronger, longer lived...or stupid and docile?--a labor force to serve the whims of a despot? (We've all seen Star Wars, right?)

Perhaps we've begun to die already, from knowing too, too much. This sentence struck a chord with me--a reminder of the Eden story, in which it is the temptation to gain knowledge that brings death into the world. I would not say that this book is written from a Christian worldview--not at all--and yet this theme is foundational to the story. Scientific and material knowledge does not answer all our only gives us more questions.

Another powerful theme in this book is the division between artificiality and reality. We already have so much "virtual" reality in our lives, it can't have been hard for the author to imagine more and more ways in which artificial things replace real things. This not-so-distant future world has virtual tours that allow you to "walk" the streets of foreign cities without leaving your home. People don't even write real books!
I asked him cautiously if he knew that nowadays anyone could put together their own perfectly good novel in practically no time at all, and to their own specification...Most kits came with templates for the basic plots, sub-plots and suggestions for a few variants. The fun was in trying to find new combinations or twists which made sense, but didn't resemble the old ones too much.

In this world of no-reality, Iris struggles to find meaning for her own life, and the lives of everyone else around her. As humans have changed the world, have they also changed themselves? The Secret is a frightening and sad way of looking at life. And yet...on so many tells the truth. Because if we want to remain human, we have to accept our limitations. I could say so much more about this book, but I must stop somewhere.

I could not say to anyone, "Rush out and read this book immediately." It is a serious, philosophical book. I like to think about these questions, though, and I appreciate an author who isn't afraid to ask hard questions and take a probably unpopular position--one of skepticism--toward some of the scientific "advances" we hear about every day.


At 6:22 PM , Blogger Sherry said...

I think I will rush out and read it ---or at least add it to my TBR booklist. Have you read Never Let Me GO by Ishiguro? It raises some of the same questions.


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