A-Life, B Movies

Artificially created life is a perennial science-fiction theme. What makes it so compelling?

by Holly Lindem
Holly Lindem

Since the publication of Frankenstein in 1818, the architects of science fiction have mused over the implications of man-made (or man-muddled) life. Outcomes vary from Blade Runner-style mayhem to worlds inhabited by harmonious puddles of gray cellular goo, but there's a common theme: When we tinker with the natural order, something always goes wrong. In Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, an entrepreneur dreams of an amusement park but instead unleashes a race of bloodthirsty carnivores. In Stanley Kubrick's dystopian 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer designed to keep people alive in space destroys them.

Behind every wayward life-form, there seems to be a person in a lab coat with a sentimental attachment to the beast. Indeed, human fallibility is often at the root of life-run-amok scenarios. In Greg Bear's 2001 short story "Blood Music," the protagonist hides a project to design "intelligent cells" from his superiors at a big biotech company. When they find out and close the lab, he risks his life to save his creation, injecting the cells into his arm. (Surprise! Havoc erupts.)

If meddling with life is such a chilling prospect, why does it so fascinate? It goes back to the primordial urge to procreate, suggests Don Hassler, a Kent State English professor and editor of the sci-fi journal Extrapolation. Trying though children can be, they are cherished because they
promise to enhance their
parents' legacy. "It's that great image of the little kid who is
a monster for the parents but also the wave of the future," he says.