Jon McGoran: What Spliced Taught Me About Spliced
I love reading the “Five Things I Learned…” posts on terribleminds, and I’ve enjoyed writing them in the past. That’s what this post was originally going to be, and I did learn plenty while writing Spliced: about using viruses as vectors for gene splicing, climate change, animal personhood, computer implants, the difference (in my mind) between science thrillers and science fiction, and a lot about writing YA.
And there were plenty of other interesting discoveries that came before I even had the idea for Spliced. Part of what I love about writing the kind of books I write is the research. I write about things I find fascinating, so the opportunity to drill down deeper into those topics is often fascinating, too. And it invariably leads to other ideas. Some of the my best book ideas come from research for earlier books.
That’s how it was with Spliced.
I was researching Deadout, one of my previous science thrillers, when I started reading about biohackers, who tinker with genetic engineering in their basements, much like people did with computers in the seventies and eighties. I found the notion fascinating, scary but cool—part of a long and proud tradition of citizen scientists. I knew I wanted to write about it somehow, and several more obvious ideas came to me (some of which I may revisit) before I thought of biohacking, several decades in the future, merging with body modification subculture. The idea excited me: disaffected young people splicing animal genes into their own to become chimeras.
As I brainstormed and outlined and started writing Spliced, some of the most interesting thoughts and central ideas seemed to come from within the book itself, as it basically told me what it was about.
Writers often talk about characters revealing themselves during the writing of a book, but the same thing can be true with the themes. The deeper you get into it, the more you realize that maybe it’s not about the thing you thought it was about. Maybe it’s about something else. Fortunately, as an outliner, I rely on the upfront thought work to help me figure a lot these things out before I start writing (and to avoid some of the massive rewrites that can come from these revelations).
Spliced is not about biohacking, and it’s not about body modification, either, or at least not in the sense that we know it today. It’s about this other thing that came out of those things. I knew when I had the idea for Spliced that if such a technology became as readily available as it is in the book, there would be those who would use it. But what I didn’t know, at first, was why. Why would people choose to do this thing that was so drastic, dangerous, and disruptive to their lives? In order to understand, I had to more fully understand the world in which the book would take place.
I had realized early on that when writing a book set decades in the future, you either acknowledge climate change or deny it. But what began as an almost logistical consideration, unavoidable but peripheral, became one of the central themes. Peak oil had come and gone, and while energy usage has become smarter, the supply has become scarcer, with far-reaching implications. The climate has been knocked askew, and the extinction event that looms over us today is by then well underway.
These environment factors came to define the world of the book in many ways, and they also informed the motives of many of the characters who get spliced: For some, being a chimera is a fashion statement or an act of rebellion, but for others, it is an homage to extinct species, or a declaration of a symbolic separation from a humanity that seemed so intent on trashing the natural world. It is a statement—or many statements—and important ones, at that.
Once I had a grasp on the world that would give rise to chimeras, I had to consider what chimeras would give rise to: How would their presence shape the world around them? Unfortunately, I didn’t have far to look in our own world to see how some in society react with fear, anger, disgust, and hatred to those who are different—whether they ‘choose’ to be different or not—and to anything that upsets their perceived natural order or blurs lines they consider absolute. And, alongside them, of course, would be those ready to capitalize on that fear and hatred, to inflame it and use it as a wedge for political gain.
Once you have a wedge, you need something to drive it deeper. The biggest and most powerful hammer in the demagogue toolbox may be the dehumanization of the other, and that is the focus of the anti-chimera backlash: a law that declares anyone whose DNA is not one hundred percent human a legal nonperson.
Ironically, the person leading the charge to declare chimeras nonpersons achieved his wealth and prominence as a pioneer in computer implants—another form of transhumanism. Though maybe that’s more about hypocrisy, something that has never stopped a demagogue.
More ironic, maybe, is writing a book about people who choose not to be one hundred percent human being persecuted and oppressed by those who seek to dehumanize them. But a little irony has never stopped a writer.
In the end, as always, I did learn a lot while writing this book, and from many sources — web research, interviews with experts, other writers, and of course books. But as it turned out, this time, one of the books from which I learned the most hadn’t yet been written.