A hybrid of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter" and Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale," "When She Woke" is chilling in its simplicity. In the future, after bombing of the west coast kills nearly a million and an epidemic of a “scourge” spreads mass infertility, “sanctity of life” laws enacted in Texas and a few other states make abortion murder. The guilty are punished with a gene-based treatment called melachroming, which changes their skin color. Chromes must then survive in an extremely hostile society.
In melachroming, an injection of manipulated viruses mutates the DNA in enough skin cells (presumably melanocytes) to turn a woman who’s had an abortion bright red. (Other crimes assume different hues.) Eye color is somehow spared, but in the first cases, blindness resulted. This was all very strange for me to read, having just written a book about gene therapy to cure inherited blindness stemming from the pigmented layer of the retina.
The viral skin color change lasts only four months, so the Chrome needs a booster. To make sure she gets one, the evil geneticists include in the viral vector a “compound” that induces paranoia and suicidality (“fragmenting”), timed to turn on when a never-described first compound activates it. How the suicide-inducing compound travels from the skin cells to brain cells is unclear.
So we have two compounds piggybacked onto enough viruses and sent into enough somatic cells in just the right places to color the skin and provoke a timed insanity. The author cleverly gets around the confusion: “That was all Hannah, or anyone else other than the geneticists employed by the Federal Chroming Agency, knew; the exact science behind fragmentation was a closely guarded secret.” I see it as a missed opportunity to have explained how gene therapy works.
But I’ll allow the gene therapy hand-waving under the Isaac Asimov rule of “change one thing”: OK, viruses temporarily turn the skin red. But it would have been helpful if the author had at least described the basics of gene therapy using a viral vector: a human gene is packaged into a virus and delivered to where it’s needed. In a 344 page book with a lone page or two covering the science, a few more sentences could have informed readers about gene therapy and kept me from wanting more.
My frustration brought me back to the Catalyst Workshop at the American Film Institute in 2005. This is a week-long immersion into the world of screenwriting, for twelve scientists. My group dissected ”The Day After Tomorrow,” each of us damning a different plot point in the popular film. Finally, our intrepid Hollywood screenwriter instructor smugly let us in on a secret: Getting the science correct in a feature film just doesn’t matter. “The Day After Tomorrow” succeeds because of plot and character.
So, too, does “When She Woke,” mysterious mutating melachromes notwithstanding. It’s fast, compelling, and moving, with spirituality trumping science. In contrast is
“The Passage,” by Justin Cronin, in which evil researchers infect a dozen condemned criminals with viruses that turn them into vampires. The ‘virals” escape and kill 90 percent of the global population, rendering most of the survivors vampires. A century later, virals run a world with only the original 12 genomes represented. Brilliant science. But the action drags and the characters don’t stick around long enough for a reader to bond, the way I did with the plucky crimson Hannah of “When She Woke.”
Hannah’s saga isn’t alone in hand-waving around the science. I often felt befuddled at the end of the X-Files, or during the last two minutes of many a House episode, in which the doc suddenly solves the problem in a torrent of jargon as an animation of bodily innards flashes by. Star Trek was much more satisfying, although I’m still waiting for someone to invent a transporter, so elegant was the explanation of how it takes apart a person’s molecules and then reassembles them, never confusing, say, a spleen with an eyeball.
So I return to the question: Does getting the science right matter?
Maybe not, in fiction. But because the boundaries between science fiction and science fact can blur for people who do not, for example, know that a virus can shuttle any gene, going the extra step to get as much of the science accurate, or at least feasible, can go a long way towards improving science literacy.
In fact, biology is so entrancing that a fiction writer need hardly ever hand-wave to add science value. The truth is out there.