Dragons and Shapeshifting Trees: Character Builds in Sci-Fi
Cillian stepped out of the shade of the ship, the expendable raptor sniffed at salt and seaweed and petrol and bone. Pale skin shone in the dim sun, stippled of shadow and light. Freckles yet to form. Texture like dinosaur skin dotted along the bare arms shown by sleeves rolled to the elbows like Letopaxa. His chest heaved, eyes shut to see the pale sun shined red beyond his eyelids. Rachel’s draconic form loped beside him, the chitinous scales of her back and body tingled in the faded dawn. Elongating, Rachel pushed up on her hind legs, and slowly, with the dawn and well of sensation Cillian consumed, took the form Aderastos knew she feared most.
Bi-pedal, humanoid-limbed. Her scales retreated to create a form of armour along her body like clothes. Rachel’s hair swung back and forth as a dragon’s tail, silver skin caught and reflected the light. Her arms twined around Cillian’s ribcage.
“I can’t go back inside.”
- NEON LIEBEN by SAPHA BURNELL
When I was musing on the Assets in NEON Lieben, the world of genetic engineering opened to an overactive imagination. What sorts of creatures would genetic scientists create, if a sentient artificial intelligence in the shape of a feminine android de-weaponized the human race? Welcome to the premise of the Lieben Cycle.
No missiles, no drones, no planes with automated weapons systems. Robot soldiers walked en masse off the killing fields and set their weapons to slag. Nothing more advanced than a firearm, a stick and blade. What collection of humanity would accept the Mama Machine’s hand over their toys, like a stern hausfrau, without fighting back? In the tenuous truce created by Lieben’s Haven Epoch, the Conglomerate dove into gene-splicing to create biological machines. Where else could their intellects and ingenuity take them, but the realms of biological engineering?
What would I get, when I mixed wolf DNA with a velociraptor? Cillian stands in the sun for the first time, humanoid but other. The scale of his skin similar but alien. Rachel shifts from the reptilian and draconic to the humanoid. Both built from similar DNA strains, clipped and sutured by design.
The mystery is the strain of humanity in the machine, when we build upon nature, how much of the old strains push through? As an author, how far can I pull that chord between human and inhuman, between a biological machine and the shaken man, who can’t voluntarily venture back inside?
The human condition’s play between accepting grace and fighting for control drives the Conglomerate to maneuver past the kibosh on technological weaponry by creating genetically modified organisms as profound as Rachel’s draconic shapeshift and the raptor-wolf Pack. But, as geneticists are learning today, genetic manipulation does not equate to pure input-output. The genes might be spliced together, but their expression lies beyond the skeleton of genetic code. Genetics and Epigenetics together require investigation, when we are taking further steps into building bespoke beings.
We can build genomes and modify extraordinary things with technology like CRISPR, but the interpretation of said genes remains firmly within the burgeoning science of epigenetics. How a series of genes are expressed is often through heritable changes, or DNA methylation instead of the base sequence. Nurture matters. Regardless of the DNA laid down, the theories behind epigenetics correlate one’s heredity, the influence of past generations and the conditions of their early experiences on the cells in the parent organism.
Epigenetic processes are particularly important in early life when cells are first receiving the instructions that will dictate their future development and specialization. These processes can also be initiated or disrupted by environmental factors, such as diet, stress, aging, and pollutants.
In 2005, a team of Italian researchers provided the first concrete evidence for the role of environmental epigenetics in explaining why twins with the same genetic background can have vastly different disease susceptibilities.1 The researchers showed that, at birth, pairs of identical twins have similar epigenetic patterns, including DNA methylation and histone modifications.
However, over time, the epigenetic patterns of individuals become different, even in twins. Since identical twins are the same genetically, the differences are thought to result from a combination of different environmental influences that each individual experiences over a lifetime.
To me, this epigenetic powder keg is the true explosive within the genetic revolution. As much as we edit, our previous generations continue an influence on future iterations of organisms. It’s a fascination of mine to study whether circumstances are caused by genetic factors, or the more likely epigenetic. Where does that take a character created from genetic offal?
For NEON Lieben, it meant an investigation into genetic memory, instinct and the expression of the geneticists’ wonder at potential outcomes. The character Dr. Phil Rykstra is the representative of this struggle in the book, and he was both fun and uncomfortable to write in equal measure. How far do we go from an ethical standpoint into the furrowed brows of genetic engineering for war’s sake? For humanity’s sake? Will we eventually lose ourselves in Homo Augmentum, the way the Neanderthals lost their dominance?
As an author, I feel such real-world quandaries are necessary to drive the authenticity of a work of science fiction. While sci-fi can exchange ‘quantum’ for ‘magic’ and hand-wave a female shapeshifting tree into being, if there is a solid basis for extrapolation, it strengthens the work. Using the constraints of ‘plausibility’, while potentially awkward, allows most readers to relax into the beauty of our collectively presented imaginations.
And when the biological machines do ascend upon us, how much of their development will hearken back to the generations before, carried over like baggage in a train car? Ultimately, I hope if you want to see this exploration in detail, you read NEON Lieben.
“By Einstein’s shaggy topknot…” Phil plunked down on a chair on the Bridge and stared.
It was enough to pull Rammage’s eyes off the being currently running laps like Jesus and stare back at the scientist.
“How much of this is news to you, Doctor? You helped design these freaks of nature, why the fuck are you surprised at what they can do?” A shrill thread of pure worry sewed through his spinal column at the idea, the sheer thought.
Twelve bio engineered mechanisms were beyond.
Beyond the cognizance of the scientific team who built them.
Beyond the infinite imagination of the human organism.
When it came time to snuff them out, Rammage worried that too was beyond.
- NEON LIEBEN, by SAPHA BURNELL