Non-Fiction Reviews

Whose View of Life? - Embryos, cloning and stem cells

(2003) Jane Maienschein, Harvard University Press, 10.95, pbk, xiii + 342 pp, ISBN ISBN: 0-674-01766-8

This is the 2005 paperback edition of the 2003 hardback.

Hard SF readers and SF-loving scientists, Concatenation's principal audience, do not need telling how much our understanding of this area of the life sciences (stem cells, cloning and embryo research) has developed in the past decade. But what are our perceptions' more historical roots and how does western society meet the challenge of related recent rapid developments? Jane Maienschein has provided us with a jargon free account of how society has related to the science developed and so is not just a welcome addition to the literature of public understanding of science but also scientists' understanding of science's development in society. This last is something that university courses invariably skate swiftly past as they focus on the scientific facts and phenomena and not the actually process by which scientific understanding emerges and is then applied. However how people react to emergent technology and phenomena is something that some writers (notably those into the 'new wave' and 'hard SF') have addressed. Jane Maienschein explores the history of our views of reproductive biology and especially documents western policy-maker reactions to recent developments.

Her account is written with a rare clarity and an easy style, which means that this can be read by anyone with a middle-school understanding of biology. Her target audience is arguably policy-makers and students examining society's relationship to science. However SF readers and SF academics (the pitifully few that do) who strive to see how our genre (whose tropes include genetic modification, cloning etc) relates to society and science will find this book of immense value; though of course they will have to join the genre dots but then they are equipped to do so. This topic has long been in the genre - one might say since the iconic novel Frankenstein (1818) not to mention more recent landmark works such as Brave New World (1932) and it resonates (less explicitly) to other offerings: The Telepathist (1964) and Brin's 'Uplift' sequence (principally of the 1980s - '90s). One could go on. It is an area of science fundamental to society if only because our society is one of reproducing biological animals (what other kind are there I hear you cry - debate continues off screen down the pub). It will therefore be relevant to society and returned to by fiction writers for the conceivable future. In short, it is a pertinent work.

The author takes a largely North American perspective, but quite frankly from this (the other) side of the Pond I found that interesting too. Highly recommended.

Jonathan Cowie

A shorter version of this review more relevant to life scientists appears in the journal Biologist.

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