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The Song of the Earth

Hugh Nissenson

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)

Moral Science (Fiction)

July 23, 2001: Pope John Paul II—stooped yet venerable, quivering from Parkinson’s and the countless, wearisome years as the Catholic Church’s chief spokesperson—tells President Bush (whose deer-in-headlights expression evokesboth our pity and sick desire for a shotgun), to deny federal funding for stem cell research. July 31, 2001: On a related topic, the House of Representatives, shaken and divided by the question of morality, votes to ban all human cloning despite the potential medical advancements that could occur. August 9, 2001: In the hopes of appeasing the masses (and inevitably satisfying no one), Bush carefully announces the government will provide limited federal funding for stem cell research; in essence, he has taken the middle road and parted the political spectrum as if it were the Red Sea.


Our news these days reads like science fiction. It’s the age-old battle of science versus religion that once again leads us to the ubiquitous question: is our scientific research immoral? How much knowledge is too much, and if we’ve already tasted the forbidden fruit, what’s to stop us from planting an entire apple orchard? These questions provide the foundation for fearless novelist Hugh Nissenson, whose latest book, The Song of the Earth, stretches our present-day dilemmas into a highly imaginative and yet unnervingly plausible future.


Skip to the year 2037 when the first genetically engineered artist, John Firth Baker, is born. His genes have been enhanced for the sole purpose that he develop a “lust of the eyes” and propensity for the fine arts. Johnny’s world suffers from the debilitating effects of global warming; the polar ice caps are melting and the coastlines have flooded. The most dangerous, explosive warfare is no longer fought between nations or races, but between the sexes: “womin” versus men, gynarchy versus the patriarchy. And brewing beneath the surface is a new kind of prejudice—one between people who are naturally gifted and those whose gifts have come from genetic engineering.


The Song of the Earth establishes itself as a fictitious biography of Mr. Baker. This innovative format is comprised of e-mails, interviews, newspaper clippings, footnotes, and diary entries, not to mention actual pieces of artwork as created by Johnny (or rather Nissenson, who develops his own somewhat crude artistic sensibilities under the guise of his book character). Even the book itself is acknowledged as a kind of antiquated object: “A bound and printed book like this is a fit commemorative for Baker, who cherished bound books.” Nissenson deserves kudos for his originality, yet his attempt to create a new format is not without its flaws. This piecemeal story has a tendency to bounce too abruptly from one person’s narration to another, making it difficult for Nissenson to sustain his characters’ voices or believability. And the plot, although fascinating, may overshadow and drown out the characters completely. At these times, Nissenson loses his finesse as a literary artist and instead reveals himself as an academic primarily interested in the moral dilemmas of science.


But despite the flaws with the characters, Nissenson’s depiction of the future couldn’t be more convincing. The integration of historical and literary allusions is rolled seamlessly into the fiction, resulting in a story that appears uniformly realistic. References to artists such as Charlotte Salomon and T.S. Eliot wind between the fictitious poets, painters, and sculptors of Nissenson’s world. And the understated allusions to Nazi eugenics not only remind us of our previous hateful uses of science during World War II, but also point to the very issues we discuss today when examining the moral implications of stem cell research. Right now, scientists study embryonic stem cells to find cures to illnesses such as Alzeimer’s, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and diabetes. In this vein, we are purely studying cells for medical reasons, and our moral dilemma aims straight at the right-to-life issue. But what happens when we start examining cells not for disease prevention, but for the purpose of altering basic human characteristics—physical appearance, I.Q., athleticism, even artistic talent? It’s already beginning to happen—just check out the Germline Engineering page on UCLA’s web site. Suddenly, our moral dilemmas become a whole lot more complicated than the basic question of right-to-life. Soon we’ll be wondering whether it’s ethical to alter our unborn children to fit our standards. Designer babies may replace designer clothing labels, and living vicariously through our children will have an entirely new meaning. Every day we are inching closer and closer to playing the role of God. After all, if humankind was made in His image, why wouldn’t we want to take creation into our own hands?


These moral dilemmas, which stand at disturbingly close proximity, are the heart and soul of Nissenson’s novel. It is this convincing reality presented on the page that haunts you long after you’ve shut the book. How close have we come to the future as predicted by the novelist? Was 1984 like 1984? Is 2001 at all like our 2001? You don’t necessarily need a crystal ball or tarot deck to predict the future—just a strong understanding of current history and human nature. And I wonder, if I were to extend my hand, turn on the television, and flip to the news, am I only listening to President Bush’s drawl on federal funding for science, or am I witnessing a precursor to The Song of the Earth?

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