Thursday, 18 August 2016

Weird Bioethics: Thinking About the Biotechnological Imaginary with M. John Harrison's Signs of Life

What follows is a paper I wrote, sent in for consideration, and had rejected for various reasons which I won't bore you with. I don't know what to do with it, so rather than let it die I am posting it here. A version of the paper was given at one of the Science Fiction and Medical Humanities Workshops at Glasgow University at the end of February 2016, so I am grateful to the Wellcome Trust for funding those, and to Anna McFarlane and Gavin Miller for inviting me to speak on one of my obsessions.

Weird Bioethics: Thinking About the Biotechnological Imaginary with M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life

Abstract In this paper I argue that mainstream bioethics is focussed primarily on actions and on evaluating those actions as good or bad, or as evaluating the outcomes of those actions as good, bad, just or unjust. I then argue that if we consider the topics bioethics is concerned with from the point of view of the novelist, the focus of those actions would be oriented more towards thinking about them as signs of character, and would be focussed on human agency rather than on actions in isolation. I illustrate how this focus shifts through an analysis of M John Harrison’s Signs of Life. Through a reading of this novel I go further and consider how a different mode of bioethics can be outlined which takes a broader view of the ethical significance of human choices enabled through biotechnology. I argue that a bioethics which takes note of human dirt, mess, confusion, ambivalence and desire is both possible and more illuminating than mainstream bioethics. In short, my paper calls for a weird bioethics, which focusses on human strangeness and its potential.

Weird Bioethics: Thinking About the Biotechnological Imaginary with M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life

Think about bioethics, and try to define it. If you search on the internet, or look at typical textbooks or encyclopedias, you will find a definition like this: Bioethics is the field of ethical, social, legal and policy problems in the life sciences, medicine and public health, and the application of methods of philosophy and the social sciences to the understanding of these problems. It seeks to provide normative guidance to these problems in policy and practical contexts.

Bioethics has been a highly successful intellectual enterprise over the past half century, and there are a number of examples of bioethics institutions, from committees to training programmes, journals and societies, and the figure of the bioethicist has begun to become entrenched in popular culture.

Notice however something strange about this definition. It focusses on the problems which bioethics is seeking to address, rather than marking out a specific method of inquiry or other mode of defining an academic discipline. This is for two reasons. Firstly, bioethics goes well beyond the academic sphere – it plays a part in clinical practice, in policy-making, in public debate (including political argument) and so on. Second, although at various stages in its history bioethics has been dominated by one discipline or another (theology or philosophy, most notably), its current presentation is as a field of inquiry which is inherently interdisciplinary. Hence, what ties the field together is its object of study. And that object of study is this set of problems.

Consider what a problem is. A problem is a difficulty or constraint or obstacle, to doing something or understanding something. More specifically, a problem is something which is awkward, worrisome, unclear and calling for solution. Bioethics seeks to offer solutions to problems, through academic inquiry and research. Of course, not all problems are like this. Some problems are fields of struggle, in politics. Some problems are useful as stimuli to thought in artistic practice, and more useful to an artist unresolved. But bioethics sees its problems as difficulties to be understood and overcome. It also sees them as somehow objective. Issues like abortion or euthanasia or genome editing or cognitive enhancement call for decisions and rules which order, regulate and resolve them. The methods of bioethics move between intellectual clarification about what morality demands, and a more social process of consensus formation about what “we” think. Finally, think about the ethics in bioethics. Bioethics is orientated toward the good and the just and the right. It tries to find just solutions to the questions around euthanasia; it tries to identify when (if ever) cognitive enhancement would be good.

What I am suggesting here is that bioethics lives in an orderly, practical world, in which reasonable people may differ but can come to agreement, through discussion, intellectual analysis and a common commitment to the pursuit of the right and the good. An Enlightenment world, even if one which acknowledges that medicine and the life sciences can cause harm, that not everyone will do the right thing and that some problems are difficult and knowing what the right thing is can take effort and time. Now reflect for a moment on whether that is the world you live in. Or do we rather live in a world of disorder, confusion, disarray. Disagreements leading to violence; inequality leading to (and arising from) exploitation; the pursuit of goals which have little if anything to do with moral goodness or social justice. The Enlightenment vision of bioethics would sigh over this, try to roll up its sleeves, and tidy it up, at least a bit. The philosopher will try to make sense of this. What, however, will a novelist do with it?

Introducing "Signs of Life"

M. John Harrison (b. 1945) is an English novelist, short story writer and critic, known mainly as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, but whose work crosses many genres. His critical writings (many of which are collected in Parietal Games (1) demonstrate deep and sophisticated interests in many kinds of writing, and in interviews he has spoken on many occasions about his debts to literary modernism as much as to “genre” writers. He was associated with the New Worlds writers of the late 1960s, and in the 1990s was taken up as one of the leaders of the so-called “New Weird” movement associated with younger writers including China MiĆ©ville and Steph Swainston. The New Weird movement drew on stylistic features and tropes of earlier US writers including HP Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and British writers including Robert Aickman and Charles Williams, both for the sheer uncanny pleasure of the writing but also to find ways of “cognitively estranging” the reader from representations of contemporary life. The New Weird movement had a conscious political undercurrent, with several of its practitioners associated with the political Left, arguing both with the political assumptions of much mainstream genre writing about the roles of gender, race and sexuality in the contemporary imaginary, but also with the political consciousness of the 2000s which took a rather narrow political world picture not only as normative but in fact the only way of doing things. In literal and metaphorical senses the New Weird writers held that “another world is possible”. (2,3,4,5,6)

In three novels written in the late 1980s and early 1990s Harrison took a deliberate step away from the science fiction and high fantasy of much of his earlier writing to produce works which were much closer in form to mainstream literary realism. Climbers (1989) was set in the world of rock climbers in the Peak District of England in the 1980s, and represented the various forms of physical and psychological damage which arose from climbing but also from the societal changes going on at that time which led to a certain kind of restless search for risk and voluntary community as a way of finding meaning in a world which had less and less use for traditional kinds of masculinity and masculine labour.(7) The Course of the Heart (1992), while set in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s used techniques of traditional weird fiction, magical realism, the Tarot, and Jungian analytical psychology to explore the nature of love and the lifelong consequences of choices and certain kinds of psychological damage.(8) Signs of Life (1997) is often considered a companion piece to The Course of the Heart and they were republished together under a single cover in 2005 as Anima (the title making explicit reference to Jung’s concept).(9,10) In this article I want to explore Signs of Life as a touchstone of a different way of thinking about biotechnology and humanity, and I will not consider here the links between it and the earlier novel, or the role of Jungian ideas in the diptych.

Signs of Life is narrated by Mick Rose, also known as “China” Rose, and features principally three characters: Rose, his business associate and friend Choe Ashton, and Isobel Avens, who is Rose’s lover in the early part of the novel. The novel is set in the late 1970s through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, although most of the action takes place towards the end of this period. Not coincidentally, though this is not explicitly mentioned, this is the period of Margaret Thatcher’s Premierships, when the UK when through significant political and economic change. In the early part of the novel we see all three characters change job, residence and aesthetic choices repeatedly, and the signs of their emotional states are often marked by consumer choices – vehicles, high-end brands of clothes, niche alcoholic drinks. Early in the novel China works in advertising, and there is a strong sense of the characters being motivated by surfaces and appearances, as if the route to authentic life could be found by having exactly the right combination of consumer goods both for the pleasure they would bring in themselves and for the ways they would communicate to onlookers that here are truly switched-on, authentically stylish people.

So far, we are in the world of Peter York and his highly affectionate “critique” of 1980s consumer culture. What Harrison brings to this is an acute sense of the psychic cost of this kind of choice-driven rootless pursuit of surfaces. While China’s narrative is inflected with a strong sense of melancholy, confusion and depression, redeemed at least for a while by his love affair with Isobel, Choe is a monster of desire, his wants and interests permanently shifting, his conversation permanently destabilising in its aggression, its challenge to the settled preferences of others, and it’s almost sexual signification that he knows something his interlocutor doesn’t. The “almost” here is important: at a key transition in the book it turns out the Choe is uninterested, or possibly just unable to engage, in intercourse. He has a girlfriend (Christiana) for much of the book, but his relationship with her is a more extreme version of all the human relationships in the book: temporary, affectless, rooted in momentary contact rather than intimate connection. To some extent all the selves in this book are selves of mere psychological continuity, without deep underlying traits of character. Choe is the most obvious instance in this in his unpredictable, haphazard but aggressive and wilful behaviour throughout the book. But both China and Isobel share these traits to some extent, and what all three have in common is the ways in which their personalities fundamentally turn on their desires, and on the phenomenology of those desires. I will return to this point below. The plot can be summarised briefly as follows. Much of the early part of the novel is told in flashback. China and Isobel meet in an aerodrome outside Stratford upon Thames where she is working as a waitress; in a somewhat half-hearted way he picks her up, and they agree to meet at the wedding reception of a friend of hers. They spend most of the reception having sex. In the early pages of the novel we are introduced to Isobel’s wish to be able to fly, which begins as a curiosity about aircraft (she mistakenly thinks China is a pilot) After this the novel jumps forward a few months and they move into a flat together in Peckham. The reader is at this point introduced to Choe, again in flashback. Choe’s impulsiveness attracts China, more from a sense that he knows what he is doing, whereas Mick is drifting – a sense which proves illusory, but which leads them to set up in business together in couriering. This business, the quintessential entrepreneurial job of facilitating commerce and making the idea of the free market into a material, geographically connected reality, proves highly successful when China move into transportation of biological supplies. The most lucrative end of the business proves to be disposal of biological waste, a business they accomplish with little regard to any regulations relating to contained release or biohazard regulations. China is disturbed and disgusted by this, but goes along with it, up to the point when they become involved with a highly suspect American businessman-come-spy in post-Communist Eastern Europe.

At this point, China and Isobel’s relationship begins to unravel, and China and Choe’s business relationship also collapses. Isobel’s sense of her relationship with China being an authentic choice based on real beauty suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably collapses. During their relationship she has had dreams in which she is able to fly, which suddenly cease, and it is this loss which drives her to return to England and to determine that her relationship with China is over. Choe is irritated that China, choosing on the basis of some moral principle which he’s never shown much sign of hitherto, has turned down an opportunity to make real money (and also to take some serious risks, which for Choe is almost as important). For a while the business continues, in the course of which China asks Isobel to pick up a package from Dr Brian Alexander, a biotechnology entrepreneur based near Hammersmith Bridge in West London. Shortly after this she and China part, at her instigation, saying that she has begun a relationship with Brian Alexander. China’s psychic world collapses into depression, although at this point Choe reappears in his life with his usual consolations of unmotivated acts of will and verbal aggression. Isobel moves to the US for a while, and it becomes clear that Choe has some connection with Brian Alexander. China starts a haphazard relationship with Choe’s ex-girlfriend Christiana who becomes seriously ill. While she is in hospital, Isobel returns, also now seriously ill – due to a course of viral-mediated gene therapy administered by Brian Alexander or his company.

China abandons any interest in Christiana, and commits himself to caring for Isobel, whose condition worsens both physically and psychologically. Her dreams of flight have returned as nightmares. China and Choe’s business relationship resumes and they become involved in trafficking human “live hosts” of biotechnology agents from Eastern Europe (the work which China’s initial refusal to be involved with led to the initial breach between him and Choe). Meanwhile Isobel’s physical condition gradually improves, but her psychological condition becomes, while superficially happier, unpredictable and unstable. She then returns to Brian Alexander, while still professing love for China. Finally, her medical condition breaks down; China tries half-heartedly to resume his relationship with Christiana, who is uninterested; and China then discovers Isobel “nesting” in a box with blankets in his home. She has sprouted feathers, which she has tried to shave off. It transpires that the treatment she had undergone with Brian Alexander was designed to give her plumage, by inserting avian chromosomes into human skin cells. Moreover, artificial hormones were administered with the intention that these would transform human brown fat and bone structure into their avian equivalent – with the intention that these transformations would enable humans to fly like birds. Even her endorphins have been reengineered so that she can experience the ecstasy birds feel in mating flight. This, then, is the end stage of Isobel’s dream of flight. China and Choe confront Brian Alexander, who is casual and unengaged, explaining that many of the problems Isobel had faced were normal in any Research and Development process, and the experimental therapy instigated entirely at her request. He offers to “cure” her of the symptoms of the treatment, which is partially successful and she survives. China takes her home and refuses to have any more to do with her; he eventually resumes his relationship with Christiana. Choe falls foul of his American gangster, but survives.

In the final scene of the book Choe and China revisit Choe’s “primal scene”. Midway through the novel we learn that Choe’s one and only experience of sexual intercourse was at an old-growth wood called Jumble Wood, with a girl whom he met when he was 18, and who initially seemed to be quite ordinary but who, it seems, was in fact the genius loci of the wood. He never saw her again. At the end of the novel it is revealed that the site where they were dumping biological waste was this very same wood.

Bioethical Themes in Signs of Life

One bioethical approach to this would go as follows. We have a theme which centres on human experimentation and gene therapy, and we can say the usual sorts of things about autonomy, risk-benefit proportionality, the role of regulation in constraining unethical experimentation and the need to distinguish between the medical role in caring for a patient and the researcher role in developing a new therapy. We have another theme which centres on human enhancement. We might discuss whether human enhancement is ethical in itself, and how society might regulate it; we might, if we are slightly more ambitious, consider whether human body modification for aesthetic reasons is a form of human enhancement and whether it is a “cosmetic” medical procedure which falls under general medical ethics, or something more akin to tattooing and body art, which does not. Overlapping both of these themes is the theme of personal autonomy and how far society needs to protect and promote such autonomy, and how far constraining it in cases where such autonomy is under threat from problems of capacity or misunderstanding, or public interest concerns might be taken to outweigh individual preferences. Finally we have the themes of nature (and the role of the natural in normative argument) and environment (and human despoliation of it through toxic dumping or other degradation).

It would be perfectly possible, to teach Signs of Life as a text setting out these problems and challenging the reader to think about these problems as problems of action or regulation. However, as identified above, I would like to resist this approach to the novel. First of all, it seems to me that taking novels as staging of moral dilemmas which can then be boiled down and domesticated for philosophy lectures is both to do violence to the text and to misunderstand in a significant way what fiction is and how fiction and ethics relate to eachother. Second, I think that this reading produces a narrow and unimaginative model of what ethics is: that it involves the simple assessment of actions, choices, policies, and that it can involve deeming these simply as good or bad, and correspondingly that it can involve deeming particular characters as good or bad purely on the basis of the acts they carry out. And thirdly, it would involve a rather specific misreading of this particular genre of novel: if we take its “weirdness” as a strategically organised effect in the text, we do need to go along with the grain of the text, at least at first passage, to take that weirdness seriously. To reorganise the novel about its purported freight of moral tales and moral lessons would be to leave out much of what makes the novel interesting as a literary artefact. There would be no point in a novel of cognitive estrangement being taken up and cut into pieces which leave all the strangeness out. We might then be left with the merely banal observation that Isobel wanting become a bird is a bit weird. True enough, many of us might say, but not what makes the novel itself weird.

Taking Weirdness As Seriously As It Will Allow

It is not feasible in the space available to analyse the novel in detail, but it is not necessary to do so for my purposes here. All I need to do is to show that the narrative form of the novel exceeds its situational content, and why that is ethically interesting. That is to say, we can excavate situations from the novel, and discuss them as “problems” requiring choices or decisions, reading group style. But there is more to the novel (any novel) than that. For instance, it’s not enough to take Isobel’s wish to become a bird, in the second half of the novel, at face value and ask whether this is a good thing or not. We have to know what the desire means; we have to know what kind of person she is, what kind of person would want to become a bird. We have to understand how the wish emerges from earlier versions (a dream of flying, a wish to fly aircraft, a desire for freedom, or sexual fulfilment, or escape from human quotidian complexity, or something else again). And it’s not enough to reorganise the discussion around autonomy and desire, because the book estranges us from our settled notions of these too. One thing which the book dramatizes is the sheer oddness of human wishes; not so much their vanity (pace Dr Johnson) as their oddity. While most discussion of human enhancement focusses on pragmatic and instrumental goals served by putative enhancement, Isobel’s dream of birdhood is hard to grasp. It’s not reasonable, or rational, but it is real, and it shapes her life in extremely concrete ways. We cannot say she is wrong to have this desire. And though it changes (dare I say, mutates) over the course of the novel, it is one of the few constant traits in her personality. But we understand nothing if, adopting the language of autonomy, we see it as merely a settled and entirely personal preference. It is dynamic, and lived, and has causal consequences for her personality and her actions and choices.

So if we consider the ethics of enhancement as purely related to sensible, pragmatic things, we are both ignoring the very wide and sometimes highly idiosyncratic things which people might consider as personal enhancements, we also over-rationalise those wishes. They are not simply one preference among many, taking up their place in the shifting ranks of preferences according to changes in external circumstances, costs and incentives. They are identity defining, and in certain cases, identity undermining, desires. The philosophical resources for understanding them come more from Freud, or better still, from Lyotard or Deleuze, than from Mill and Kant. Secondly, the book dramatizes the weirdness of the self. On a first reading, we might think that Choe and China, at least, have strong personalities which emerge through the course of the book. They might do some odd things, which we try to explain (or explain away). But on subsequent readings the apparent fixity of the characterisation melts away. All we have is their doings and sayings, with the names linking them together as a kind of marker of psychological contiguity. We cannot say of them that who they are can be captured in a simple paragraph. Nor can we say that who they are is fixed by what they do. We cannot even say that who they are is fixed by what they want (unlike Isobel, who interestingly is given much less to say, but has a much stronger sense of what she wants, however odd it is). They are situational actors. What makes them convincing as characters, in spite of this thinness, this enacted philosophical scepticism about the self, is precisely the circumstances that they find themselves in. The places are defined convincingly; and the times they are living in are too. If they are thin, and lacking substance, it’s not at all because Harrison cannot draw his characters. It’s because the fluid, shifting, rootless times they are living through make them fluid and shifting and rootless as personalities. In this way, Harrison dramatizes the psychic costs of Thatcherism and the way that money and power and endless creative destruction thins out the self and leaves at most phantasy to cope with this. Thirdly, the book shows the underside of the biotech dream. At the most trivial level, the disaster that is Isobel’s transformation demonstrates the ways in which “life itself” eludes the technologist’s grasp. It also dramatizes the way that life itself eludes our own attempts to reshape our lives in line with our desires. Can we say that Isobel gets what she wants? Can we say that Choe, repeatedly getting what he wants, is in anyway fulfilled by that? But it isn’t simply a story of human hubris either. The thread of the story relating to Jumble Wood suggests that whatever we do there is a founding loss, a desire unfulfillable, or once, but only once, unbearably fulfilled. And we try to respond to that, sometimes by working through our own intense desires, and sometimes by trying to destroy the very site of loss itself by corrupting and degrading it with our trash. We simply cannot have our golden, shiny (feathered?) vision of life without failure, loss, damage, and harm. The issue is not, as bioethics sometimes seems to think, that these are alternatives, and proper regulation could give benefit without harm, or only sensible, rational, proportionate harm. There will be dirt.


In my reading of Signs of Life I have tried to unsettle and disturb the mainstream view of bioethics, and show how confronting bioethics with one particularly fertile and interesting text suggests different approaches to thinking about human agency and human wishes, which have to take account of oddness, idiosyncrasy, the social, economic and historical conditions of existence, and so on. But I am not arguing that medical humanities (in this case the literature of biotechnology) should displace bioethics. Not only is there obviously room for both. There remains the question of the normative within medical humanities. What I am suggesting however is that if we want to think bioethically about life sciences and medicine, we need to open up a space for the weird: we need to try a little cognitive estrangement. We need to be a little bit less sure of our philosophy of the self, and a good deal more aware of the peculiarity and perhaps sublimity of our desires.


(1) Bould, M and M. Reid (eds.) Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005
(2) Anonymous. M. John Harrison (Wikipedia entry)
(3) Franklin T.,  M. John Harrison interviewed (11 November 2015).
(4) Strahan J. Live with M. John Harrison (Coode Street podcast, episode 147)
(5) Walter DG. The new world of New Weird.
(6)Williams R. Irradiating the object: An interview with M. John Harrison (21 August 2014)
(7) Harrison MJ. Climbers London: Victor Gollancz, 1989
(8) Harrison MJ. The Course of the Heart London: Victor Gollancz, 1992
(9) Harrison MJ. Signs of Life London: Victor Gollancz, 1997

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