While watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes the other evening, I mulled over cloning, genetic meddling, and experiments that get away from their creators. It is a literary theme at least as old as Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s 19th Century readers would have thought it horrible and blasphemous for a man to create a living, sentient being. In the 20th Century, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was not considered horror but satire. Huxley’s government-authorised scientists breezily manufacture human clones that conform to a caste system, each caste serving a particular purpose in society. The idea seems more troublesome today because it’s right around the corner. In the 21st Century film The Island, set only a few years into the future, human cloning is a private enterprise: clones are raised in a contained environment so that their organs can be harvested as needed by their sponsors, the ultra-wealthy humans from whom they were cloned.
Even genetically modified seeds fly out of bounds, so we can certainly expect that a human clone will do its damnedest to exercise its own free will, but that always seems to catch its inventors by surprise. The clones in The Island manage to escape, amid car chases and explosions. The doomed organ donor children in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go succumb to their fate. Each electrically generated duplicate magician in the film The Prestige is killed after the performance in which he stars. In some works, we don’t really know what happens next: Do the Hitler clones in The Boys from Brazil go on to become genocidal dictators, or do they just remain arrogant bullies?
My favourite cloning story is the thought-provoking Calvin and Hobbes episode in which Calvin invents a duplicator to produce a clone who can do all his homework, leaving Calvin himself free to play and watch TV. But the new Calvin, true to type, goes rogue. He refuses to do homework and instead runs off extra duplicates to play with. The original Calvin is horrified but ingeniously traps his duplicates back in his machine and then adds a new feature, the ethicator, to make his clone incapable of doing wrong. The resulting boy, his free will compromised, does do his homework. Things still go haywire, of course, but Calvin can’t help tinkering with the idea.
If we revert to a much older story, we find that playing God had its perils for God Himself. His angels began to think for themselves, you see, especially Lucifer, and then His humans did the same. Every parent since then who imagined he was merely duplicating himself has found that his little angels have made other plans. Inventors in fiction may want meek duplicates, but for the inventors of fiction, and their readers, it is the rogue creation who is central to the story. When Milton started retelling that very old tale of God and Adam with the opening line “Of man’s first disobedience”, he clearly knew how to get our attention.