Sunday, March 4, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Life in the Lab

A team of biologists/biogeneticists discover the secret of life by accident, creating a species of homunculi. Though kept in a "paradisial" aquarium/safe, they escape to live as Borrowers.

Of course, the scientists will be just fine with that!

There's a line to walk here. The appeal of Mary Norton's Borrowers, and all the other little people out there, is their juxtaposition with our everyday lives. We love pins used as rapiers, climbing the drapes by the bobbles, safety pins and flyswatters transformed into mouse-proof gates, shooting the rapids in silverware boxes and teakettles, the whole nine yards.

But if the story begins in a lab, with the origin of the species, the environment isn't our domestic sphere turned into a wilderness of giants, but the kinds of buildings labs are found in. Vast, intimidating structures in research office facilities. And bio labs in particular are far from cozy. Security has to be high enough to challenge everything from microbes to apes. Temperature and humidity are tightly controlled. Everything runs off computers. The challenge of creating an independent society inside such a building is fundamentally different.

Especially since they couldn't be secret. Pod, Homily, and Arrietty survive partly by flying under the radar of us human beans. Even if the author can contrive some sort of reasonable excuse for their creators not having published their results and gotten in peer reviewers as fast as they could (and come on - you create tiny humans in your lab you can't wait to tell the world!), their creators know all about them, and will not be sanguine about letting them stroll off into the sunset. Careers are on the line here. The research potential is staggering. You don't just shrug and kiss all that good-by.

The number of ways this story can go wrong (i.e. boring and stupid) are staggering. If you give it the standard blockbuster treatment you'd have either evil scientists or evil homunculi in a race against time, finally climaxing in some kind of nonsensical explosion. The family movie treatment, with happy endings all round, wouldn't be any better.

The setup involves real, serious issues that can't be solved in the course of a book and which therefore would be uncomfortable to explore. If the homunculi are fully intelligent, moral creatures with agency, then even if they form a sympathetic family unit they will have conflicts among themselves, with different ideas about what constitutes their best interests. Their skills and their society will have to evolve in the context of their situation. They will have relationships with their creators, both positive and negative. They will be computer savvy (how else to get around all that security?) and at least some of them will be ingenious. They will be capable of abstract thought and be interested in the same sorts of questions we are, but their situation necessarily requires a different set of answers.

And, oh yeah - they'll have, to start out with, an unviable population size and access to research notes about how they were created...

I get tired just thinking about this one. And yet, the premise is so simple!

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