Repeating Oneself The term cloning has been a part of fiction for so long, the reality of it has drawn nary a doubletake. But the issues bear examinations.

February 26, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

It's not true, what people say, that truth is stranger than fiction. Not always.

Consider Ian Wilmut, determined embryologist at Scotland's Roslin Institute. He inserted DNA from a sheep cell into an egg, then implanted it into an unsuspecting ewe. He created, with the help of the sheep, another sheep. (What else?) It has never been done before in real life. The world is agape, sort of.

Now take Ira Levin, popular author not even widely known for science fiction. In the 1970s he writes a story, "The Boys From Brazil," wherein the fugitive Nazi, Dr. Joseph Mengele, far removed in his Paraguayan laboratory, clones a flock of genetic replicas of his erstwhile fuhrer. He then seeds the American Midwest with these Hitlerian knockoffs.

One is a matter of fact. The other is a work of the imagination. Which is the more interesting? The story of the Hitler clones, or the adventures of Dolly, Sheep without a Dad?

Still, one should not knock the efforts of diligent scientists, or belittle their products. Dolly is a unique creature on Earth, even if she is an exact reproduction: She is the perfect paradox.

But art has clearly outstripped its sister, science, when it comes to clones. So common in the public mind is the idea of cloning -- if not the fact of it -- that a lot of people were probably wondering what all the shouting was about over Wilmut's sheep.

Why is cloning so widely thought of as not so extraordinary? For that blame Levin, Aldous Huxley, Robert Heinlein, Michael Crichton and all those other imaginative scribblers who over the years seized and exploited its possibilities.

"I think people who don't think about science are probably not surprised at all," says John Alden, an archaeologist at the Museum of Anthropology in Ann Arbor, Mich. Alden, who reviews science fiction books for newspapers, suspects that "once the word [clone] got commonplace, people treated the reality as if it were everyday. I think science fiction deserves credit for making the word commonplace."

Cloning has been a staple in science fiction for decades. Sheila ++ Williams, executive editor of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine, reports that among the 200-odd submissions from writers each week, there is always at least one treatment of the subject. Asimov's Science Fiction publishes about one or two of these a year.

To get into the magazine with such a hackneyed device, the interpretation has to be highly original. Like the story published last year by Kathleen Ann Goonan called "Advance Notice."

It's about a woman clone living on Mars in the year 2150 who is slowly manifesting the artistic skills of her older sister still on Earth. She goes looking for this sister in Bangkok, where her artistic work is being destroyed because it is politically suspect.

This occasions great distress until the main character realizes that the authorities' attempt at censorship will fail. Why? Her sister's message will get through because she, the younger clone from Mars, will soon be able to do the same work her sister did.

Original idea or deja vu?

There is some disagreement about who was most responsible for sowing the idea of the clone in the public consciousness so many years before the procedure became fact. Poul Anderson, a well-known science fiction author, sees Aldous Huxley as the most famous developer of the theme, if not the earliest. Huxley's "Brave New World," published in 1932, contained beings "decanted" from test-tubes where they were treated to perform certain tasks within a society that separated sex from reproduction.

Some argue that since the engineers of Huxley's anti-Utopia weren't producing one being from another they weren't, strictly speaking, cloning.

Brother Julian Huxley, world-famous Darwinian biologist, also was working in this area in the 1930s. He published a story titled "The Tissue Culture King," about two explorers in Africa who are captured by natives who worship a king. In order to save their lives they figure out a way to multiply the king's cells so that every worshiper can have a little bit of their king in his hut. But it doesn't turn out well for the cell multipliers, who may not be cloners either, depending on how rigid your definitions are.

Other early entries include Heinlein's story, "By His Bootstraps" (1941), or A. E. van Vogt's "The World of Null-A," first serialized in 1945 in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction.

Poul Anderson wrote his own clone book in 1953, a novella titled "Un-man." The hero was a man with superior physical abilities who was an international policeman. "The fact that he was a clone was kept secret until the end of the story," Anderson said from his home in Orinda, Calif. "That was the snapper."

Also writing about clones at that time was Jack Vance. "He wrote one in which somebody was cloning a lot of pretty girls," Anderson recalled, adding, "That's more interesting than cloning policemen."

Bring in the clones

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