Blogs > Cliopatria > Saw it Coming. Now, What Do We Do?

Jan 17, 2004 9:15 am

Saw it Coming. Now, What Do We Do?

Someone, somewhere should be keeping score. I love science fiction and fantasy, particularly that branch of science fiction that really tries to extrapolate into the future: experiments with history, when they're done well. One of my prized possessions is a collection of short stories that does just that: experiment with the future of sport and competition. The Science Fictional Olympics, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg and Charles Waugh, includes some fine fiction: my personal favorite stories are probably Arthur C. Clarke's elegant"The Wind From The Sun," about the thrills and drama of solar sail racing, and"Prose Bowl," by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, which postulates head-to-head competition between pulp fiction writers, complete with penalties for split infinitives and mixed metaphors. I loved that story before I ever heard of poetry slams, or Japanese poetry competitions or renga (group-written linked verse), or the Delphic Games (like the Olympics, but they included competitions in poetry and song as well as athletics), and I think underlies my interest in these forms of competitive public authorship.

But the Cassandra award of the day is shared by two stories on a different subject. The intense but gentle"A Glint of Gold" by Nicholas V. Yermakov, and the more broadly funny"The Mickey Mouse Olympics" by Tom Sullivan both postulate a future in which genetic manipulation turns high level athletic competition into a form of competitive science. Yermakov's story focuses on the human (well, mostly human) costs of single-purpose people. Sullivan's story even includes international agreements against genetic manipulation, though the US and USSR (OK, they didn't see that one coming) are clearly violating it with abandon, and Disney is the primary sponsor of the Olympics, since nobody else can afford the facilities; the punch line really is a punch line, being about boxing. You can even read them as a sequence, with Sullivan as a sequel to Yermakov.

Silly, unlikely stuff, I hear you say? Not according to the NYTimes Magazine story about"Mighty Mice." It seems that a little genetic manipulation can turn ordinary lab rats into over-sized, eternal-youth, muscle-mice, and these techniques are within the grasp of skilled, not necessarily brilliant, technicians and doctors. That would be in addition to all the steroids and supplements and stimulants and oxygen-training that already take remarkable athletes and turn them into freakish over-achievers.

This raises all kinds of questions: What is the entertainment value of barely-human athletes? For me, chemical enhancement takes the drama and reality out of a sport, and turns it into an"arms race" (it's hard to talk about this without a few puns creeping in), but for others it might make it more personally achievable and therefore more relevant. What are the limits of human potential, what is the dividing line between human and ubermensch, and does it matter? (Robert Heinlein's Friday is partially an extended meditation on that subject as well; there are many others, of course.) Where do you put the asterisks in the record book? Single stars for super-trainers; double-stars for steroids; triple-stars for gene therapies; four-star notations for specially-bred? Or do you just establish separate lists, and separate leagues? There is the matter of intellectual property rights: if gene therapies or gene manipulations for athletes are commercially developed, who owns the athletes when they're done and who gets credit for their achievements? (Imagine an update to Sullivan: the Monsanto Manipulators against the Pfizer Pfixers, two teams of scientists pitting their carefully engineered teams against each other in an range of events, stock prices fluctuating with the success or failure of the"athletic products.") What is the balance between risk and reward: if you could climb Mt. Everest without special equipment, but would only live to be 14, would it be worth it? Really? And, in the immediate present, what about the ethics of the athletes and trainers who are already calling scientists to sign up for procedures that have never been tried on human beings before.

The things we do to ourselves.....

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Oscar Chamberlain - 1/17/2004

Two possible outcomes or solutions for the problem of keeping an audience (among many).

One would be more unions between athletics and aesthetics. Ballet, Cirque du Soleil, and even ice skating provide some current examples. While the question of human effort versus chemical enhancement would remain, it would be partially offset by the union with artistry. Physical enhancement may make some things (e.g. being on point) easier but the artistry would be more recogizeably "human." For now at least.

Another possibility would be the development of an audience that supports people deliberately pushing themselves to a dangerous edge. Here the question of surviving the training could be part of the mystique. I don't like this one very much, but some perverse combination between reality TV and X-Games, in which the audience follows the athlete throughout the training/enhancement process and then into competition strikes me as possible (assuming some laws are changed).

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