From forming new bodies from parts to sophisticated genetic design, science fiction has always pursued the dream of a longer and healthier life. But how far can we go?
Can we gain immortality by manipulating our genes? Or will it be possible to fight diseases on a microbiological level? With sufficiently advanced know-how, will we be capable of living long and healthy lives because diseases can be avoided before they take hold?
According to Brian Aldiss‘s history of science fiction, its first hero was a medical doctor: Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” (published in 1818) takes the newly established medical sciences to their limits:
With the creation of a humanlike creature from body parts it describes the ultimate goal of medicine: to give life where there is death. But it also imbued its readers – for centuries to come – with a horror of crossing ethical boundaries. Even today, whenever scientists seem in danger of crossing boundaries they rather shouldn’t, the name of Frankenstein is whispered as a warning not to go too far.
In time, science fiction stories got closer to what was actually possible. The goal of creating humans was abandoned in favor of human improvement. In the 20th century, science fiction followed the trail of medical discoveries. With the advent of antibiotics, it started to imagine pills for everything. With the increased use of prosthetics after the First World War, it explored human enhancements beyond replacing lost limbs.
With the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome, the Frankenstein idea of the patchwork human returned on a molecular level. Though creating humans from scratch was out of the picture, tuning the human body by manipulating its genetic code became commonplace. Also, we find pre-natal genetic manipulation which results in forever-healthy designer babies, which, of course, is the ultimate preventive health measure and makes health care obsolete.