Saturday 6 July 2024

Planet of Lysenkoism

Cover Design by Lauren Panepinto
Cover Illustration by Yuko Shimizu
(Image via Orbit Books)
Early in the 20th century, the Soviet Union’s government rejected the theory of natural selection and genetic heredity in favour of Trofim Lysenko’s pseudoscience which proclaimed a Marxist class-oriented evolution. Over the course of two decades, reaching into the 1950s, Russian scientists who disagreed with Lysenkoism were imprisoned — even executed — because their experiments and research provided data which contradicted the party line.

It’s a fact that kept coming to mind as we read Alien Clay, the impressive new novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Set in a distant future in which the entirety of the human race lives under the yoke of a world government called “The Mandate,” the novel centres on exobiologist Arton Daghdev, whose research has led him to dispute orthodox theories about the human species’ place in the cosmos. The Mandate’s mantra — summing up their anthropic principle-driven view of the universe — is that “The universe has a direction, and that direction is us.”

“The Mandate in Alien Clay is the most irredeemably authoritarian State I've ever written about … that phrase ‘The universe has a direction’ conveys a point of view that is phenomenally self-important, this belief that Humanity must kind of be the point of everything,” Tchaikovsky explains. “For the main character — who was a scientist — that phrase is the core of why the Mandate is a personal problem for him.”

There’s a deceptive, corrosive elegance to a well-constructed thought-terminating cliche: “history conforms to a dialectical pattern,” “there is no alternative,” or “make America great again.” All these examples convey a worldview that is served by reducing complex issues to simple, misleading statements that dismiss analysis and intellectual exploration. “The universe has a direction,” fits well into this tradition. This sort of coded language helps reinforce the status quo by shutting down further communication and debate. It is implied that to disagree with the cliche doesn’t even warrant consideration.

Daghdev begins the novel having been put on trial for daring to challenge the central ideological tenet of the Mandate. In the opening chapter, he arrives at an extrasolar penal colony on the planet Kiln, dozens of light years from Earth. It’s a fecund planet filled with riotous, chaotic, life whose biology is utterly unlike anything humanity has previously encountered. An exobiologist by training, Daghdev had long sought to study alien life up close, though preferably under less dangerous conditions. It quickly becomes apparent that Kiln’s ancient and alien artefacts provide a counter narrative of experience that undermines the central myth used by the Mandate to justify its authority.
Robert Jay Lifton coined the term
'thought-terminating cliche' to 
describe how authoritarians
manipulate language.
(Image via Wikipedia)

“Authoritarian dictatorships have this colossal fundamental insecurity to them,” Adrian Tchaikovsky muses. “It doesn’t matter if they have the secret police and all the guns and complete control over people's lives … they feel the need to justify why that situation exists. They need some external Authority to show why they are at the top and why they are allowed to treat other people like they do.”

Much like the Soviet regime’s destructive dismissal of verifiable evidence for gene-based evolution, the Mandate punishes anyone with the temerity to challenge an unscientific worldview that shapes its social policy. This is the most compelling (and painful) theme in the novel, and one that seems particularly relevant at a time when many countries are seeing declines in democracy and a repression of fact-based analysis.

The ecology of Kiln revolves around horizontal gene transfer and complex chains of symbiosis, parasitism, and complex colonies of organisms. At times, it is difficult to wrap one's head around how this ecosystem is supposed to work, though this is a minor quibble, and intellectual puzzles won’t be new to Tchaikovsky’s readership. Kiln is a dangerous planet; all organisms are trying to infect or alter everything with which they come in contact. Consequently, Daghdev spends the novel caught between Scylla and Charybdis; on one side the danger of the planet, and on the other the danger of the authoritarian government and the prison institution that embodies it. This provides an interesting tension, and an excellent way to explore chaos and order.

This is among Tchaikovsky’s most interesting works to date, and also among his most timely. Alien Clay is a parable about the tension between scientific exploration and top-down government control; one imagines that Troyfim Lysenko would have been at home in the Mandate … as would too many of today’s political leaders.

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