A few of you may remember a throwaway bit of ecogothic ambience near the start of State of Grace:
“…pure tissue was so hard to come by these days. There was always something that didn’t belong. Viral DNA, engineered for the greater good but too indiscriminate to stay on target. Special marker genes, designed to make animals glow in the dark when exposed to some toxin the EPA had lost interest in twenty years before. Even DNA computers, custom-built for a specific task and then tramped carelessly into wild genotypes like muddy footprints on a pristine floor. Not to mention the fact that half the technical data on the planet was being stored genetically these days, and that stuff was always getting loose. Try sequencing a lung fluke and it was even money whether the base-pairs you read would code for protein or the technical specs on the Denver sewer system.”
I think I originally came across that idea in an old episode of Star Trek Next Gen (“The Drumhead”, for the hardcores among you; a Klingon spy was caught encoding Federation secrets into blood proteins). Recent developments in DNA computing only reinforced the bug in my mind. But it turns out another Canadian — a poet named Christian Bök — is ten steps ahead of me. He’s using genetic engineering to produce living recursive metapoetry.
I first learned about Bök via a review of his book Eunoia: a freakish little masterpiece that tells its story in chapters that each use only a single vowel. (“Hassan can, at a handclap, call a vassal at hand and ask that all staff plan a bacchanal — a gala ball that has what pagan charm small galas lack. Hassan claps, and (ta-dah) an Arab lass at a swank spa can draw a man’s bath and wash a man’s back, as Arab lads fawn and hang…” You get the idea. The man is either a genius or the patron saint of OCD.)
I never read the book. I never forgot the concept. And then, a few months back, I was having dinner with a dude who started out as a high-schooling relative of an old grad-school buddy of mine, and who has somehow turned into a PhD candidate while I myself haven’t aged at all. Turns out he actually knows this Bök fellow personally, and he brought me up to speed on the man’s latest project.
The Xenotext Experiment. A collaboration with Stuart Kauffman at the University of Calgary’s Institute of Biocomplexity and Informatics. Bök is writing a 50-word English poem (probably about “the relationship between language and genetics”, he says), translating it into DNA, and inserting it into the genome of Conan the Bacterium — also known as Deinococcus radiodurans, the toughest microbial motherfucker on the planet, a microbe who laughs at hard vacuum and radiation hot enough to cook you to a cinder. Genes are the most stable storage medium that 4.7 billion years of evolution have been able to come up with (they beat the pants off DVDs), and Deinococcus carries some of the most stable genes. Bök is shooting for a poem that’ll still be around and iterating when the sun blows up. And it doesn’t stop there; not satisfied with simply inserting fifty words of nonfunctional junk into Conan’s DNA, he’s going to design the poem itself to code for the production of a protein which will itself decompile into a whole other poem.
Talk about bringing literature to life.
I really, really hope Bök publishes before State of Grace comes out. Because his poem just has to make a cameo appearance in the Oregon desert, and I’d hate to have to make up the words myself. I’d probably end up just stealing something from Aqualung.