Wednesday, March 9, 2011

the struggle for something better

From The Morning and the Evening and the Night:

Two men and three women. All we had in common was our disease, plus a weird combination of stubborn intensity about whatever we happened to be doing and hopeless cynicism about everything else. Healthy people say no one can concentrate like a DGD. Healthy people have all the time in the world for stupid generalizations and short attention spans” (39).

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the power of hopelessness in James Tiptree Jr.'s science-fiction writing. Octavia Butler appears to incorporate a similar theme in The Morning, a story in which the young protagonists are afflicted by a neurodegenerative genetic disorder. In addition, people with the Duryea Gode disease tend to be intense in their academic undertakings, displaying an almost savant-like ability to focus. Lynn, a biology major with an uncanny ability to relate to other DGDs, contests for much of the story that her achievements are a product of motivation and hard work. The hopelessness associated with the inevitability of disease onset seems to drive people like Lynn to accomplish more in less time.

A visit to the cutting-edge DGD research center Dilg, however, reveals that savantism does exist among this population. In addition, Lynn's empathy is explained by a genetically inherited pheromone. The woman in charge of the facility, Beatrice, also possesses the pheromone and causes Lynn to be irrational and hostile; this is because the “queen bees” (as Alan calls them, 64) are physiologically predisposed to be “territorial” (62) towards one another. At the same time, they provide a calming effect to DGDs who only inherited the disease from one parent. These scientific explanations first seem to undermine Lynn's beliefs regarding struggle and accomplishment, but actually serve to set up another obstacle which Lynn intends to overcome. Despite Alan's objections at being “ a goddamn smell” (63), Lynn insists that he would do the same as her if he were in her place; that is, she would accept the responsibility that came with her natural ability and work to better the world for people with DGD.

Within the Dilg facilities, the struggle that the DGD patients experience in holding onto reality also reflect the dichotomy of adversity and progress. Furthermore, DGD actually spawned from a miraculous treatment for cancer. In attempting to fight off one epidemic, humankind not only created a sicker and more deadly one but also unlocked another level of human potential. The line between savagery and savantism is a thin one, though, and on this line stands people like Beatrice and Lynn whose power and responsibility are enormous (Uncle Ben, anyone?). Within the greater story of struggle and progress is a more personal one, one that everyone can relate to: overcoming fear and adversity to accept the challenge of doing something great.

One of the reasons I posted on this topic is because it struck a chord with my experiences working at a research foundation for Huntington's disease. In October, they set up a presentation featuring a 29-year old PhD student symptomatic for HD. He was working in a genetics lab, and had a keen interest in the study of his own inevitable fate. I was struck by how dedicated he was, despite starting to lose the ability to think lucidly and concentrate. Unlike the DGD patients in Butler's story, HD patients lose a lot in terms of cognition and focus. The aspiring genotherapist told us that, to counteract his deteriorating condition, he might have to give up his dreams and become a spokesman and activist for HD research instead. Despite what life had thrown at him, despite the hopelessness that many would feel in his situation, he fights on. I believe that this is a very human trait, one reflected by history, religion, and of course, science fiction.


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