I was blogging about genetic engineering over at Speculative Faith and began by referencing a rather sunny article about the benefits of artificially-enhancing intelligence via genetic manipulation or other means. Everybody wants smarter kids, right?
Then, I remembered this thoughtful, disturbing, sad, yet ultimately triumphant novella by Greg Bear: “Sisters.”
Mr. Bear is better known for his brilliant and often prescient novels, award-winning tales such as Blood Music, Darwin’s Radio, and Moving Mars. He can rock the short form, too, and never better than this story of Letitia Blakely, a “normal” girl in a world of genetically-crafted wunderkinder. Letitia’s peers are practically perfect in every way, bringing her teenage struggles with identity and body image into overwhelming, horrific focus:
Of the seven hundred adolescents in her high school training programs, Letitia Blakely was one of ten NGs–possessors of natural, unaltered genomes. Everyone else was the proud bearer of juggled genes, PPCs or Pre-Planned Children, all lovely and stable with just the proper amount of adipose tissue and just the proper infusion of parental characteristics and chosen features to be beautiful and different; tall, healthy, hair manageable, skin unblemished, well-adjusted (except for the occasional blitzer) with warm and sunny personalities. The old derogatory slang for PPCs was RC–Recombined.
Letitia, slightly overweight, skin pasty, hair frizzy, bulbous-nosed and weak-chinned, one breast larger than the other and already showing a droop pronounced enough to grip a stylus–with painful menstrual periods and an absolute indisposition to athletics–was the Sport. That’s what they were called. NG Sports. TBs–Throwbacks. Neanderthals.
She’s not just a misfit, she’s an object of disdain and pity–a relic of a bygone age when looks and talent depended on a random roll of nature’s dice, and if it came up snake-eyes, you learned to live with it. The final straw drops when she’s asked to portray an old woman in a school play, because, “You know none of the others can.”
Letitia comes to terms with her imperfect humanity, but at a terrible cost, and she learns that her parents’ decision to leave her as God made her was a blessing, not a curse.
The technology is close enough to reality that you might lose some sleep, and it will make your heart ache…but it’s a beautiful read and well worth it.
You can find the story in Tangents, a 1989 collection of Greg Bear stories. “Sisters” was republished in 2008 as part of a three-story anthology, Women in Deep Time, and can also be purchased from the usual suspects.