Emerging Technologies Emerge as Themes of Berne’s Novel

October 25, 2012

Rosalyn W. Berne woke with a start out of a deep sleep in a New York City hotel room one night several years ago. Not sure why, she decided to put pen to paper and wrote until dawn.

That writing eventually led to her first novel, “Waiting in the Silence,” which is now available in paperback from Spore Press, and in electronic format from online vendors.

Parents choosing their unborn children’s genetic traits; an independent computer system controlling people and medicine halting or extending lifespans – Berne, an associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Engineering and Society, found herself weaving a science fiction story with the subjects and issues she had been researching, writing about and teaching.

She will read from “Waiting in the Silence” Nov. 30 at New Dominion Bookshop on the Downtown Mall.

Berne has written about her research in several publications: “Nanotalk: Conversations with Scientists and Engineers about Ethics, Meaning and Belief in the Development of Nanotechnology” (Erlbaum 2005) and “Biotechnology and Science Fiction” (forthcoming in 2013 from Pan Stanford Publishing), plus a chapter, “Science Fiction, Nano-Ethics and the Moral Imagination” in “The Yearbook of Nanotechnology in Society, Volume I: Presenting Futures” (Springer Press 2008).

We recently caught up with Berne to talk about the novel and the influences of her experiences – from her personal life as well as her academic life – in writing and in teaching her students.

Q. How did you get interested in emerging technologies and their impact?

Berne: The interest in this subject began when I walked into a classroom one day and a student was reading a book called “The Spiritual Life of Machines,” and I had never seen or heard of it before. I asked him to explain it and we went out to lunch, and it went from there.

Q. And how did you go from teaching and researching new technologies to deciding to write a novel about them?

Berne: Well, it’s a bit mysterious – I didn’t actually make that decision. I had been in New York City interviewing scientists for my research project, a scholarly book about scientists who do nanotechnology research. I was in a hotel room, fell asleep and was awakened by I don’t know what from inside of myself, I suppose, in the middle of the night. I was wide awake and didn’t know what to do with myself, so I picked up a pen and began to write, and I wrote until dawn. I put away the pad of paper, and months later, when I took it out of my briefcase, lo and behold, there was a short story, science fiction. At the time I had a brother-in-law who was a filmmaker and producer, and he read it and said, “You have to write this into a full novel.”

Q. As you worked on the novel, were there particular issues that came up that you knew you wanted to include?

Berne: I think that what probably happened is that because I’d spent five years interviewing scientists and talking to them about the ethical implications of their work, and learning about the new and emerging technologies that are coming out of nano-scale science and biotechnology, subconsciously I was churning about some of the implications.

I was also beginning to do a lot of reading myself and teaching on the subject. So as the book emerged from me, from that deep part of myself, I saw that a number of different issues were coming forward.

For example, radical life extension and what that means – what does it mean to age and to inhibit the aging process? I’d heard people talk about aging as an illness or a disease, and I think that was on my mind.

I was also probably responding in part to my own personal experience with having a child who was not able to live because of a pretty serious defect. I think that in a way I was processing what it means to be perfect, to be born perfect, what it means to treat illness when a child is in utero. I’d also read about research going on where people are actually experimenting with the idea of having children gestated outside of the womb. So there were many different elements that I was taking in.

Q. Tell us what the book is about.

Berne: “Waiting in the Silence” is a near-term science fiction, which means it’s a world you would sort of recognize. It’s set on Nantucket. It’s historical in that it reaches back into the history of the Quakers and the whalers, but it’s science fiction in that it goes forward about 50 to 75 years, extrapolating what it would mean to be a woman, to be pregnant, to deliver a baby, to be mated, to be a senior citizen. What does it mean to live in a world where some of these technologies are now in our lives in very profound ways?

The main character is a woman who has been charged by her mate – what we would call a husband – with stealing his genetic material, and she’s been found guilty, so she’s hiding in an old Quaker meetinghouse, trying to figure out what to do about her situation.

Q. Have you come out with some opinions about the biotechnology that’s a possibility in the future?

Berne: I tried really hard to be objective, but in the end I think I wasn’t, because there are things I do believe and feel that we should take care of – for example, the issue of aging.

The more we develop the capacity to detect disease early, to treat it in utero, et cetera, the more we change what’s acceptable and what’s not. In this book, people are choosing the characteristics of their children by manipulating genes. The question about the human role in creativity, in the creation, and the support of human life gives me pause.

With regard to aging, at some point we need to just step aside and let go and allow ourselves to die. It’s a hard question as to when we should say, “enough is enough” and under what conditions.

I also think I’m pretty clear in the book that we need to leave alone the process of how babies come to be, that we need to at some point just have some humility and let whatever the life force is that’s behind this do its work. I think that probably shows up in the book, although I try not to bring that into my teaching, because I want students to frame their own ideas.

Q. How do you think using science fiction helps the students think about these technologies and engineering and society?

Berne: Science fiction helps us tap the moral imagination, which is our capacity to imaginatively reflect on what is important, what we believe in, what we care about, what we’re afraid of, what we hope for, what we dream about.

With science fiction, it removes some of the boundaries that keep us from having these deep conversations, because we don’t have to worry so much about whether this is here and now and whether this is in our lives, so we can just let go a little bit and explore. It’s easy to say “that’s just fiction,” and yet what we end up doing is talking about now. From that, we can have conversations – with engineers, which is who I teach – asking, “How is what you’re doing now potentially going to change how we live?”

Q. You’re an associate professor now, but you’ve had a varied career – as Head of Tandem Friends School in Charlottesville, several roles at U.Va., including assistant vice president for administration, vice president for academic affairs for Semester at Sea Institute of Shipboard Education, and you earned your Ph.D. here in religious studies. Do you think these different experiences have played a part in your novel?

Berne: The variety of my professional experiences all have one thing in common, and that has to do with being an educator. It’s in my blood, I have generations of teaching in my family line. But I’m also grateful for a sense of being able to create and have vision about the future.

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