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Interview: September 13, 2002

September 13, 2002

Gary Braver, author of GRAY MATTER, has written several critically acclaimed novels that deal with issues that loom large in our future world. Braver shares his views on the ethics and moralities of genetic engineering and the overblown emphasis on IQ measurements in this interview with's Roberta O'Hara.

BRC: What was the inspiration for GRAY MATTER?

GB: The short answer is a CNN poll. A few years ago, CNN conducted a national survey of a few thousand people, asking them to name the one thing they would like to change about themselves if they could. The choices were: To be better looking, taller, less selfish, more daring, kinder to others, friendlier, etc...even wealthier. Surprisingly nearly 80% of the respondents said they wish they were born smarter.

The apparent reasoning is that with high intelligence most people feel they can make up for all the other deficiencies. In other words, cognitive superiority is a ticket to the best schools, best jobs, highest salaries, better society, better class of friends, happiness...a better life.

The longer answer: As a parent and an educator, that CNN poll ignited in me some pet peeves:

A. We live in a highly competitive culture that is stuck on reductive notions of intelligence --- how one measures up on IQ and SAT tests. But intelligence is a multiplicity of human talents that consist of different potentials in addition to verbal and math capabilities --- i.e., logic, spatial conceptualization, aesthetics, music, athletics, emotional sensitivity, social and interpersonal relations, and more. As someone once said, "If the Aborigine drafted an IQ test, all of Western civilization would flunk it."

B. As a parent, I'm struck by an unsettling revolution in childbearing and child-rearing. Subscribing to Nature over Nurture, infertile couples advertise for egg donors in the Yale Daily News. Others dole out thousand of dollars for the sperm of Nobel laureates. Some consult geneticists, hoping that they could locate a "smart" gene to be stimulated. There is none, of course, but that doesn't prevent people from spending small fortunes on such elusive "quick fixes."

Subscribing to Nurture over Nature, new parents are obsessed with rearing Supertots out of the belief that geniuses are made, not born. Caught up in the new American religion of Self-improvement, they are turning childhood into what some have called "apprentice adulthood." Whether fueled by guilt, vanity, fear or raw competitiveness, they enroll their toddlers in nursery schools from the time they can walk; they hook up their preschoolers to computer software such as JumpStart Toddlers, Baby Bach, Baby Shakespeare, and Baby Einstein games; they send them to bed with Mozart and poetry CDs. Instead of allowing kids to enjoy childhood frolicking with other kids --- making social bonds, sharing, learning from others, etc. --- they bounce them from cello lessons, to computer classes, soccer practice, ballet workouts, even multi-lingual playgroups. Parents are turning old-fashioned kid fun into education, their days into curricula. Something's wrong with that, I think.

These yearnings to breed geniuses ultimately reflect a culture of narcissism and entitlement: Smart parents demanding smart kids. In GRAY MATTER, parents succumb to the temptation of turning slow or ordinary kids into Stephen Hawking and Marilyn vos Savant. The temptation is great and the cultural patterns are in place. As one character says: "We get our kids' teeth, hair, and noses fixed, why not their IQs?"

Super Mouse: Adding to the inspiration was an astonishing advancement in brain research I had read about. In 1999 Princeton University scientists made a remarkable breakthrough. They had bred mice with superior intelligence. Under the direction of neurobiologist Joe Tsien, the team found that adding a single gene to mice brains significantly boosted the animals' ability to solve maze tasks. They also demonstrated heightened long-term memory. The demonstration not only raised speculations about how the brain makes and stores knowledge, but it fanned hopes of boosting memory and other intellectual capabilities in people. That breakthrough became the basis of the science in GRAY MATTER. It made the book's "What if…"all the more plausible. And scary.

BRC: How did you research the medical facts for the book?

GB: The research for this novel was varied and extensive. Besides considerable use of the library and Internet, I interviewed dozens of technical experts including neurophysicians, special education teachers, police detectives, medical examiners, and crime lab chemists. I sat in classrooms of learning-disabled children; I observed psychologists conducting behavioral experiments on children and lab animals; I interviewed forensic pathologists in the autopsy room; I even watched videos of brain surgery. Sometimes the research was revolting; sometimes enlightening. Always fascinating.

But there are inherent dangers in such research. For one, it's very seductive and one could get lost in the fascination and lose sight that a book needs to be written. Second, because of the fascination factor, one is tempted to include more information than is necessary for creating verisimilitude. Yes, we write to entertain and educate. However, too much information can blind the reader with science. So one has to learn to streamline the schoolroom stuff. What I do is to tape record all interviews, then go back to my computer to transcribe the tapes. But instead of waiting weeks to use the material, I immediately lace the important stuff into a scene whose dramatic structure has already been determined, thus avoiding the temptation to pad.

BRC: I can't imagine that my HMO would ever pay for an "Enhancement." Entitlement is a theme in GRAY MATTER. What are your thoughts on the oft-voiced complaint that only the wealthy can afford the very best in medical treatment?

GB: As one character in the book complains, should it be possible to raise the intelligence of children, the social implications would be astounding. Since the procedure as described would be very expensive, only the wealthy would have their learning-disabled children fixed. In the long run, that would throw off the balance of society, the intellectual diversity. It would also give rise to new class conflicts: the Haves vs. the Have-nots. The Enhanced vs. the Enhanced-nots. Not to mention how every ethical person would raise protests against eugenics and social engineering. And rightfully so.

BRC: What's your personal opinion of some of the choices that loom on the scientific horizon --- cloning, baby selection (sex, eye color, etc.), extended life (a theme you touched on in ELIXIR)?

GB: I have a Frankenstein uneasiness about cloning, the catalogue shopping for babies, and even prolongevity research, the subject of my last novel, ELIXIR (Forge Books, 2000, 2001). As a former physicist, I'm troubled by science tampering with the big secrets of nature, with trying to get something for nothing, with improving on human makeup. Yes, medical research has make life infinitely better for people. At the turn of the last century, the average age of death was 39. A hundred years later it's 77. But preventive medicine is different from the manipulation of human genes. Cloning, for instance, is fraught with nightmare possibilities. And the benefits so far are negative as evidence by the fact that the Dolly, Molly, Polly sheep clones have aged prematurely.

I am very much opposed to the potential Nieman-Marcus-catalog approach to making babies --- i.e., genetically ordering sex, eye color, skin color, body types, etc. As with the medical enhancing of intelligence, such a practice could invite a dangerous implementation of racial and social prejudices. Not to mention boring biological uniformity. I'm reminded of Adolf Hitler's program to crossbreeding of blond athletic parents to spawn a generation of fair-haired, blue-eyed Aryan "ideals." Not only was this an attempt at social/biological engineering at its worse, but it apparently failed. Those offspring grew up big, blond, blue-eyed and intellectually below average.

I am, however, hopeful about stem cell research, which holds the promise of nerve and organ regeneration.

BRC: GRAY MATTER makes a strong case for having to live with the aftermath --- or repercussions --- of choice. Rachel has to live with the aftermath of using drugs while in college. Parents have to live with the aftermath of enhancing their children. Care to comment on that?

GB: The difference between life and art is that art has to make sense. The lives of fictional characters have meaning. They are usually rewarded or punished for what they do. Such is not always true in life.

In GRAY MATTER, I am not trying to make a statement on how people should or should not deal with the consequences of what they did when younger and more foolish. Each person deals differently with choices and the consequences of his or her actions. However, I tried to dramatize the anguish of a morally decent woman, Rachel Whitman, who is gnarled with guilt that an experimental drug she took years ago in college caused her child's learning difficulties. This guilt crossed with maternal love provided the necessary motivation to drive her to consider "enhancement." Pressure also comes from the upper-middle-class society that she and her family inhabit. Fortunately, she comes to her senses at the eleventh hour, though she has to pay for her temptation with the forbidden.

As for her friend Sheila, there's no turning back. And the after-the-fact guilt and remorse produce in her pathological denial that she is rearing a creepy brain-brat.

BRC: This may be a difficult question to answer, as a teacher, but do we as a society put too much emphasis on intelligence? (I could have just as easily asked do we put too much emphasis on beauty, wealth, etc.?) More doesn't necessarily equal "better," true?

GB: (SEE ANSWER #1) I believe for too long we have put too much emphasis on standard definitions of intelligence and their traditional yardsticks --- SAT and IQ exams. Fortunately, some colleges recognize the exclusionary nature of SATs and the fact that some bright kids just don't test well, and they have eliminated the tests as an admission requirement.

BRC: Would you, if given the choice, "enhance" a child of yours, assuming he or she were like Dylan, the child in your book?How about some of your students? ; )

GB: The short answer is No. The long answer is GRAY MATTER. Of course, the enhancement in the book is dangerously flawed to suggest we can never manufacture the brainchildren we think we want. And that the science that so presumes is a failure. Medical risks and side effects notwithstanding, I would NOT opt for enhancing my children's IQ. Intelligence is a black box. It's neurologically global. Boosting a child's IQ would affect my children's personalities in ways I could not predict, in ways that would surely change who they are. As Rachel discovers, there are far too many unknowns.

As for my students: While at times I may have the urge to slam students over the head, I would not in reality want their brains restructured for the sake of smarter papers and exams.

BRC: Ethical dilemmas play a strong role in your books. These are classic struggles, found in most great literature, but what draws you in particular to these larger questions of ethics and morality and their part in our expanding scientific and medical abilities?Do you have a science background?

GB: I have a degree in physics and worked as a physicist at Raytheon for a few years while an undergraduate at WPI. I was privileged to have shared labs with very high-level people engaged in classified research on exotic weaponry. I got to know the myopic mindset of brilliant scientists who performed cutting-edge science unfazed by the moral ambiguity of what they were doing. Looking back on those years, I now realize that I had experienced the very issues raised in Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN --- the giddy urge to tread all new scientific territory and the cool disregard of consequences. This conflict between innovation and lack of foresight is the basis of much science fiction. It's also at the heart of our world's woes. Yes, political conditions often necessitate scientific breakthrough. But once we learned how to split the atom, we lost more than we gained. And for the last 60 years we've been living with that brutal fact.

Frankly, I think "scientific progress" is overrated. Yes, we've evolved leaps and bounds since the days of our knuckle-dragging ancestors. But we're still back in the caves when it comes to moral progress. The bigger the science, the bigger the messes and moral dilemmas. It's sad but the most sophisticated machines in the world are military hardware.

In my own writing I'm interested in the conflicts between scientific innovation and moral consequences. But my canvas is the American family, not space or the battlefield. And the reason is that before all else, I am a husband and a father. Family is the most important thing to me. Family is also the fundamental building block of society. What I do in my books is explore "big-science" ideas as they affect mothers, fathers and kids. In ROUGH BEAST (Donald I. Fine/Penguin, 1995, 1996) some very bad chemicals leech into the drinking water of an ordinary family and change the metabolism and behavior of the 12-year-old son. In THE STONE CIRCLE a major archaeological discovery on a Boston Harbor island turns the father of a six-year-old into a potential monster. In ELIXIR a biologist develops a fountain-of-youth serum that threatens to alienate him from his family, his friends, and the natural world.

As GRAY MATTER cautions, the medical enhancement of children's intelligence could open a Pandora's Box of social woes. Fundamentally it annihilates the concept of the individual's uniqueness and value. It exposes a warped Frankenstein belief that man can improve on nature, underscoring a cultural dissatisfaction with being "normal." Enhancement also runs counter to everything democracy stands for and to fundamental beliefs in social justice and equality. As Rachel declares in the book, it would be a privilege tantamount to "intellectual apartheid."

BRC: How do you manage to balance a full-time teaching career with a writing career?

GB: With difficulty. I cannot write in small windows, between morning classes, for instance. I need large blocks of time and try to arrange my teaching schedule so that I have a day or two off during the week. I also sleep only 5-6 hours a night and begin writing before dawn. I try not to let my writing interfere with family life. It's tough. I also have three college writing texts (all with Longman Publishers), each of which is staggered on a 3-year revision cycle. In other words, a new edition of one of them comes out each year. I'm currently working on the 21st book, the 10th edition of EXPLORING LANGUAGE. The 4th edition of DIALOGUES: AN ARGUMENT RHETORIC AND READER just came out, and last September saw the publication of the 7th edition of THE CONTEMPORARY READER. These are 600-page books, each of which undergoes an 80% revision. I'm busy.

BRC: You teach science fiction and horror, as well as a graduate course in writing fiction. What is it that draws you personally to science fiction and horror?When you pick up a book to read, are these the genres you turn to?

GB: I've been teaching these two genres since the 1970s when such courses were nonexistent on the university level. As a kid I was drawn to SF for the gee-whiz adventures and sense of wonder. To horror fiction because like any kid I liked to be scared and/or grossed out. And a common appeal in each, of course, was the way out imaginings of the authors.

While unabashedly still motivated by that 14-year-old in me, as an adult I'm also drawn to science fiction by the intellectual ideas and moral/ethical dilemmas bound up with "progress," as explained above. I'm drawn to horror fiction by the extraordinary human conflicts --- the emotional and psychological extremes of characters encountering dark forces, whether internal or external. While science fiction emphasizes ideas and the future, horror fiction emphasizes the torments of the human mind and the past. What I write might be classified as a cross between the two genres: Science Horror. In GRAY MATTER, Rachel is tortured by past guilt and the lure of a breakthrough in neuroscience. What I try to capture are the tensions of contemporary individuals grappling with the temptations of forbidden fruit --- a la Victor Frankenstein wanting to improve on nature, Mina Harker yielding to the dark allure of Dracula, the narrators of Edgar Allen Poe who suffer civil wars in their own heads. Science fiction and horror fiction make it possible for writers to make mythic and philosophical explorations with a purity unavailable in other literary genres.

But there are no new myths, no new story paradigms --- only new twists. What I try to do is invent variations of old allegories. It's the most any writer can strive for. That and telling the story as best one can.

BRC: What are you working on now?

GB: My next novel involves the discovery of a "miracle" drug for Alzheimer's victims. But that's all I'm going to say about it except that it's moving along nicely and that its working title is FLASHBACK.

BRC: Any possibility that ELIXIR or GRAY MATTER will make it to the screen?

GB: If there's a God. ELIXIR had been optioned and re-optioned for a 2nd year by director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, etc.); but, alas, he passed on making the movie. However, a few production companies have expressed interest in that novel as well as GRAY MATTER. We'll see.