Monday, April 25, 2011

Polansky clones Ray Bradbury, others

Originally printed September 28, 2010.

Ray Bradbury should take great pride in the way his name gets invoked in Steven Polansky's new novel, "The Bradbury Report," about the ethical implications of human cloning.

Not only does Polansky name his narrator after the author of "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles" -- well, it's technically a pseudonym that the narrator chooses for himself -- but Polansky also seems to be cloning some of the best features of Bradbury's oeuvre: a lucidly written, well-paced account of a future world that looks very much like our own with only a few technological innovations thrown in.

In this case, Polansky moves the calendar forward to the year 2071 and imagines a world in which the United States' role as the only industrialized nation without a universal health plan evolves into a situation in which the U.S. is the only nation in the world in which human cloning is both legal and all but mandated. Since about 2050, Americans have been given the "option" of having a clone created to be used for harvesting organs and other body parts as necessary. Anyone who refuses to have a clone made, however, will have to pay for any medical procedures out of their own pockets.

Pulling on the insights from real life bioethicist Leon Kass's essay, "The Wisdom of Repugnance: Why We Should Ban the Cloning of Humans," Polansky imagines a nation that, in order to solve its health care problems, suddenly finds itself needing to find a place to house 250 million clones in an area in which they will be isolated, protected and kept from a full understanding of why they exist. As a result, the U.S. government cleared out all the remaining people in North and South Dakota, moved the entire cloning infrastructure to those states and declared those "Clearances" to be off limits to everyone. Organizations opposed to this cloning industry set up in the states surrounding the clearances -- including Iowa -- and look for opportunities to create a 21st century underground railroad.

Ray Bradbury -- the narrator, not the novelist -- is a widower in his 60s who never really considered the ethical implications of this project when he agreed to have a clone made of him 20 years earlier. But when Ray's old college girlfriend, Anna, visits him and tells him that she has met and cared for his clone -- who somehow escaped from the Clearances -- he suddenly finds himself dealing with the painful memories of his own life as well as the inevitable identity crisis that comes when meeting a younger but genetically identical copy of yourself who is stronger, better looking and more clueless than you ever were.

"The Bradbury Report" itself is presented as the narrative that Ray writes after spending a year on the lam in Canada with Anna and the clone posing as a family. As such, the novel/report is a mixture of narrative forms and voices that includes sections from Anna's diary as well as passages that Ray wrote a year after the fact and passages written in the midst of the action. It includes the best guesses from Anna's organization about what life in the Clearances must be like -- since none of the members have ever been inside -- as well as direct evidence from the clone's behavior that proves the organization is wrong more often than right. (It's as if Polansky also decided to clone parts of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaiden's Tale" and graft them on his Bradbury-inspired storyline.)

The result of such technological and ethical speculation could have been a very didactic story that merely preaches the dangers of cloning rather than develops characters and connects with readers. But Polansky has that same mix of lightness and directness about his story that made the real Bradbury into such a household name.

And contrary to Ray's assertion that his report will be a substandard literary account because he's not a very good writer, "The Bradbury Report" will prove to be equally appropriate (and welcome) reading for courses on novel writing or bioethics.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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