The novelist on his latest thriller - Upgrade - which tells the story of a gene editing scheme that threatens to change humanity forever.

.-  Where did the inspiration for Upgrade come from?

We're at this point in time when genetic engineering is on the precipice. Having complete control over the total human genome is a little bit out of reach - but it's right on the horizon.

.-  You did a ton of research on gene editing. Was there anything you learned that stood out?

The big thing I came away with is how afraid scientists are of this research and this technology. I didn't realize how unnerved everyone was about the optimistic potential of this technology - but also the pitfalls that await us.

.-  How much liberty did you take with the science?

Not as much as I thought I would have to take, which terrifies me. This book is going to be sold as  science fiction, as a futuristic thriller. But I really don't think it is.

We're already living in the future - I don't think science fiction exists anymore. All of the threats and promises in this book are at our fingertips. Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-creators of CRISPR, talks about having this nightmare of Hitler discovering it.

That always stuck with me : the person who discovered this gene modification therapy is kept up at night, fearful of what might happen.

.-  If not sci-fi, what is Upgrade?

The book is set slightly in the future, because I wanted to accelerate where some of the climate change and more -in-the weeds technology was heading, but it's a mirror of where we might be five minutes from now.

I have three kids. I am uncertain Everyone seems to feel that way. Are we going to be here prevalently as a species in 100 years, 75 years? It's a weird thing for a species with full sentience to contemplate its demise.

The last dodo bird didn't know it was the last dodo bird.

.-  Are you purposefully nodding to COVID in the book?

I started it in September 2019. My first attempt was completely different way in : I had imagined doing, almost a Jurassic Park thing, more about how gene editing could affect new life forms.

Then COVID hit, and I had this realization: think about what we're going through right now. Why would I not be writing about this technology vis-a-vis humanity? I had written an almost entire novel, but I ended up throwing that away and starting over.

.-  The world is a scary place right now. What gives you hope?

There's a moment in the book where [ protagonist ] Logan says something like, You can't sacrifice humanity, because if you do, you're giving up the whole game. I fell into that like a trust fall. 

It's not necessarily my first instinct, but that's all we have at this point : trust and compassion.

Trust that we've gotten this far. We are ultimately a cooperative species. We have to trust that we're going to get through this very dark time together.

The World Students Society thanks Annabel Gutterman.


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