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Beach Blanket Bioethics 2007

Lori Andrews, the hardest working scholar in bioethics, has, for the second year in a row, published a bioethics-themed thriller. Which means it’s time for “Beach Blanket Bioethics,”Bioethics Forum’s annual summer round-up of vacation reading that counts as work.

In The Silent Assassin (St. Martin’s/Minotaur, 2007), Andrews’s sleuth, geneticist Alexandra (Alex) Blake, a civilian employee at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), is assigned to identify “trophy skulls” confiscated from GIs during the Vietnam war and scheduled to be returned to the Vietnamese government. While attempting to extract DNA from the skulls, Blake finds evidence of a war crime corresponding to eyewitness accounts (contained, we are told, in a database at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where Andrews teaches). True to the genre, she also discovers connections between past and present crimes, uncovers hidden agendas deep inside Washington, takes a quick trip overseas, nearly gets killed more than once, makes a few scientific breakthroughs, and rescues a Very Important Person. All this seems to happen in about a week. Andrews has sent Blake’s musician boyfriend on tour (see page three for their, um, farewell scene), but she still lives in a former beauty parlor, décor intact.

Andrews keeps the plot moving and the beauty-parlor-digs quirkiness to a minimum, while once again using fiction to explore the ethical dimensions of biobanking, through the analysis of the desecrated skulls themselves and through the blood samples of the impoverished Vietnamese villagers who line up to help the Americans identify these victims of the “American” war so the spirits of the dead may rest. Andrews also conveys something – to this nonscientist, at least – of the way scientists think, how they may experience beauty, elegance, awe: Alex taps her fingers in genetic sequences (ATTCG for the CF gene) and has “almost a religious experience” gazing at her sequencer, being “this close to someone’s essence.”

In a June 22 op-ed in the New York Times, Andrews describes the six nonfictional Vietnamese “trophy skulls” at the nonfictional AFIP, whose staff has been responsible for conducting DNA and other forensic analysis of remains from 9/11 victims and from the Iraq war. She calls on a certain nonfictional Very Important Person to return them.

For more summer reading recommendations, I turned to my own panel of experts: a poet, two editors, a designer, a mystery novelist, and a bookseller. Here were the rules of the game:

1. Fiction.

2. Something to do with bioethics, as this term is understood by English majors.

3. Something you can imagine someone reading on a beach.

Here are their picks and comments:

Contemporary genre and other fiction:

Ann Benson, Physician’s Tale, The Burning Road, and The Plague Tales: “A trilogy about medieval plague and its reemergence in the near future.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, Kipper’s Game: “Yes, that Barbara Ehrenreich. Computer whiz creates a perfect game that connects with the brain’s pleasure center.”

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series: “A nurse (and later physician) gets caught in a time warp and ends up in 18th-century Scotland (don’t ask), where she makes her own penicillin.”

Lynn Hightower, When Secrets Die: “Organ donors, tissue banks, and informed consent.”

James Rollins, Black Order: “Nazi eugenics, quantum physics, evolution, and DNA manipulation.”

Classic science fiction:

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris:There’s an epic and nearly indecipherable film of it by the great Andrei Tarkovsky.”

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine: “I had no idea H.G. Wells was such a polemicist until I read this to my son recently.”

Classic fiction, unhappy families division:

George Eliot, Middlemarch (two votes): “Research physician’s ideals give way to marital and social pressures.”

Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil: “Infectious-disease specialist gives unfaithful wife a choice: divorce, or combating cholera epidemic in China.”

Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right: “Husband’s mental illness destroys an upper-middle-class household in mid-19th England.”

Happy reading, and don’t forget the sunblock.

Published on: August 14, 2007
Published in: Arts & Ideas, Bioethics

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