Two Trains Running by Lucius Shepard
This is yet another of those days on which we can celebrate the prophetic powers of science fiction with the announcement of a synthetic lifeform (or, perhaps, it would be more honest to call it a variation on the human lifeform given the new cells are based on human DNA). But, hey, what’s with the details when this is the bestest scientific advance since the invention of sliced bread? Except even that’s an ironic idiom since we’ve had bread and knives to cut it with for centuries. The idiomatic sliced bread is that soggy stuff designed to fit into our toasters and the whole thing is marketing speak to make us feel better about eating cardboard rather than “real” bread.
Anyway, it seems the laboratories of humankind have now acquired godlike powers to bestow life on the clay of the inanimate. So far, there’s been little commentary from the Creationists and others of a religious bent. Perhaps they don’t feel threatened by this one giant leap forward for mankind since, as it stands, it’s hard to see what value this leap has for us (other than the potential to make a monster of some kind — mad scientists in books and films are notorious fabricators of life so there’s no need for them to be shy in replicating this in the real world). Except, it will be decades before anyone makes money out of it (the true criterion of utility in these commercialised times), unless the real plan is for weaponisation as super soldiers or a bacteria that will wipe out everyone on the planet except those with a science gene. A hypothetical Darwin would warn we have created the species that will displace us in evolutionary terms. Being old, I fear I will miss out on seeing how these interesting times turn out.
All of which brings me to the second book in my brief Lucius Shepard retrospective. This is Two Trains Running (still available for you to buy direct from the excellent Golden Gryphon if you are so inclined). This is a synthetic bookform made up of the DNA of non-fiction, journalism, non-genre fiction and a genre-bending science fiction and fantasy. Confused? Well so you should be when confronted by a new lifeform. In his introduction, Shepard explains how he was commissioned to write a magazine article about an alleged “hobo” organisation called the Freight Train Riders of America (FTRA). We then have an expanded form of that article, followed by two short stories capitalising on the research — only one is genre fiction. The result is a potential textbook to teach the techniques of writing for different markets. But, for me, it offers little value.
As an inveterate surfer of the net, serendipity offers hundreds of chances a day to read about events and ideas. My eye would have passed unhesitating over an article about FTRA. This is not to deny articles of this ilk any legitimacy but, time being limited for browsing, interest is unlikely to be piqued by information about biker gangs in Tokyo, murderous vagrants in US box cars, and sewing circles in Maidstone. Frankly, actually reading the article on the printed page does not make the information any more interesting. More importantly, it adds nothing to the two stories to understand the actual source material. Culturally, we have all the right stereotypes of those who use freight trains as their private passenger service. Television and film routinely exploits train hopping and the lifestyles of the homeless as plot devices. Indeed, arguably, the one genre story, “Over Yonder”, did not have to rely on “hobos”. The plot is that anyone can be tested and, if found of suitable mettle, offered new opportunities. So, for Shepard, it was serendipitous he happened to be thinking about FTRA when he sat down to write a redemption story.
All this is my fault. Before spending my money, I should have read the blurb posted on Golden Gryphon’s site. As it is, the book came as a rude awakening and will sit in a box untouched by human or Craig Ventor’s new lifeform until I sell on the rump of my current collection. Definitely not worth the money for me but, if you are into an infodump on FTRA, this book is for you.