Polaris Rising (REVIEW): Genetically enhanced humans and the normalization of the grotesque

When the news broke in November 2018 that a Chinese geneticist named He Jiankui had successfully altered the genes of a pair of newborn twins, in theory making them immune to HIV infection and possibly increasing their intelligence, the scientific community denounced his actions. The ethical questions around creating the first genetically enhanced human beings — beginning with He’s motivations and his lack of transparency when obtaining parents’ consent — became immediate topics of conversation. By the next day, scientists and ethicists agreed on one thing: the children, unwilling participants in an experiment that would impact their whole lives, needed society’s protection.

Polaris Rising, the first installment of a space opera trilogy by novelist Jessie Mihalik, throws its hat into the larger discourse about Science’s increasing influence over nature, albeit indirectly. It tells the story about a rebellious daughter, Princess Ada, from a prominent family in a future intergalactic confederation. She is on the run, living among the cosmic riff-raff, and hiding from her father, the patriarch of the House von Hasenberg, one of the three so-called High Houses. She’s not only avoiding a staid life among the universe’s elite, but also an arranged marriage that would link two of the three families. Inadvertently, she stumbles upon a secret that could tip the balance of power overwhelmingly in the direction of the Von Hasenberg’s arch rival, House Rockhurst. Ada enlists the help of an old family friend, a black market merchant, and a battle-scarred mercenary named Marcus Loch, also known as the Devil of Fornax Zero.

Ada first meets Loch when she is thrown into a small prison cell onboard a mercenary ship. She immediately notices the apprehensive stares her captors when dealing with Loch, even though he is chained to the wall. No doubt, his hulking physique influenced their tentativeness. One gets the sense that average men resemble scrawny teenagers alongside him.

While acknowledging his intimidating presence, the princess takes a different view of him, “I saw that deeply bronzed flesh wrapped his heavily muscled frame. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist with rippling abs. Defined arms and muscled legs completed the picture.”

Her eyes continue to comb over every inch of his body. He is unshaven and a dark, bestial beard covers his jaw. All remnants of civilization have been taken from him. Sitting in the corner, shackled to the wall like an animal, Loch has been stripped down to a pair of skintight, black boxer briefs. More victim than aggressor, he has been dehumanized by his captors and objectified by the entitled stare of his cellmate.

She continues, “He was beautifully built. He was perhaps not conventionally handsome but he had a deep, primal appeal… that deep, gravelly voice and he was temptation incarnate.”

(At some point, I couldn’t stop picturing Loch singing in Jarvis Cocker’s admonishing baritone voice, You wanna live like common people/You want to do what common people do/You want to sleep with common people/You want to sleep with common people like me.)

Ultimately, the chained beast proves useful in more ways than one. He accompanies Ada as she embraces her von Hasenberg responsibilities and tries to deliver the potent secret to her father. The devil proves to be an intelligent, honorable, and deadly companion, serving as a combination bodyguard and lover (cue that song, if you’d like). He’s a noble savage for the cosmic future.

But soon, we learn more about Marcus Loch. His victimization has a long history. Many of the endowments that make him so useful originate in a painful past. The Devil of Fornax Zero was subjected to a massive, coordinated campaign to genetically enhance normal humans into super soldiers.

He recalls, “I was still just a kid. When they told me they wanted to make us super-soldiers, I thought it sounded awesome. They called it the Genesis Project. There were four squads of eight that started the project, broken into groups based on DNA similarities.”

The scientists’ inquisitiveness proved merciless and they pushed their subjects physically and emotionally to determine their breaking point.

Loch was one of the few to survive the process and it ultimately cost him. The genetically-enhanced mercenaries were sent to a planet named Fornax, tasked with the responsibility of quelling a rebellion “by killing women and kids.” They had no choice and were made to suffer for it, most likely by design.

Loch and his brothers were created to perform atrocities, yet the one thing that would have made these creatures and their tasks bearable remained intact. A conscience. If anything, it was enhanced by their intelligence. It was a cruel curse. Why create a beast that will suffer emotionally? Surely, it was a lack of foresight on the scientists part. The best soldiers, in real life wars and surely in Polaris Rising’s reality, never question orders. If there’s one thing a conscience does do is elicit self-reflection.

Of course, Loch does not occupy a position of primacy. Rather, he is a derivative, the Nth iteration of science fiction archetype that stretches back to the early days of the genre.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created the half-human prototype of the Creature in her book, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Like Loch, the Creature’s physical attributes exceed the normal.

Frankenstein recalls seeing it from a distance: “As I said this I suddenly beheld the figure of a man, at some distance, advancing towards me with superhuman speed. He bounded over the crevices in the ice, among which I had walked with caution; his stature, also, as he approached, seemed to exceed that of man… I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created… He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.”

Like Loch, Shelley’s Creature possessed cat-like reflexes and agility. When a hatred-filled Frankenstein tried to attack it, he met with failure.

“My rage was without bounds; I sprang on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the existence of another. He easily eluded me and said, “Be calm! I entreat you to hear me before you give vent to your hatred on my devoted head. Have I not suffered enough, that you seek to increase my misery?”

Considering the violence of the Creature’s creation and his treatment at the hands of society and Frankenstein — for all intents and purposes his parent and his God — its reaction to the doctor’s aggression is striking. It implores Frankenstein to step back and not be violent. This so-called monster reminds him that neither of them are savages, that civilization would frown on his actions. Like Loch, he is a noble savage, only for the 19th Century.

Ultimately, the same “primal appeal” that emanates from Loch and drives his urges into Ada, courses through the Shelley’s Creature. What is it that he begs Frankenstein for? A mate. A partner. He goes so far as to reason with the doctor.

“Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

The sexual power that effectively tames and, arguably, emasculates Loch plays on the same urge that drove the Creature to madness. The consummation of Ada and Loch’s partnership completes the objectification of him that started when he was a chained beast hairy and half-naked in a cell. What’s more, it continues his victimization at the hands of the powerful. (Remember, Ada always knows that she is a von Hasenberg. Again, I hear Jarvis Cocker chastising the rich girl slumming it — If you called your daddy he could stop it all.)

For all their similarities, Loch and the Creature differ superficially in how they are perceived. The former is made attractive and desirous and powerful through Ada’s stare. She reflects dreamily about his “Luminescent eyes” and she wonders whether they are fake. That’s how striking they are.

Contrast Mihalik’s monster with Shelley’s monster’s eyes, a part of the anatomy that she too singles out to serve as a metaphor for the Creature’s existence.

“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Where Ada seems turned on by Loch’s eyes, Frankenstein is haunted by the Creature’s.

“I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me. Sometimes they were the expressive eyes of Henry, languishing in death, the dark orbs nearly covered by the lids and the long black lashes that fringed them; sometimes it was the watery, clouded eyes of the monster, as I first saw them in my chamber at Ingolstadt.”

And there we have the essence of today’s society. The modern fetishization that turns the Creature into Loch represents nothing less than the normalization of the grotesque. They both symbolize the willing violation of established scientific boundaries. The same undercurrent that makes Loch acceptable, even attractive and sexual, allows cavalier scientists like He Jiankou to genetically modify two human beings without their choice nor a thought for their well being. What was once out of bounds is now fair play .

Of course, Mihalik also touches on another science fiction trope implied in the Genesis Project. The mad scientist. Not the Romantic or late-Victoria on version but rather the amoral and cavalier, Science-for-Science’s sake researcher of the late 20th and 21st Century. But that’s a topic for another time.

With Polaris Rising, Mihalik sets the groundwork for a compelling and timely trilogy. Ada indicates that she will dig deeper into the Genesis Project and the damaging effects misguided genetic modification can have on its subjects. The possibilities that open up from that storyline have the potential to contribute to a discourse on genetically enhanced humans that is still in its infancy. Her novel proves she has the deft hands to deal with it.

— For more information about Jessie Mihalik, visit her website. To buy her new sci-fi novel, Polaris Rising (HarperCollins).

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: Harper Voyager

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