Slatewiper-Q&A With Lewis Perdue
Will the next terrorist weapon target the ethnic code in your genes?

Q. Part of Slatewiper involves an ancient retrovirus, inserted in our genes by a lethal infection tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Is there any scientific basis for something like that?

A. Yes. A lot of the introns in our genome,  the so-called "junk DNA, seems to be left-overs from retroviral infections. Retroviruses have the capability of inserting themselves into the chromosomes of infected cells. If those infected cells are sperm or eggs, then they may be passed along just like any other part of a chromosome.

Just recently, research published in Nature (Nature Neuroscience 7, 1021 - 1023 (01 Oct 2004) indicates that a protein in our bodies, syncytin, is a remnant of an ancient retrovirus that entered our genome as much as 20 million years ago. High levels of syncytin have been implicated in multiple sclerosis, a progressive neurological disease.

Q. That's interesting, but Slatewiper involves a retrovirus in the genome which can be activated on cue, triggering the lethal disease. That must be your thriller writer's imagination, correct?

A. Well, it was my imagination back in 1993 when I first wrote Slatewiper. However, since that time, evidence has mounted that this would be a viable way to produce a genetically engineered weapon. A November 2003 report from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, "The Darker Bioweapons Future" (caution, this is a CPU-hogging, browser-crashing .pdf file) warned against:

"[W]eaponized gene therapy vectors that effect permanent change in the victim�s genetic makeup; or a'�stealth� virus,' which could lie dormant inside the victim for an extended period before being triggered. For example, one panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country with massive health and economic problems."

This report, issued a decade after I wrote Slatewiper, describes precisely the sort of double-edged sword I envisioned with gene therapy being turned against humanity.

Q. But surely the incredible degree of sophistication needed to engineer such a virus puts it far beyond the capabilities of terrorists.

A. That was the case when I wrote Slatewiper, and remained the case until a few years ago. However, the equipment is available for a song on eBay and the knowledge is globally available. Anyone who thinks this is not a real possibility either is in denial, or has not kept current with the widespread migration of knowledge and resources.

Indeed, people who say it can't happen sound exactly like the people who were saying my first novel, The Trinity Implosion (1977), was implausible because terrorists could never get their hands on nuclear weapons.

This is even more likely now that sophisticated gene production and manipulation equipment � sequencers, synthesizers, PCR amplifiers � are all available on eBay. There is a growing community of garage gene hackers who are the genetic equivalent of the homebrew computer clubs that sparked the personal computer revolution. For example: the first purchase for my own garage DNA lab was a Perkin Elmer PCR gene amplifier for which I paid $200. I barely missed the winning bid on a synthesizer which ultimately went for $525.

Q. Okay, but even if terrorists could get their hands on things, could they really target ethnic codes in people's genes? That seems far fetched.

Not only possible, but increasingly probable.

Among many voices, the United Nations and the British Medical Association have issued warnings to indicate they believe ethnic weapons are a real threat, tailor-made for terrorists and rogue governments.

"The spectre of new biological weapons made possible by the mapping of the human genome makes it more urgent than ever to prevent biotechnology research from being hijacked for evil purposes.� That and more can be found on the Web at: www.unesco.org/courier/1999_03/uk/ethique/txt1.htm.

The Red Cross has also issued a warning about ethnic weapons.

And as recently as June 2004, MSNBC reported that the possibility had grown far more likely.

Ethnic DNA testing is widely available today. For less than $400 people can determine their precise ethnic origins.

Obviously, as the ability to define DNA ethnicity becomes commonplace and moves into the mainstream of popular culture, it becomes easier to use the results for evil. You can bet the techniques needed to refine this knowledge into a weapon are already being secretly developed.


Q. Synthetic biology, artificial life. You mention these things, but they have to be science fiction. Right?

A. Wrong. The synthetic and open-source biology field is a rapidly growing one. See
taqdot.org for a lot more details.

Q. Taqdot? I have heard of slashdot, a Linux nerd site, but what is a taqdot?

A. Taqdot uses the same code as slashdot and its name is meant to pay homage to that epicenter of open-source technology. The "taq" part comes from the name of a key enzyme, Taq polymerase, used in PCR gene amplification. Taq derives from Thermus aquaticus, a heat-tolerant bacterium from which the enzyme is made.

Q. Are you anti-Japanese? Your villain is Japanese.

A.  The villain in Daughter of God was German, but that doesn't make me anti-German. I am certainly anti-Nazi and, in the case of Slatewiper, against the sort of factually verifiable racism in Japan that helped promote genocide in World War II and which still exists today as an undercurrent in many parts of Japanese society.

As relates to World War II, both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army engaged in unspeakable atrocities, genocide and the deaths of millions of innocent men, women and children who were tortured, enslaved, brutalized and killed simply because they were not "Aryan" or Japanese. The difference is that Germany was forced to atone. German citizens were made to tour death camps and to realize that their complicity or inaction promoted the horror, allowed it to happen. Profound changes took place in German society because of this.

But the Japanese people were never forced to view the consequences of society's perverted version of the samurai tradition. While Germany underwent profound changes in its attitudes, Japan did not. Even today, Koreans living in Japan are treated nearly like black South Africans prior to the end of Apartheid.

So I am anti those attitudes, not anti-Japanese. Slatewiper clearly reflects that fact. One of the true heroes in the book is Akira Sugawara.

Q. Yes, but Sugawara went to college in California. He picked up non-Japanese ideas there and that Western influence is what prompted his actions. Aren't you engaging in cultural imperialism?

A.Charges of cultural imperialism in a case like this are built upon the bankrupt concept of cultural relativism -- that all cultures are somehow morally equivalent.

I do not believe in the equality of the apartheid cultures of South Africa or my home state of Mississippi. Their notions of oppression by racial discrimination are morally inferior. I believe a culture that allows a father to kill his daughter for an infraction of cultural mores is inferior. I believe the culture which produces genocide in Rwanda or the Sudan or the Balkans or anywhere else in the world is inferior. And I believe that a culture that actively promotes notions of racial superiority are inferior and that, unfortunately, includes many in the Japanese government and those in its large corporations.

The point of Akira Sugawara's sojourn in California was the separation it provided, the distance it put between him, his thoughts and the crypto-samurai culture of his uncle. I could have picked other places for Akira to achieve that distance. However, there are fewer places where he could have gone to universities with top biotechnology programs.

Interestingly, a review in an online genetics site faulted me for having some of Sugawara's good impulses come from his exposure to Western culture.

In part, the review dinged me for, "the implication that only a Western influence can reform Japan is at cross-purposes with Perdue's critique of cultures that assume superiority over others."

Imagine my surprise when I read a review of Genomu Haiboku (A Defeat in the Genome Project) by leading Japanese scientist Nobuhito Kishi which confirmed my contention that Japan's traditional values hinder it, especially in scientific matters. According to the review written by Yoshiaki Ito and published in the Jan, 13, 2005 issue of Nature, "...Japan must overcome its traditional conservatism and learn to tolerate and value this type of individualistic mind. Time and time again, creative people and their achievements are noted and appreciated by their fellow Japanses only after the Western world has lauded them."

In Slatewiper, Akira Sugawara is just thos sort of creative thinker who -- despite his uncle's extreme attempts to innoculate him with the family's tradition -- resists and becomes a major player by the use of his creativity.

No culture is perfect, but in the end cultures which encourage and promote fairness, equality and the free exchange of ideas and which outlaw and prosecute discrimination based or racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, economic and other attributes is a better culture than those which do not.

Yes, American culture has its downsides as well. Our courts are often less about justice and more about how well lawyers can finesse the court system. Rampant materialism distorts our values. That's to name a few. But that wasn't what Slatewiper was about and, hopefully, Sugawara didn't bring those back with him.


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