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Not a Drop to Drink

| 8.7.03
'Not A Drop To Drink,' by Grey Rollins

Grey Rollins' 16 page short story 'Not A Drop To Drink' examines group dynamics, mob rule, and the violence associated with religious fundamentalism within the context of a classic "hard SF" short story. The premise is simple: Colonists stuck on a world with little fresh water debate dwindling alternatives to ensure their survival. After discarding other options which have proven ineffective, scientist Lalo Helsink makes a daring proposal: genetically engineer the children to have salt glands so that they can drink the abundant seawater found on the planet. Without this modification the colony's needs will outstrip the fresh water supply in a matter of years, ensuring death.

While most are uneasy with such a draconian solution, it is seen as the only alternative to certain death. Not so for Agnes Beeson, leader of a Christian prayer group in the colony. She and her followers believe that God is punishing the colony for lack of faith, and if they pray hard enough rain will come. She believes that genetic tinkering on humans is an abomination --displaying lack of faith in God's design when God created humans.

With the colony still ambivalent, the plan goes forward and the first generation of "salties" --children with salt tracks that stem from their eyes to rid their bodies of excess salt-- is born. Beeson will not be stopped, however, and soon acts of vandalism against Helsink and the parents of the "salties" erupt in the colony. These violent acts finally culminate in a fire that consumes eight houses and kills two adults. The story ends as Helsink and the families leave the colony. Although they lack resources and are in the minority, their future seems hopeful because --through more genetic engineering in order to avoid inbreeding-- they can still reproduce in large enough numbers to establish a viable colony.

This story raised two questions for me. First, when religious fundamentalism gains power, is violence inevitable? If one is merely talking about Christian or Muslim conservatives who believe they take the Bible or Qur'an literally --I don't think that alone is enough to guarantee a violent sect. Historically there have been textual literalists who also included an ethic of non-violence in their belief systems --finding the justification for non-violence in the very texts they attempt to follow so scrupulously. I see the defining characteristic of fundamentalism as the tendency to demonize the other. When one's ethical system encourages one to see evil as an external force resident in some other group, instead of recognizing the evil that lurks within --or seeing God as Other-- it's easy to legitimize violence against groups that are different in any way.

Secondly, is it moral to genetically engineer human beings? Many in contemporary Western society draw a distinction between reproductive cloning (which they see as "playing God" with the process that leads to birth) and therapeutic cloning or gene therapies (which they see as helpful medicine.) For me 'Not a Drop to Drink' exposes some of the flaws in this kind of thinking by showing that actually changing the human genome is far more radical than using the technology to simply make a copy of another human being, flaws and all. I tend to see using genetic technology to help infertile couples --or perhaps help gay and lesbian couples pass on their genes-- as a relatively benign use of the technology. Adding and subtracting things to human genes seems more provocative, raising questions about the extent to which our genes make us human, and the boundaries of what can be considered human at all.

PUBLISHER: July/August 2003 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding). Pages 100-118. Dell Magazines. New York. ISSN: 1059-2113.

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