Communion Of Dreams

Looking back: Testing…testing…

While I’m on a bit of vacation, I have decided to re-post some items from the first year of this blog (2007).  This item first ran on March 18, 2007


There’s a very good piece in today’s New York Times titled Facing Life With a Lethal Gene about one young woman’s decision to be tested to see if she carries the gene for Huntington’s Disease.

It is a very difficult decision to be tested for a genetic disease which you may have, and for which there is no known treatment (let alone a cure). If you test positive, you know exactly the sort of future you face. And, if you test positive, it can have a significant impact on your employment and insurance possibilities, even decades before you might experience any onset of symptoms.

There is a similar disease which runs in my family called Machado-Joseph. In terms of statistics, there is about a 68% chance that I carry the gene for it, though I do not have the other familial characteristics which seem to track with the disease. So I have elected not to be tested. Besides, at nearly 50 years of age, if I did have the onset of the disease, it would be likely that it would progress so slowly that I would die of something else (the younger the age of onset, the more rapidly the disease progresses).

Anyway, I recommend you read the article. Because as the science of genetic testing develops, it is likely that at some point you will have to make a decision about whether or not you are tested for either a genetic disease or a predisposition towards some type of health problem. Better to consider the matter before being confronted with it. Trust me on this.

What does this have to do with Communion? [warning – spoilers ahead]

The book’s history is premised on a flu pandemic about 40 years prior to the story. This pandemic not only killed hundreds of millions outright (and threw the world economy into complete chaos, resulting in hundreds of millions more deaths) , it left most of the survivors sterile – and did the same to most of the resulting children born. This is a recipe for extinction.

I chose this scenario for several reasons, not the least of which is that I think we are due for a world-wide pandemic sometime in the next decade. But also my family history and personal choice came into play – long before there was a genetic test to determine whether or not I carried the MJD gene, I made the decision to be childless. I felt at the time that the risks of passing on the disease were just too great. Not having any progeny leaves one with a sense of loss, even if it was a decision made for the best of reasons. I could only surmise that the effects of imposed childlessness population-wide would be even more profound.

And, [again, spoiler alert!] the psychological impact of the transformation which comes at the end of the book, through the agency of the alien artifact, would be a very literal rebirth for the entire human race. Not only do we give birth to a subsequent species in the form of the AI/Expert Seth (who achieves true sentience, midwifed by the artifact), but the entirety of the effects of the pandemic are cleansed – meaning that humankind has a second chance, and can start afresh. The hope is, of course, that we will do better the second time around.

So, go read the article.

Jim Downey

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