beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

Alexis Carrel Plants the Seeds of Science Fiction

Couldn't get back to sleep. I decided to get up and do something else.

I've just been watching an interesting talk on TV by David M. Friedman, author of The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever (not to be confused with Prof. David D. Friedman, author of Harald, with whom I occasionally correspond).

Lindbergh & Carrel on the cover of Time, June 13, 1938

The Immortalists is the story of the friendship between Charles A. Lindbergh, first man to fly the Atlantic alone, and Dr. Alexis Carrel, eccentric medical pioneer. Friedman's talk made it sound very much worth reading.

Carrel developed a technique for suturing blood vessels, an important step on the road to transplanting organs. For this he received the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Carrel worked on tissue culture, becoming the first to observe cancer cells growing outside the body.

Working with Lindbergh in the 1930s, Carrel developed a perfusion pump that could circulate blood through a disembodied organ.

Carrel believed that cells could keep dividing indefinitely (this is no longer believed correct). Beginning in 1912, he kept cells from the heart of an embryonic chicken alive and growing for over 20 years in his lab.

I want to jot down something about a topic Friedman may have missed: Carrel's influence on writers of science fiction. This has been bouncing around my head for years, and maybe it's time I told someone.

SF is storytelling about the ideas the Age of Science gives us. So SF authors are always looking for information about science and technology and society, plucking ideas and hoarding them away.

Among other things, scientific notions that get a lot of attention in the popular media tend to show up in SF stories. So fiction can be a funhouse mirror reflecting, in distortion, fashions in the pop science of its era.

Think of the way General Semantics shows up in the SF stories of so many different writers in the 1940s and 1950s, or O'Neill's space colonies in the 1970s and 1980s, or the notion that RNA has something to do with memory, or intelligent dolphins.

It's important that Carrel loved publicity, and was always happy to take phone calls from reporters. His doings were frequently reported in the Sunday supplements. When in 1935 he wrote a book for laymen, Man the Unknown, it became a best-seller. (I gather he was worried about inferior races overwhelming superior races, and therefore big on eugenics, among other things.)

How did Carrel's ideas work their way into science fiction?

To answer this well, I should read Carrel's book, Friedman's book, and some other histories, and comb a mountain of SF looking for clues.

Instead, I will answer quickly, with some examples off the top of my head. Maybe this will help somebody else discuss this in more depth. Maybe somebody already has, but I am ignorant of the work. If you have other examples, or opinions on my remarks, please leave a comment.

1. In L. Sprague de Camp's "The Gnarly Man," about a prehistoric survivor living in New York, there is a celebrated and theatrical surgeon who insists that his assistants wear purple robes in the operating room. Carrel and his assistants wore unusual black robes (everybody else was required to wear hoods, but Carrel got to wear the Special White Surgeon's Hat).

2. Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth included the "Lindbergh-Carrel pump" keeping geezers alive in Search the Sky. I think it shows up in another of Fred's stories as well.

3. In The Space Merchants or Gravy Planet, again by Pohl and Kornbluth, a major food source is "Chicken Little," a giant blob of immortal chicken-heart tissue connected to a nutrient supply. Workers slice meat off the outside of Chicken Little, and it keeps growing more.

4.I believe there is Carrel-influenced stuff in Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, but you know, I've forgotten what it is. (The inventive novel is also saturated with pop-science ideas from the works of Korzybski, Wiener, and others.)

5. Arch Oboler, the master of radio horror, wrote a memorable 1938 episode of Lights Out, "Chicken Heart," in which a tissue-culture experiment escapes from the laboratory and grows to monstrous size, engulfing an entire city. (Realaudio here courtesy of David Szondy, starring the great Hans Conried.) This may sound stupid as I describe it, but it's actually scary. I told you he was a master.

6. Holding up a second mirror to distort Oboler's already distorted image of Carrel's work, comedian Bill Cosby recounted hearing the forbidden Lights Out as a terrified kid, The plot points of Oboler's story are present, but in Cosby's telling it becomes one of the most hilarious comedy routines I've ever heard. It's recorded on the 1966 album "Wonderfulness," in a track also entitled "Chicken Heart."

So. Anybody up for further Carrel-spotting?
Tags: carrel, chicken heart, cosby, de camp, history, lindbergh, oboler, pohl, science, sf
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