Rosalyn Berne (Col '79, Grad '82, '99) is an associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Department of Engineering and Society. Her new science fiction novel, Waiting in the Silence, focuses on genetics and nanotechnology.
What led you to write a book set 50 years in the future?
I'd been immersed in a project that involved ongoing conversations with 35 individual scientists whose research is at the nanoscale. One subject of our conversations was where are we going, and what will it mean for humanity and Earth when nanotechnology research and development comes to fruition? I learned that the most profound and radical changes to come are likely to arise from the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences. It won't be very far from now that life will look and feel quite different due to our sophisticated capacities to manipulate and re-create matter. I chose to set the story in the near term (50 years) so it would be close enough for familiarity, but far enough away to provide the reader with some emotional distance.
Nantucket is a place of incredible natural beauty, whose history is honored, preserved and protected more than any place I've ever visited. The significance and presence of Quakers, the dominance and prosperity of the whaling enterprise in its heyday, and the island's relative inaccessibility, even in current times, makes for an excellent backdrop to a story of historic-futuristic contrasts. The Nantucket of the novel is a disturbing place, its beauty having been devastated by the effects of climate change, and the Quaker and other Protestant heritages subsumed by that which has become most sacred to society: technology.
How do you use science fiction in your teaching?
The premise of my academic field—Science, Technology & Society—is that through engineering practice, engineers both imagine and build the future, by constantly re-creating and transforming the human-built world. Science fiction elucidates socio-technical systems in visionary and futuristic terms. And because it can both tantalize and disturb our sensitivities, it has the capacity to deeply engage the moral imagination. My course syllabus is built around science fiction novels, short stories and films, whose unique worlds demonstrate how society, culture and technology are intertwined. The students discuss and critique this material, and also write their own science fiction short story.
What book have you read over and over?
In terms of my academic reading, I seem to keep going back to Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. Ellul was a French philosopher and lay theologian. His writing is always provocative for me. I am trying to understand him more deeply and find that his thinking provides a rich resource for my ongoing research and writing. In reading for imagination, intellectual sustenance or pure pleasure, I never read any book over and over. I can barely contain the growing pile on my nightstand and am relieved to finish an entire book and move on.
What are you reading now?
I am currently reading two books. I am on the last 40 pages of the 658-page Cutting for Stone. I can hardly put it down. And I am just completing Cynthia Bourgeault's Centering Prayer. That one I may actually read again one day.
What it is that you are looking for in the books that you love?
I most appreciate a book that helps me to understand the world differently, and reminds me that our lives have meaning and significance beyond our individual selves. I like it when a read makes me laugh and cry about the lives of others, and feel deeply for and about someone I'll never know. But the books I most cherish are those that take me completely away from the world I know, so that I can lose myself in the domain of the totally unfamiliar.