A Guide to This Exciting, Funny, Scary, Real-Life Sci-Fi Moment

How an article about genomic sequencing led to an afternoon playing around with AI branding tools

Kurt Andersen

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Dumbfounded, flabbergast, gobsmacked, mind-boggled: I’m betting you will be too if you read this New York Times Magazine story about the amazing new power and falling prices of genetic sequencing technology — how it enabled the creation of effective COVID vaccines in months instead of years, and how it’s probably about to revolutionize medicine. Yet another instance of sci-fi — in this case non-dystopian sci-fi! so far! — becoming indistinguishable from real life.

As a fiction writer, I was especially struck by the science-fictionesque nomenclature of the biotechnology companies in the Times piece and of their products: Illumina and Oxford Nanopore and (my favorite) GRAIL are selling genomic sequencers called NovaSeq 6000 and PromethION.

In fact, I realized, the names of these real firms are much more self-consciously sci-fi than their make-believe counterparts. I think of Vonnegut’s General Forge and Foundry, Robert Heinlein’s Andes Development Company, Arthur C. Clarke’s Aurum Industries, Isaac Asimov’s U.S. Robotics, and in the 1980s of Omni Consumer Products in Robocop and the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner.

It’s really only in science fiction with a comic edge that such names always emphatically signify sci-fi. This became the default in the early 1960s…

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Kurt Andersen

Award-winning, bestselling author (Evil Geniuses, Fantasyland, True Believers, Heyday, Turn of the Century) and creator of media (Studio 360, Inside, SPY).