On Reconstructing Mankind


Biocube Escape novel by Irene Groot and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian Man” drawing

Managed evolution…is a two pronged attack on human suffering. The first prong is positive, namely the fabrication of ever more perfect humans. The second is negative, requiring the elimination of all defectives, beginning with the smallest neonate. (Irene Groot, Biocube Escape, 2016.)1

But there was no stopping Vee. “If we don’t rank things according to good, better, best, bad, worse, and worst then we don’t get to the truth of things. Without judgment, there’s no beauty, much less truth or goodness. Everything we do turns out flat, ugly, and gray.” (Irene Groot, Biocube Escape, 59.)

Novels and short stories can tell us what we might be on the basis of what we are. Science and history purport accurately to inform us what we are or were, though those who practice these disciplines can lie to us. Philosophers seek to know what is. Theology endeavors to grasp what has been revealed to us. What is known as “science fiction” usually contains a good bit of science wrapped in a yarn, in a fantasy, that, when sorted out, can tell us the truth in a way that nothing else can do quite so well.

Irene Groot’s novel, Biocube Escape, speculates about a future that was purportedly designed to make the human species perfect. By the time we reach the end of this tale about the genetic “improvement” of our kind, we realize that the way we are is, itself, far better than anything we might concoct to improve ourselves. Something ironic hovers about this realization that what we are cannot be improved upon unless its improvement is rooted in its original source and being, which source is not ourselves.

To introduce my reflections on this novel, let me recall the proposals that are famously found in the fifth book of Plato’s Republic. Whether Plato thought that these proposals are workable, or only warnings to us not to try them out, can be disputed. Plato, in this myth, wanted to separate eros from reason. Passion interfered with mind. He proposed begetting to be an exclusively rational act, ruled by the state, and its needs. Plato left eros to be without its normal consequences so that it became inconsequential. Intense family relationships were thought to be at the origin of human problems. Parents loved their own children; husbands loved their own wives. In order to make everyone equal, it was important that children did not know their parents, or parents know their children. Everyone of a certain age was to be called “father” or “mother.” All children were children of everyone. Brothers, sisters, and cousins were brothers, sisters, and cousins of everyone. No “my own brother” or “my own sister” was allowed. The genetic distinctions whereby we look like our grandfather or aunt were to be ignored. Everyone belonged to everyone. Defective children, furthermore, were to be exposed.

To achieve this end, begetting was in the hands of the state. Children were brought up in state nurseries; dining was in common mess halls. Everyone held the same explanation of life. This story in Plato has become the foundation for many books and theories about our race. Everyone acknowledges that things go wrong. There are sicknesses and agonies of various sorts among humans in every era and place. There are moral evils that frequently occur both among the famous, as well as among the ordinary. What is the reason for this seemingly intrinsic disorder that is always with us? Can it be eradicated? And what is the worst evil? Is it physical so that it is a disease to be cured? Can it rather be met with virtue, as Aristotle intimated? What is the greatest evil? Socrates himself, in other dialogues, thought that the worst evil was moral, to have a lie in our soul, to deny what is, or refuse to speak about it accurately.

In the Biocube Escape, the greatest evil is held to be human suffering. Cure that, and problems vanish. To deal with this situation, the whole race needs to be regenerated. “Central to the final solution to human suffering lies its insistence on killing children” (240). A genius, by the name of Gropius Rokar, at some point decides to take upon himself the redesigning of human beings. To accomplish this presumably noble goal on the planet Lithos, he constructs a cube deep in the earth where all life will be preserved. It is wholly a self-enclosed environment. All the members of this community are clones from an original infant. This ancestor infant turns out to be, naturally, the child of Rokar and his wife.

In a series of transformations, new types of human beings are produced by cloning, and injecting hormones, and other sophisticated aids. Some new types of human beings are “uprights,” that is, they walk straight, and still retain the human form. Some are what are called “Knuckle Draggers,” more bent over. Then there are the “Crawlers,” who serve as beasts of burden to transport things within the biocube of life. Finally, there are the “Slithers,” who do as they sound. Each of these new levels of being, however, is still human. Each retains at least some sense of their humanity, that is, their freedom and intelligence. The plot of the novel concerns Vee, and several other clones, concocted in the same “batch.” They realize that they must escape this cube, and get to the surface of Lithos. In the cube, everything is mathematically designed, whereas on the outer planet, there are curves, color, and fresh air.

No one in the cube is allowed to live more than fifty years. At the end of fifty years, each clone is put into a tank, and reconfigured into another identical clone. The heroine, Vee, is a beautiful upright. The present ruler of the cube is named, Vork, a terrible man who has ancient temptations, and lustful eyes on Vee. He is but one of many rulers, cloned from the original leader, through the infant that he sacrificed to the project of improving mankind. Vork has already designated his successor, a sadistic clone identical in every physical way with his predecessor. The drama of the novel, of course, it that of the final escape. Along the way, we learn of evils that result from the destruction of normal begetting and family life for human beings. The empty life of the cube city is depicted with its immense purposelessness in a series of annual parades.

This novel is intriguing because it serves to show the good sense in ordinary, unimproved life. In trying to “improve” it, we find that things rapidly become worse. Instead of new babies who result from marriage and begetting, we have clones. Nothing distinguishes one ancestor from another. This is a form of inner-worldly immortality related to a denial of the resurrection of the body. Instead of dying and leaving his infant son to carry on his own life, Rokar kills his infant son to clone him, a non-begetting way supposedly to keep the race going. So down the ages, we have the same corporeal “person”—the same in looks and genes in every way. The only thing is that each clone still seems to confront the issue of good and evil. Each of the clones retains some sense of the good. Vee is assigned to the Archives of the Biocube. Here, she finds a print of a woman and child. She does not know at first what a baby is. But she knows that somehow she wants one. She sees that her fellow clone, Geos, also sees something more in her than another unproductive clone.

Not unlike Huxley’s Brave New World, this novel that would be classified as “science fiction” is really something more like a treatise on natural philosophy and revelation, on why it is that we are as we are. The effort to eliminate suffering as the greatest evil always ends up in making things worse. Benedict XVI said that suffering is the reason for the Incarnation. The effort to eliminate it is implicitly a rejection of the Incarnation. Man learns by suffering, as Sophocles said. Christ suffered. He did not eliminate it as if it were worthless. In this sense, the plot of this novel is a reflection on the difference between evil and suffering, particularly suffering in finite beings. It is one thing to develop medicine to alleviate pain, or to suffer for the sins of ourselves or others. It is another thing to seek to eliminate it by so eliminating a mother’s pain in childbirth by getting rid of any need of babies.

The head clone, in his annual address to the inmates of the Biocube, said: “We should all of us be filled with pride at our evolutionary progress. We should be filled with awe and joy at the suffering-free future that lies ahead.” The fact is, however, that we should be horrified by such “evolutionary progress.” To conclude, we learn from those who escape the Biocube. It is designed by a genius to make us perfect by eliminating suffering. Yet, it does this seemingly impossible feat by getting rid of the very beings that are capable of suffering. Their nature is so changed that they no longer need either human babies, or the love out of which they are generated. When we start out to “reconstruct” mankind, it is a good idea to know, before we begin, how it is already made to be what it is.

  1. Irene Groot, Biocube Escape: A Novel, 2016, 98. ISBN 978-1-5237-1458-2. Paperback, $14.99.
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.