Watching the Netflix series Altered Carbon has stirred my mind to consider a number of ramifications of the seemingly irresistible human impulse to seek immortality. Besides the concept of digitalized body transference which is the central focus of that series, another alternative mentioned is the prospect of practical cloning to extend the span of individual consciousness. This, in turn, led me to think of another Netflix series, the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the figure of Pearl Forrester’s clone who makes irregular appearances as a supporting character to the latest in the “Mad” dynasty, head villainness Kinga.
On a different anatomical level, cloning has been a reality for some years now, most famously in the person of Dollie the sheep. Dollie is a genetic duplicate of her predecessor, but we have no way of knowing whether she is also a conscious double, since, as far as I can tell, there was no effort to map the consciousness, digital or other, of Dollie’s “mother,” Dollie herself, or any subsequent offspring. Twins raised in utero have shown some traits, in some cases, of apparent shared consciousness, but we have yet to be able to measure anything similar in biological clones. Nor have we attempted to determine if a clone raised in utero with a non-clone sibling would demonstrate any shared traits. To judge by the comical example of Pearl’s clone, the prognosis would seem to be negative. Pearl’s clone stumbles around Kinga’s base on the dark side of the Moon in a mostly zombified state and seems capable of only the clumsiest approximation of grandmaternal affection. It is noteworthy that this affection is not a trait to be found in the donor herself, since Pearl generally neglects Kinga in favor of visiting the casinos of the universe in the company of Brain Guy and Bobo, having already ruined two chances of raising Clayton Forrester, the second of which ended in a delayed infanticide.
So would a clone be a copy in consciousness of the original individual? In scientific practice, perhaps time will tell. Or not, if the ethics become too sticky a matter for science to condone (South Korea excepted) or if the grant funding runs out. [Bifurcation: imagine if the South Korean fascination with cloning goes North and produces a big batch of Kim Jung-Uns! But that is another story.]
MST3K does offer another perspective in the form of the riffed film Parts: The Clonus Horror (episode 811). In that movie, the Clonus Foundation caters to the rich and powerful by raising their clones, apparently in vitro, training them into perfect physical specimens while brainwashing them for the sake of compliance, and then icing them down to remove organs as needed to renew the donors far past the usual physical limits of degeneration and death. This in itself is a fairly namby-pamby approach to the matter, since frozen organs would be much less reliable than nice fresh ones (wouldn’t want to have freezer burn on our replacement kidneys, would we?). Modern science relies for organ replacement on donors recently deceased in accidents, while a black market flourishes in organs bought from impoverished Asians or stolen from unwitting victims, as has been reported in Latin America or among Serbian prisoners of war in the Kosovo conflict. Expect the latter methods to become more diverse and complex as time goes on. At any rate, the Clonus clones are certainly not mental doubles of their donors and, indeed, demonstrate a contrary tendency to rebel against the model.
So sci fi thus far does not massively support the probability of producing perfectly replicable armies, as in the Star Wars universe, or even individualized brains adaptable to some kind of digitalized downloading. We must ask ourselves whether it could be possible to “back up” a whole consciousness, as happens for billionaire Meths in Altered Carbon (thanks to mysterious alien tech that humans glommed onto), much less tof inject said backups or even active organic intelligence into another body anywhere in the populated galaxy, as the Envoys are able to do. Would the result of human cloning experiments merely produce a bumbling, disappointing Pearl’s Clone or a super-efficient space warrior able to avoid the foibles of the “skin jobs” in the Bladerunner universe? For now, the jury is out and perhaps imagination will eventually tell.