Time Considered as a Helix of Infinite Possibilities

Article Summary by Jay Clayton

This contribution to the special issue of Medical Humanities on Global Genetic Fictions focuses on an award-winning science fiction story by Samuel R. Delany, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” In the story, Delany imagines something he calls “hologramic information storage,” which allows an interplanetary Special Service agent to discover everything a suspect has done or will be doing at any time in the past, present, or future. Delany’s vision perfectly captures the time signature of genomics, the illusion that data encoded in your DNA can reveal your entire life—not only where you came from but what you will become—from a single test in the present. In ordinary life, we experience time as linear, but genomics reveals a synchronic dimension, a code that contains within it every possible variation of the species, much as the synchronic dimension of language contains all possible utterances. Like “queer time,” to which I compare genomics, Delany’s story ends by finding queer ways of inhabiting time and space despite everything that would seem to foreclose possibilities.

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Jay ClaytonJay Clayton is William R. Kenan Professor of English and Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. Author of numerous books and articles, he is currently engaged in a large, interdisciplinary project funded by the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, which looks at the impact of literature, film, and popular culture on public attitudes toward genetic privacy in the age of big data.

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