Out of Copyright by Charles Sheffield

There is a school of thought that believes it is science fiction’s obligation to explore the social consequences of technology. I don’t think all science fiction fits nicely with that prescription, but it’s a good parameter. Especially for today’s story which deals with the pros and cons of cloning, especially when it comes to brilliant thinkers like Einstein, Tesla, and Oppenheimer.

Out of Copyright by Charles Sheffield was prescient for its time. The story was first published seven years before Dolly the sheep made headlines as the first cloned adult mammal. Our protagonist, Al, is on his way to the draft pick which determines which large companies will get the exclusive rights to clone famous geniuses in order to use their superior intelligence to solve problems. Its pretty telling that the problem Al’s company is currently solving is a completely ridiculous task of launching asteroids at Jupiter’s moon Io.

As someone hooked into the publishing world, I found it incredible how Sheffield managed to link copyright drama/wank to human cloning. Because, naturally, if human clones become licensable, they surely must be under copyright. In this case, lives (or perhaps bodies?) belong to the family until the post-mortem terms expire some 70 years later. If that’s not exploring the social consequences of technology, I don’t know what is. When cloning is in the picture, what does it mean to die? How does genetic material relate to who we are? It’s a fabulous exploration of nature vs. nurture wrapped up with techno-ethics.

Charles Sheffield’s Out of Copyright originally appeared in the May 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was reprinted in Clarkesworld Magazine’s Issue 84 (September 2013). You can read it on Clarkesworld for free, or you can listen to the audio version.

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