Hope Beyond Hype – Ken MacLeod & Edward Ross’s stem cell comic
I’ve known for a while that one of my favourite science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod, was working alongside the excellent Edward Ross (who created the fascinating Filmish comics on film theory I reviewed previously) on a science education project using comics. Ken drops us a line to let us know that the fruits of their labours are now out in the public domain: Hope Beyond Hype, which uses the medium to explain the development and benefits of a branch of the life sciences that some with a particular ideology decry, usually without examining the actual fact. As with Darryl Cunningham’s just-released (and well received) Science Tales the idea is to use the medium to explain the facts behind the science in a clear and accessible manner anyone can understand.
From the description: “[it]starts with the true life story of two badly burned boys being treated with stem cell generated skin grafts in 1983. We then follow the successes and setbacks of a group of researchers working together to use stem cells to cure blindness, whilst being introduced to knotty issues that are part of the process, including stem cell regulation and the controversial ethical issues surrounding the subject. Whilst some of the story lines sound like science fiction they are in fact all true, despite the fact the script was written by the well-known Scottish Science Fiction writer, Ken Macleod. Comic book artist Edward Ross illustrated the script with his clear, friendly and attractive artwork, whilst stem cell researchers from OptiStem provided the real-life examples of their research and experiences.”
Although Ken is best known for being one of the UK’s top SF writers his own educational background is in science, he’s always delighted in incorporating real scientific thinking into his fiction and in recent years he has been doing a stellar job as a writer in residence with science teams in Edinburgh (I caught some of the talks that were part of that residency, which were open to all, and they were fascinating and a good way to get the public thinking about the scientific research we rely on). Away from his Filmish self published comics I enjoyed so much Edward is no stranger to educational, science-based comics now either, having also worked recently on illustrating a comic work with Glasgow University’s Jamie Hall on a comic on malaria. The work is nice, simple and clear, taking in some of the early discoveries in the field of stem cells in medicine and the applications to help heal conditions which previously had few viable treatments that could be used for them, including the use of the research to literally grow more new skin to heal boys hideously burned in a bad fire.
I rather like the way the comic took some pains to explain the enormous effort that goes into scientific research, how many years of dedicated work goes on at the most basic levels to see where these new techniques can be pushed, some leading to fruitful new areas of further research, some eating years of work but leading nowhere (but as it makes clear, the research needs to be done, it is the only way to find which techniques and possible therapies could be viable and helpful in the long run – and any real scientific research has to consider the long run), and also how funding is required to sustain such efforts on the potential promise of new discoveries that can vastly improve human health and wellbeing, as well as commenting on the way some possible new discoveries are taken by the media and overblown in the usual tabloid style leading to a perhaps unrealistic expectation of how effective new therapies will be and how quickly they can be developed and delivered – the comic, thankfully, tries to put the reality of the research into some clear context.
Ken documents working on Hope Beyond Hype on his blog – his first comics work, for which he thanks, among others, former Tharg David Bishop (who, as regular readers will recall, also now teaches on a course in genre writing, including comics work, at Edinburgh’s Napier University), for advice in how to script a comic. You can read Hope Beyond Hype on the Euro Stem Cell site, download it as a PDF or order a printed version via Edinburgh University’s site. And one a related note I’d like to say a huge congrats to Edward and his other half (and Edinburgh Science Fiction Book Group regular) Mary on the recent birth of their wee boy.