What some call science fiction, I prefer to call science possible or sometimes science probable. One branch of sci-fi is based on imagined technological or scientific advances, and major social or environmental changes. It was that branch that I embraced when I wrote Pig Heart Boy. I loved the idea of exploring xenotransplantation through the eyes of Cameron, a 13-year-old boy with a bad heart who just wants to live. I found the whole notion of transplanting organs from one species into another fascinating and the perfect subject matter for a children’s book.
Now I hasten to add that I’m not a scientist or expert on xenotransplantation, nor do I claim to be. I’m a layperson with a love of science who occasionally reads science magazines. My approach was from an author’s angle, spending months on research before writing a single word.
So where did I get the idea? Whenever I attend a literary or school event, that question is invariably asked. For Pig Heart Boy, the answer is simple. Back in the mid 1990s, I read a newspaper article written by a doctor who speculated that we would eventually have to turn to xenotransplantation as a possible solution to the lack of human organ donors. The article considered the pros and cons of mechanical hearts versus xenotransplantation, and suggested that for xenotransplantation to be successful, gene editing would have to be employed. This would mean the introduction of human DNA into animal embryos to reduce the chance of organ rejection. Per the recent pig heart transplant that took place on 7 gennaio, scientists also altered 10 genes in the donor pig, again to lessen the chance of the heart being rejected.
And if the bio-sealed environment in which the pigs live allows them to lead a reasonable free-range life, does that mitigate the fact that these genetically modified animals are being purposely bred as organ donors? In the case of heart transplants, for a human to live a pig must die. Certo, every year approximately 10 million pigs are bred and slaughtered in the UK for their meat alone.
When I read that article in the 1990s, it left my mind buzzing with questions. What were the ramifications? Do we really have the right to treat animals as mere organ repositories for humans? Is it OK because they are already farmed for food? So I headed to my nearest bookshop and bought all the books I could on heart transplants in particular, and transplant operations in general.
I’ve found questions are one of the best places to start from when writing a novel. In my story Cameron, who needs a heart transplant, knows he is unlikely to see his next birthday unless he receives one, but he is a long way down the waiting list. When a genetically modified pig’s heart is offered by a pioneering doctor, Cameron decides to go for it – and his new heart completely changes his life in unexpected ways.
Now some people might think that the subject matter is not suitable for children. I completely disagree. As a children’s author, it never ceases to amaze me how some adults underestimate what subject matter will interest and stimulate children and teens. I wanted to write a story that provided no right or wrong answers, but which would provide food for thought and discussion. A story that would allow the reader to walk in Cameron’s shoes for a while and think about what decisions they would make and how they would react if they too were faced with his dilemma. I believe the best stories encourage children to think for themselves.
Fictional stories that explore new ideas when it comes to STEM subjects also have a part to play in enriching our children’s reading and learning. Various studies have shown that reading fiction enhances our children’s ability to grasp new concepts and as such has cross-curriculum benefits. Pig Heart Boy was my attempt to incorporate science possible into a believable, thought-provoking story.
So now that science fiction has become science fact, do I feel that maybe the time is right to return to Cameron and his family in a sequel? Watch this space …