Jar City and other biodigital fictions

On a train journey back from Lancaster – to visit CESAGen – partly for this event ‘The Post-genomic Condition‘ I also read the novel Jar City (2006).  This Icelandic crime thriller has a film version and uses the Icelandic Heath Sector Database (later known as DeCode), as part of the plot.  Genetics becomes an interesting plot device, motivating strong feelings and culminating in murder.  Questions of privacy, identity and access to highly secure information collected in the name of genetic research lie at the centre of the novel.

In terms of the use of genetics as a plot device it is not unlike another crime novel Fever of the Bone (2009). This manages to introduce the HFEA and UK databases with similar questions into a crime novel.

These books demonstrate the purchase that genetics has in everyday life and its role in bringing a new twist to stories about identity. In both Jar City and Fever of the Bone much of the action is propelled by insider access to highly technologised databases underwritten by computing architecture and state level storage of information about biological information. However, both plots also circulate around emotions attached to family, grief and continuity of identity.   In both novels a fine line between new technologies and everyday life is negotiated in an interesting, dramatically successful and informative way.  Jar City has the edge on dramatic success and draws a striking analogy between the storage of body parts in formalin and the storage of genetic information in databases.

The comparison between these different methods of biomedical storage and retrieval (body parts in jars and biomedical information in databases) sparked a series of questions about the concept of corporeal fetishism which I’ve been thinking about in relation to When Biometrics Fail and I’ll be posting some notes on this shortly.

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