We live in a brave new world. Our epoch is now the Anthropocene, defined by radiation and the atomic bomb. It’s 60 years since the dawn of the Space Age and the discovery of DNA. In our still-new century, robots are moving from factories into our homes, mobile technology keeps us always-on, and the promise of a new era of gene-editing beckons, with diseases banished and human life constructed one gene at a time.
Each of these era-defining technologies come with its own shadow side – Hiroshima, the brutal story of Henrietta Lacks, Orwellian mass surveillance, Frankenstein foods and designer babies. We stand at the feet of these dilemmas and sometimes, stories can be the lens through which we can observe safely that which might otherwise overwhelm or terrify us.
In the last few years, humanity has been at war with an invisible enemy – the virus – in the form of HIV, SARS, Swine Flu, Ebola and Zika. Back in summer 2015, I’d made contact with Professor David Robertson at the University of Manchester, asking for advice on getting the science right for an early version of a screenplay that was to become Aeon: Live. What followed was a series of fascinating (and occasionally disturbing) conversations which looked at the history of contagions, the social impact of epidemics, and how a deadly pathogen might spread worldwide today.
For each of my writing projects, I’ve been grateful that scientists have always been more than happy to discuss their work. The key has been to research who is the most appropriate person to make contact with, and when visiting to go armed with plenty of questions and an open mind – whether that’s a visit to the robot lab at MIT in Boston (2003), an android lab in Osaka, Japan (2007), the Star City cosmonaut training centre near Moscow (2010), or a trip across town to the University of Manchester on Oxford Road.
Following initial discussions with David, Dr. Jo Pennock and their teams, the focus shifted from research advice to how we might become project partners: Aeon: Live’s lead character is an investigative reporter and by coincidence, the university needed video news scenarios for use by its life sciences students. Initial plans were made for some short videos based on newsroom style coverage of a viral outbreak.
From there, Aeon: Live’s production grew, thanks to further support from the Wellcome Trust and Art Council England, and the project is now a smartphone app featuring original fiction and a two-part video story – with key sections used to aid learning for biology students. The app introduces the story and its key characters, while a new dimension – Aeon: Live – lets an audience delve right into Aeon: Live’s world of miracle cures and a relentless epidemic.
Premiering at Manchester Science Festival, Aeon: Live invites you to attend an open day at Arcadia Life Sciences, a medical trials facility where volunteers can become living donors to help Arcadia’s fight against viral outbreaks like Zika, Ebola and HIV. Human participation in medical trials is an important stage in the testing of new drugs, and Arcadia offers to pay its Living Donors well.
Aeon: Live hopes to bring the drama off the screen and place the audience directly into the story, allowing us see a little more clearly through the lens into the hopes and nightmares of our brave new world.
For tickets and more information on Aeon: Live, please check the Manchester Science Festival website, as well as the Aeon app’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.