Whole Earth Review SUMMER 1993 - by Brian Eno


The gavel fell to close the sale, and suddenly Beryl's tummy erupted in butterflies.

This was really it. Now there was tangible tension in the air.

Beryl was terribly excited. She'd been on the edge of her seat for the whole auction but hadn't bid once. She was waiting for the third-from-last lot: Number 180. By the way the hall began filling up as the morning wore on, she had the feeling that many of the other women were doing the same.

The auctioneer's shrill voice cut through the hubbub. Her assistant emerged from a side door carrying a large photograph of a handsome black man - Tadd Robinson, the charismatic champion surfer. In his heyday back in the '90s, the auctioneer reminded her clients, Robinson was virtually unbeatable.

'Brave' is too mild a word for this big, powerful man, she said, and then added with the merest trace of a smile, as perhaps is 'big'. The crowd tittered at the mild sexual innuendo and then listened politely as the auctioneer opened the bidding.

Lot 179: we have seven specimens of Tadd Robinson, all in prime condition and all collected when he was twenty-nine years old - in his fourth year as World Surfing Federation Champion. We are directed to offer the seven specimens as one lot. May I now open the bidding at twenty-thousand dollars?

There was no response from the floor. The auctioneer quickly scanned the crowd.

Who'll start me at fifteen? she said brightly. Come on now, ladies, you know this is an excellent price.

From the left of the hall, a smart woman with a double-breasted suit and fashionable gold-mirror contact lenses raised her pen slightly.

Ten, she said, with no trace of emotion. Beryl turned to look at her - obviously an institutional buyer, probably bidding on behalf of one of the big speculative gene banks. They often stockpiled the larger lots, keeping them stored at minus-70 until the whims of the market turned - or were changed - to their favour.

Another women, clearly professional, entered the bidding; the lot was quickly settled at eighteen-thousand dollars. The gavel fell to close the sale, and suddenly Beryl's tummy erupted in butterflies. This was really it. Now there was tangible tension in the air. The institutional buyers began filing out disdainfully, but as quickly as they left other women and couples squeezed in to take their seats. The place was completely crowded. Beryl glanced around at the others and saw them doing the same: weighing up each other's relative wealth and prospects.

The auctioneer cleared her throat and lightly tapped the table. There was an instant hush.

The next lot, as I'm sure you all know, is very special indeed. It is really a one-of-a-kind.

As she spoke, the assistant raised a photograph, obviously greatly enlarged from a rather grainy original, of a genial, elderly, still-handsome man. He was almost completely bald, and his clear, kind eyes squinted as though at a strong sun. His face was turned upwards, away from the camera, looking into a bright future. On his great forehead there was a strange, dark birthmark.

Mikhail Gorbachev, said the auctioneer, was first president of the liberated USSR. He lost that post, of course, but what he is really remembered for is his subsequent presidency of the United States. This truly remarkable man helped America rethink its place in the world - and if there is one person of whom it is possible to say, 'He saved the world,' then it must surely be him. The nature of his disappearance is still a complete mystery, but that mystery is certainly no greater than the provenance of the sperm specimen which we are auctioning today. We simply do not know when, where, or by whom it was collected. All we know is that it is genetically identical to Mikhail Gorbachev, and so we must assume that it is in fact his. Apart from the genemap, however, there is no paper on this item.

The stirring speech generated a flurry of muttering in the hall. Beryl thought back over the past year, since the time the Gorbachev specimen had come to light. She remembered those first excited hopes, the pie-in-the-sky conversations with her husband Robert, and his immediate attraction of the idea. Like most men of his generation, Robert was infertile, and his search for the right father for his children had taken him through all the usual choices - fighter aces, football players, Nobel prizewinners, balding synthesizer players. But Robert was nothing if not ambitious, and when the Gorbachev specimen turned up - well, that was it. He was going for it.

It's an investment, is how I see it, he said, bent over a sheet of figures on the kitchen table. Beryl remembered leaning on his shoulder and watching his pencil racing up and down the columns, him calculating the odds of it taking, then the odds of it being a boy, and then the likely value of its future sperm.

Yup, he said, There's a risk factor, but the payoff could be huge. I think we could raise it from the bank if I have a word with them. And anyway, even if it's a girl, it's still a Gorbachev! Robert was completely convinced and wouldn't hear a word of Beryl's dutifully expressed cautions, her halfhearted can-we-really-afford-its; he (thank God, she thought) ploughed right ahead.

And then her parents had offered to chip in too.

Look, if it goes over the two-hundred-and-fifty thou, you can count on us for another hundred. Dad, like most people of his generation, remembered Gorbachev very fondly, and obviously relished the idea of being grandfather to his child. And Mun was unusually excited, occasionally calling at odd times in the evening to say things like, But I really think you must teach the child Russian as a second language.

beryl and Robert decided not to show their new child to the media until the day after his birth. By then the whole maternity ward was swarming with teams of camera-people connected to each other by long cables, clustered round attractive reporters talking chirpily into their microphones.

Robert cuddled the little boy under the lights and looked proud, pointing, for the benefit of the cameras, to the dark birthmark on the child's neck. The whole of the town council (which had ended up contributing one-hundred-thousand dollars to the price of the gene specimen on the grounds that it would be a great profile-raiser for the city) was waiting to get in the door while the mayor talked emotively to another camera team about the symbolism of this new beginning.

Huge clumps of exotic flowers filled every spare corner of the room, and Beryl's mother fussed over them, looking for windowsill space. A delivery girl pushed her way through the throng to hand Beryl yet another bunch. Beryl looked at the accompanying card:

Warmest congratulations to you and your new arrival from all of us at Atlanta Gene Supplies. Oh Happy Day!

We do hope you'll get in touch with us when you're ready to discuss his future. Remember, you can count on a Yes at AGS.

She put it with all the others on the bedside table. Her eyes briefly met with Robert's. They flashed triumphant smiles. They were so happy.