Discussion

{DISCUSSION} DNA on Book Covers

Why do so many books have DNA on them?

Today we’re going to talk about book covers, specifically the science fiction and dystopian covers that have DNA on them. I’ll be quite honest (as you know I always am ๐Ÿ˜‰ ): this pisses me right the fuck off. But rather than just saying that and walking away (because I love hearing myself talk ๐Ÿ˜‚), how about I explain why it annoys the bejeebus out of me, eh? Okay!

Preface: I have a degree in genetics. I spent four years studying this field of science and would consider myself knowledgeable. I’m also currently studying and researching this in graduate school. ie I have even more specialized understanding of genes and DNA.

Alright. With that out of the way, let me get to the number one reason why I hate when people use DNA on a book cover.

1. The book has NOTHING to do with genes, genetics, or DNA.

I cannot fathom why anyone would want to put something on the cover of a book that has nothing to do with the book, except for the fact that it looks ‘cool.’ The sad part is that this happens all the time. Not just with genes, but with everything and in every genre of books. Who cares if the cover has anything to do with the book? It gets the person to pick and buy a book and after that, the publisher doesn’t care because they made sales. It’s false advertising. And I’m pretty sure we all hate false advertising. Am I right?

2. The story is ‘based’ on geneticsโ€ฆ but the author obviously knows nothing about genetics.

Now, I canย kind of let this one go because genetics is still a relatively new field in comparison to other science fields. However, it’s just like if you were writing a historical fiction book, youย need to get the facts right. Yes, there is some leeway because it’s ‘fiction,’ but the author has to remember that most people are unacquainted with genetics. As such, they have a tendency to take fiction for fact. So, not only are you misleading people, but you’re pretty much disrespecting a field that people devote their lives to because you were too lazy to look up the facts. (Or, you know the facts, and simply didn’t like them. Which… just no.)

3. Genetics is used as a cheap throw in to explain something and is never fully developed.

Seriously??? Does anyone just throw an off-hand comment in about physics and walk away? Uh… no. Because the physics usually has some greater impact on the story. It has to be developed as part of the world. To just throw something in about genetics is basically saying that it has no real impact on your story, in which case you shouldn’t be using it. Science is extremely complex (to the point that we probably only know 10% of it all) and you just throwing it in is basically a cheap gimmick. It’s all a disservice to all the scientists who labored to uncover the facts you just slipped into the story. RAWR!

*sigh* Anyway, the point is, you should really not use genetics as a gimmick or a ‘reason’ for something to happen in the story. If your story is based around some mutation, great! If you just throw in genetics as a tiny piece for why character X did something, wrong! Genes do NOT dictate who you are, how you act, or any of that jazz. People can overcome their genes (nature vs. nurture people). Genes actually can change as you age (because the physical environment can actually impact the expression of your genes). And, lastly, you should NOT use something in your book or cover that you don’t fully understand. That’s just being lazy. Yes, I am calling you out on your shit. Deal with it.


And check out my discussion from last week:
Female Characters in RPG

29 thoughts on “{DISCUSSION} DNA on Book Covers”

  1. I tend to agree with you that book covers should, on some level, relate to the story. Whether through abstract symbols, a scene from the story, or a metaphorical diagram of character identities and relationships, a book cover is often one of the first things we know about a story, along with the title.
    I also sometimes get a little frustrated by stories with colorful titles that turn out to be allegorical, rather than literal. For example, a title like “The Wolf of Wall Street” could be very misleading, if the front cover image and back cover blurb don’t make it clear that this is not literally about wolves.

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    1. Yeah, if you just saw ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ without any context, it could fit into a variety of different genres. Personally, I’d imagine it fits into mystery or thriller. :p So it definitely is important to pay attention to covers (and you don’t want to draw in the wrong readership wit the wrong cover.)

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  2. I don’t think I ever bought a work of fiction with DNA on the cover….

    The more you know about a subject,the more of an expert you become, the more you will discover how many books and movies do an awful job getting the even the basics of that subject correct. Movies are usually far worse than books! I find that most movies have no clue about aviation and navigation and occasionally even rely on untruths for major plot points.

    Another random thought – how deep do you want the author to go? I mean, The Martian was good, but I don’t want every book to be like that! Here is an example – if I write a story set 500 years in the future where the reader slowly discovers that many of the main characters are the product of genetic engineering, how deep do I need to go into the genetics? No one in the book is a genetic scientist or engineer. Do I have to know gene splicing techniques even if they will never be mentioned in the book?

    If the science (or other field of study) is needed for the plot or the story in any way, even to supply a little realism, then I agree 100% that the author needs to do his or her research.

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    1. Oh man! I completely agree with you, Trent. I mean, watching The Martian vs reading The Martian was insane because the book does a TON of science, but because the movie was made for mass audiences, they cut sooo much out and made it seem really unbelievable. I just think it’s pathetic how things can’t be both true and interesting. It worries me about society, honestly.

      Good question. I like this. Absolutely not. You don’t need to know the details and specifics of how genetic engineering works (partly because we don’t even know all of it today.) However, if you are going to discover that many characters are genetically engineered, I need a legitimate reason to believe that. And don’t give me behavior (because your genes don’t dictate your personality) and please don’t give me some arbitrary physical description because mutations occur in the genome. You need to know basic principles of any science you write about. And honestly, I believe that as a writer, you should probably know a little bit more about the subject matter than you ever put in the book because then you are less likely to botch it up. There is a threshold of knowledge and, right now, I think a ton of authors are missing the mark because they don’t want to try OR it doesn’t work with their plot and their too lazy to think of something else. :/

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      1. “I believe that as a writer, you should probably know a little bit more about the subject matter than you ever put in the book”. I agree with this on many levels, not just science. The author needs to know what the characters do “off screen”, they need to know details of the world that will never be written.

        I haven’t worked out all of the details of my story, but the idea is that each individual is born to perform a specific duty. There can only be a certain number of type x people alive at any given time, though that number can change as the world and society changes. Depending on need, there can be different “generations” of a type (almost like model years) alive at a given time. So a 5th generation Machinist would look more or less human but have very specific skills that it could perform far better than a normal person, while a 12 generation Machinist, which is end state (12 generation anything is end state), would only have a light resemblance to a human but be highly efficient at his/her task. Anyway, it’s difficult to say in so few words, but I’m sure you get a least a small gist of the type of genetic engineering I’m talking about.

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        1. Yes, I fully agree. The author needs to know what’s going on off screen just like an actor or screen writer does. Sometimes I think people forget that. :/

          And it sounds interesting. Though, I have questions as to the evolution of their genetic makeup throughout the generations.

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          1. That’s where the genetic engineering comes in – it isn’t natural evolution between generations, it is an engineered evolution between generations. And “generation” should be in quotes, as it refers more to the next set of changes than a parent-child generation. So it starts with simple changes. They see if the results were as expected. After the change looks viable, there is a next set of changes, a a new “generation”, which again, is incremental. So 12 steps, “generations”, between the natural and the ideal of the type they are creating.

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            1. As a geneticist, I would love to talk more about this. It sounds a bit vague as it stands and I can’t tell if you’re doing that because it’s still a WIP or because you don’t wan to bog me down in the details. :p

              What happens to people after the 12th generation? Does that lineage die out?

              And why does it take exactly 12 generations to get the genetic mutations correct? If they know all the mutations already, why not immediately change all the genes at once? has so many questions

              (Maybe I should freelance my genetics knowledge to writers. Hahahaha!)

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              1. It’s not even a work in progress at this time, it is an idea I had after reading an article about the possibility of “designer babies”. So, no, it isn’t well thought out yet, nor have I done an ounce of research at this point ๐Ÿ˜‰

                Here are some answers, though. These specialties that have been designed are clones. So if you need a 6th generation Electronic Tech, you create a new one using the original material. Of course, it won’t last forever. And you can’t just clone and reclone from the clones forever, you should have a way to go back to the original. So, perhaps by the time of this story, many of the older generations are extinct, say 7th generation Space Pilots no longer exist, nor anything back before the 6th generation. Also, some lines are growing thin, so the entire line might go extinct. (Those last couple of sentences are actually a big part of the plot.)

                As for 12-generations, again, I am not even at the early stages, and there may be no end point, I was just thinking “12” when I was plotting in my head. Thing about it, 12 just might be where most of them are now, with no upward limit. I said “500 years in the future”, but what if this starts 100 years from now and they are doing generations of 32 years, then, there we have over 480 years – close enough.

                If/When I actually sit down and write this out, doing a little more thought and a lot more research before I begin, would you like to see it to rip it up, I mean critique it?

                Yeah, that may be a good side business for you – genetic consultant for authors.

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                1. So, you are saying that the point at which the story takes place isn’t the end of the genetic engineering, per se, but just a point in its development? As such, twelve is just a number they’re currently at, but they will continue to evolve further over time?

                  And I would be happy to take a look at it in the future in respect to the scientific aspects. ๐Ÿ™‚ I would love to see more accurate representations of genetics out in scifi.

                  Now… how do I start a business for author consulting? :p

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                  1. I’m weird. That goes without sating, but.. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’m weird in that stories ideas come whole into my head. I think them through and then start doing the research as I write it out to correct things. The research also add detail to the story. That being said, when the story comes to me, there are often odd details that later end up being important. Isn’t it great how the subconscious works? The 500 years and 12 generations came to my mind when the story did with no explanation. I had thought that it was an end point, that using some mystical formula the first engineers decided to develop these people incrementally in 12 distinct steps. But, as you pointed out, unless it really was for mystical reasons, it doesn’t really make sense to do it in exactly 12 steps. So, next thought, perhaps we are seeing it just at some random point in the development. I think it was the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould who said that we are not the end point of evolution, we just are at some random spot along a continuum like trilobites or Brachiosaurus. (Why does spell check want to change this to Brontosaurus!?) Sothis story would be like that, a random point along the continuum, but one were the source material might be getting fragile…

                    (I’m also weird in that I remember random facts that I learned probably before you were born and haven’t really thought of since, like about Stephen Jay Gould… A very handy thing when writing fiction, though.)

                    Anyway, I hope I have some time to look at it this weekend. Now that we’ve talked about it, I do want to start writing it!

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                    1. Hahaha! Actually, you bring up a very good point with the Stephen Jay Gould comment because I just got tested on this very concept in my genetics class this semester and it was a topic in my evolution class last semester. Evolution is never ‘done.’ We only reach a state in which we are best adapted to our current environment, but to lose all mutations and variations would make us, as a species, very unlikely to survive a drastic change in our environment. If our environment changes, we evolve or we die. This sounds like it will be very important to keep in mind when writing your novel down based on what I’m hearing thus far. Also, another very important thing to note (if you aren’t using JUST clones), creating a perfectly inbred (that is identical in their genome) species, is EXTREMELY difficult. Mutations will often spontaneously arise AND the environment can actually enhance or repress the expression of certain genes. As such, even a ‘perfectly identical homogenous’ species will have some variability in them. Does this make sense? I know it’s a lot so I’m happy to break it down. ๐Ÿ™‚

                      Definitely keep me posted. I would really love to gain valuable experience doing science consulting for authors. ๐Ÿ™‚ It would be a great addition to my science communication experience (which is what I hope to do professionally at some point in the future.)

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                    2. I had originally thought of this story as more novella length, but maybe it does need to be a novel. lol.

                      I do get that about being difficult for them to be totally identical unless they are cloned. I was thinking cloning.

                      I have your email from the Halloween story. I’ll drop you a note when I get a little deeper into it.

                      Welcome to your new career ๐Ÿ˜‰

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                    3. Hee hee! Happy to be of service and I look forward to hearing from you. By the way, I put up a poll on Twitter seeing if anyone else would be interested in consultations like this. Turns out there are a few people out there who would be interested. ๐Ÿ˜€ I’m kind excited about this!

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  3. I’m currently working on a story that does have genetics as part of the plot, but only a minor role as the general theme is the nature versus nurture, the haves and have nots; who really is better off? If/when it’s done, I’ll get in touch for a severe critique! ๐Ÿ˜ The working cover isn’t DNA, but a beautiful photo of a baby in the womb.

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  4. YAS! I totally hear you. Especially books that just use “genetics” as the “simple” explanation for whatever story they’re spinning or as a blanket excuse for a character/situation. I don’t know a ton about genetics (In high school I loved the subject and seriously considered studying it in college and then…didn’t. UGH.) but I do know the basics and I feel like genetics should be researched just as thoroughly as the laws of space (which is actually a whole other issue for some sci-fi books…). DNA definitely looks cool on covers and FINE it does make me interested in picking up the pretty book from the shelf but naw if they fuck it up in the story then I get irritated because just NO.

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    1. Hahaha! I know the feeling of not studying something, Angela. Always frustrating, but we gotta work with what we have. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Oh my gosh! You’re right. How many space operas know nothing about space and you’re just wondering why the author even decided to write a space opera in the first place if they weren’t going to put in the effort. People don’t write historical fiction novels without first researching history. It’s so frustrating that people think scifi is just a free-for-all and that you don’t actually have to know the truth because fiction. RAWR!

      Honestly, seeing DNA on the cover of a book now has the opposite effect on me. I’m just like: “Nope!” and I walk away because I literally just EXPECT the book to be awful now. sigh

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  5. I’m pretty sure there are just a load of standard ish covers and they just slot on the relevant one to make it obvious to the reader what it’s about. If it’s sciency in any way they stick a DNA helix on the cover whether it has anything to do with DNA.

    I don’t particularly agree with it and think if nothing else it’s really boring seeing yet another cover that looks the same but, to play devils advocate, publishers need to make it obvious to readers what a book’s about otherwise they get criticism and bad reviews. We’ve all seen the ridiculous reviews along the lines of 1 star, I didn’t actually read the blurb and didn’t realise it was about science stuff and I have no interest in it. I do feel for authors when they get those reviews.

    It doesn’t really excuse making stuff up, easy get outs and saying things that’s just wrong in the story, of any genre. I’m not very knowledgeable about science or history but a simple Google of anything that doesn’t sound right usually proves it’s not and it’s frustrating.

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    1. Yup. I totally agree with you, Ali. Which is dumb, but they do the same thing in fantasy. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a cover used by multiple different books and then I can’t even remember which one I liked or who had the original cover. It’s just dumb. No originality whatsoever.

      Who doesn’t read a blurb? I’m sorry, but that’s your own dang fault for being lazy. You shouldn’t fault the book because you couldn’t take 30 seconds to read a paragraph or two and get an idea of what the book was like. Ugh. I hate those people, honestly. They really do make authors (and bloggers) look bad. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      There is just soooo much science out there that to use a generic DNA strand on your cover is totally cheap. I mean, DNA is so specific. What if your book is about physics? DNA isn’t physics, but you’re gonna put one on the cover anyway because it’s science? GAH! Not all science is the same!!!! throws things

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    1. Exactly. I read a fantasy book that tried to use genetics as an excuse for some absurd personality trait (not even magical ability) and I was just like: “The heck are you spouting over here?”

      I am happy to find another tough reviewer who understands genetics. Always a pleasure, Noelle! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  6. Yes!!! I completely agree with everything you said. Itโ€™s absurd how often authors use DNA on book covers, when the story has hardly anything to do with genetics. Genetics have always fascinated me, and although Iโ€™m definitely not an expert in the field, I canโ€™t stand it when authors use genetics to be the cop out for why a character did something. Itโ€™s lazy and tacky. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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