The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ‘transhumanism’ as a philosophical and scientific movement where current and emerging technologies are used “to augment human capabilities and improve the human condition.” But rather than the negative connotations of Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ or Übermensch, we have the more positive ‘posthuman’, who has enhanced capabilities and a longer lifespan through genetic engineering, or who has even achieved immortality. Humanity thereby transcends itself. Many authors and films, however, show it to be a dehumanising and alienating process: you only have to think of Huxley’s humans manufactured and grown without a family, without any real human connection, in his Brave New World; or the social chasm between ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’ in Gattaca.
In Ken Liu’s short story The Waves (in Humanity 2.0), we follow a space-travelling family as they achieve immortality through genetic engineering: some choose not to be modified but to age and die; some become immortal but cling to their human shells; others decide to join a merged mind (the ‘Singularity’), part organic and part artificial; and yet others choose to retain individuality in a ‘machine’ body. Over time, all evolve into energy patterns that become part of the ‘light’, with consciousness becoming “a ribbon across time and space”. For much of the story, the consciousness that was once Maggie is the story-teller, who passes on all the old creation myths, giving a constantly evolving humanity its roots or origins. In a moment of loneliness, Maggie lands on an unknown planet and tweaks the genetic code of some primitive creatures she finds there. Her adjustment will become the spark leading to further evolution, and this will trigger a set of waves: each wave will surpass the previous wave and reach further up the sand. It is with this image that this lyrical, dream-like story ends, with bits of sea foam floating up and riding the wind “to parts unknown”.
This positive view of the posthuman is shared by Nustrat Zabeen Islam. In an artic-let (it labels itself a three-minute read), she looks at SF and posthumanism. She states that the theme for many SF authors is “writing realistically about alternative possibilities”, where they harness technology to look at the future of humanity. She cites Alex Proyas’ film I, Robot as a perfect example of this. The film does not disappoint as long as one doesn’t expect an accurate rendition of Asimov’s short stories, although the nerd linguist in me enjoys that the comma survived in the movie title. Zabeen Islam is particularly interested in our fascination with and fear of the advanced technology of our imaginings. In examining whether this fear is irrational, she cites How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hailes:
“(…) [T]he posthuman view configures the human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.”
Nusrat Zabeen Islam then mentions Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, which looks at what will come after ‘humanism’ and muses that “the boundaries between given (natural) and constructed (cultural) have been banished and blurred by the effects of scientific and technological advances.” With a final reference to Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs, which declares that by the “mythic time” of “the late twentieth century… we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” She concludes that the whole point of contrasting (or blurring) human with AI life is to examine what it means to be human and the value of that life.
It seems to me that by coining the term ‘posthuman’, we are still very much focused on the ‘human’ element. SF could ultimately be accused of being self-referential and self-obsessed. Nusrat Zabeen Islam’s last line calls for “responsible transhumanists” and a “fearless real human race” that must seek the “development of human advance tools” and make “efforts to reduce disastrous risks”. This reference to our collective responsibility for our future leads me to a dense but ultimately rewarding article on the Anthropocene. In this article, the ‘Anthropos’ (Greek for ‘human’ and used in this context to mean humankind) remains centre stage. If you look up images of the Anthropocene on the internet, you find a lot of pictures of ecological devastation, or of planet earth with a giant footprint on it. This explains why the writer of “The Anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed”, Jamie Lorimer from the School of Geography and the Environment, is writing for the journal Social Studies of Science. He tackles the, at first glance, hubris behind the proposal that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene (following the Holocene). He expands this narrow focus to a “charismatic mega-category” encompassing science, Zeitgeist, ideology, ontology and SF. In Earth System Science, the Earth is understood to be a single system (almost like its own life-form) “comprising a series of ‘coupled’ ‘spheres’ characterised by boundaries, tipping points, feedback loops and other forms of non-linear dynamics”.
In this context, the Anthropocene is seen to be a planetary ‘rupture’, with humans suddenly beginning to look rather like the destructive parasites responsible for the “end of Nature”. Some see it as a “new human condition” and Lorimer quotes Palsson et al: “Surely the most striking feature of the Anthropocene is that it is the first geological epoch, in which a defining geological force is actively conscious of its geological role.” It is seen as a “transformative moment in the history of humanity as an agent, comparable perhaps to the development of technology and agriculture.” Lorimer looks at the debate about whether humanity as agent is more a force for evil than good and, here, neologisms abound: Capitalocene, Anthrobscene (critics of neoliberal capitalism), Manthropocene (feminist critics), Plantationocene (anti-colonialists), Anthropo-not-seen (supporters of the decolonisation of mainstream discourse) and eco-rapture (heralds of the apocalypse). Less negative are ideas about a ‘technosphere’ (growing alongside the biosphere) and socio-technical ‘networks’ or ‘assemblages’.
Whatever labels you use, Lorimer sees an important role for SF in the debate:
“Definitive, fossilised evidence of a synchronous stratigraphic layer that would legitimately indicate the advent of a new epoch will only materialise several million years from now. The proposal for accepting the Anthropocene therefore requires a future geologist, living on, returning to, or visiting the Earth, and blessed with the sensoria and apparatus, capable of interrogating, the planet’s strata. The Anthropocene thus requires an act of speculation, somewhat alien to the retrospective periodisation of the geosciences.”
And SF is the way forward: “these books offer thought experiments, creating canvasses for imagining future planetary conditions, trajectories and events.” They can examine climate change, planetary disasters, post-apocalyptic worlds, dystopias, utopias and ‘ustopias’ (a neologism coined by Margaret Atwood that combines “the imagined perfect society and its opposite”, each containing “latent versions of the other”). SF could “offer platforms for normative interventions, seeking to guide current policy and to shape popular sensibilities and individual behaviours.”
Lorimer’s article is ecology-focused and anthropocentric. It postulates an interesting but narrow definition of SF. It reminds me of a thought-provoking paragraph by Katharine Norbury in her introduction to Women on Nature, where she challenges our use of the words ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’: “My real issue with the word ‘nature’ is that it is implicitly anthropocentric. It is, by definition, ‘them’ and ‘us’.” It might be better to use ‘ecology’, i.e. we too are part of a whole:
“And yet even the term ‘ecology’ takes no cognisance of a spiritual or other-than-physical aspect to that which we are seeking to describe. The unseen, the unquantifiable, and the sublime slips through the net. How many of us respond to something elusive, something mysterious about the natural world?”
For me, another role for SF is to speculate about the mysteries beyond the material universe and our human understanding. It is fashionable for SF to be jaded, cynical, full of (anti-)heroes and aliens that remain curiously anthropomorphic, including in their violent hubris, but there is also room for humility and wonder and reaching for that ‘something elusive’ and the ‘sublime’.
This division into ‘them’ and ’us’ highlighted by Norbury is challenged in an early (1961) Andre Norton novel that was one of my childhood favourites, Catseye. It is an adventure story set on a backwater planet. Norton imagines a world ruled by capitalism, income and class inequality, with the Thieves’ Guild as a major power and refugees from a distant war flooding into the slums or The Dipple. The protagonist, Troy Horan, is one such refugee, just one small step away from destitution and starvation. By luck, he ends up working in a shop dealing in exotic animals, where he discovers he can communicate telepathically with Terran mutant animals. Troy ends up on the run with two cats, two foxes and a creature reminiscent of a monkey, and this is where the book becomes interesting. He develops a partnership with the animals, where he has to negotiate with them and where the balance of power is decidedly not in his favour. The animals agree to work with him and become loyal to him but they follow his agenda only because it suits theirs. Together they form an alliance that helps them carve a niche for themselves on the planet. It is not a philosophically deep novel but it is very satisfying to see ‘the’ Anthropos becoming just ‘an’ anthropos.
On that note, here ends my series of articles loosely held together by the theme of humanism in all its forms. As a parting shot, amidst a sea of neologisms, I would say that, whatever you see as the aim of SF, the only real crime in my book is a lack of periérgeia or intellectual curiosity. For curiosity knows no bounds and, especially when married to imagination, it may allow us to conceive of something beyond ourselves. Speculative sci-phi is for me what R.S. Thomas referred to as a “needle in the mind” in his poem The Migrants:
“What matter if we should never arrive
to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?
Enough we have been given wings
and a needle in the mind…”
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.