28 December 2007

"Certainly the prospect for 'normal' humans sometimes seems bleak in these stories." Amen to that assessment.

Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future
Gardner Dozois, editor
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002

“Would we ordinary, garden-variety human beings like the Posthuman Future if we were somehow suddenly catapulted into it? Or would we find it a terrifying, hostile, and incomprehensible place, a place we were no more equipped to understand and deal with successfully than an Australopithecus would be equipped to deal with Times Square? Are human beings, as we understand the term, as the term has been understood for thousand upon thousands of years, on the way out? Doomed to extinction, or at the very least to enforced obsolescence in some future equivalent of a game reserve or a zoo? Certainly the prospect for “normal” humans sometimes seems bleak in these stories, with author after author postulating the inevitability of a constantly widening gap between the human and the posthuman condition… with the humans left ever father behind, unable to cope.” (Preface, pp. xii-xiii)

As with almost every book I read, this one fits into a larger context. A few years ago, one web search or another introduced me to this idea called "the Singularity." It seems that science fiction writer Vernor Vinge came up with this term to describe that point in the near-future where developments in germline genetic engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and associated disciplines will accelerate and converge in such a way as to create a scientific analog to the fundamentalist Christian "Rapture." Those of us who came into existence before this singular convergence will be radically different from those whose lives are defined by the terms of a post-Singularity world. The latter, deemed "posthumans" (or "transhumans") by various commentators on this vision, will be in control of the the fundamental constituents of the human universe---matter, life, and mind---to such a degree that they will effectively be as gods to the mere humans who preceded them.

I was fascinated by this idea, in part because these developments do seem to presage a variety of unprecedented social, cultural, and other realities. After all, just consider the impact that computer and mobile phone technologies have had on all aspects of global society in the last twenty years, and envision those changes compounded and sped up. I read a few novels that I've previously reviewed here (i.e., Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Rudy Rucker's Moldies and Meatbops and Realware, and The Engines of Light trilogy by Ken MacLeod) and sort of burned through the most intense phase of the interest before I moved on to more pessimistic appraisals of our collective future (mainly dealing with the issue of Peak Oil, a prospect thatjust might put the kibosh on the whole transhumanist project).

This series of pessimistic appraisals then led me back to the topic of transhumanism in the form of Bill McKibben's book Enough. In this well-written but not entirely convincing book (more about which when I actually finish it), he argues against the posthuman/transhuman future implicit in these technologies on the grounds that it will be devoid of meaning, since meaning is grounded in our limitations, defects, and finitude. His book got too preachy too quickly, and so I put it down and picked up a variety of other relevant books, including Jeremy Rifkin’s The Biotech Century, Rapture, The Future and Its Enemies, and a bunch of SF, including this volume. So that's all by way of an explanation as to why I picked this book up.

Regarding this collection of short SF itself, editor Gardner Dozois provides a rough sketch of a "superhuman" posthumanity in his outline of the criteria used in selecting these stories. Science fiction, once dominated by stories of space conquest and interstellar adventure, had by the early 1970s begun to yield to the fundamentally unsettling discoveries of modern cosmologists and space researchers. Solar system changed into galaxy, which in turn had gave way to galactic clusters, galactic superclusters, and ultimately to a universe of such analogy-defying proportions that the space conquest fantasies of the 1950s came to be regarded as impossible. So SF writers and some scientists began to develop new scenarios and strategies for space colonization; after all, if the crux of the problem is a dearth of nearby earthlike planets, then two possible solutions are to make planets earthlike (i.e., terraforming) or to change the nature of human beings and adapt them to a wide variety of habitats. It is this latter notion, changing the very nature of what it has meant thus far to be a human being, that is the subject of this collection.

But it is not just any change of what it means to be human. Dozois invokes various filters in his anthology: the stories contained don't deal with "accidental" posthumanity brought about through mutation or post-apocalyptic scenarios, nor do they deal with posthumans who are angels, machines, or gods in disguise (it is SF after all and not fantasy), nor do they deal with virtual realities and downloaded posthuman consciousness. In this collection, all the posthuman situations are the direct result of deliberate change, often for the purposes of space colonization and conquest, and occur primarily in the "meat" world, as opposed to that of disembodied cyberspace.

Alas the stories in this collection did not, for the most part, live up to the promise of Dozois' introduction. While many of the tales were quite good in terms of craft, not many very meaningful or memorable. Too often I found myself shaking my head at the glibness of the authors and at how far they hadn't come from the Wild West, Manifest Destiny, cowboys in space mentality that characterized much of so-called Golden Age SF. A few stories do stand out, though, and so merit special mention.
  • In “The Chapter Ends,” by Poul Anderson, the Earth has become a rustic backwater that has been traded to an alien civilization in a cosmic territorial exchange. The posthuman descendents of Earth, who have absolutely no connection to this obscure planet in an outer spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, move the few thousand remaining human beings off of the homeworld. They leave behind one Wendell Berry-esque holdout who realizes what it like to be the last person on earth--after the last flight out has gone.
  • “Aye, and Gomorrah,” by Samuel R. Delany, is the sort of sexy science fiction I'd expect from Phillip Jose Farmer. The story centers on spacers, "modified" posthumans whose exotic asexuality makes them the target of fetishists called frelks.
  • "Understand,” by Ted Chiang, features a patient who is resuscitated from a vegetative state through the use of an experimental new synthetic hormone. Of course, the vegetable becomes an uber-genius, escapes from the hospital as a fugitive from CIA, begins meddling in the affairs of humanity in pursuit of his posthuman aesthetic agenda, and finally discovers another pharmaceutically engendered uber-genius out to save the world.
  • “None So Blind” finds Joe Haldeman (one of my favorite authors) telling a love story of sorts about an odd couple whose love begets an experimental surgery that turns regular folks into geniuses. And all they need to do is give up their eyes.
  • “Border Guards,” by Greg Egan (another author I've always liked), poses a good challenge to the McKibbenses of the world with their argument that death gives our lives meaning and dignity. Egan asks the simple question, "is that true?" If we could find a way to get rid of death once and for all, would it be fair to our children not to do so?
  • “A History of the Human and Post-Human Species,” by Geoffrey A. Landis, was my favorite story, I think. It is found in the epilogue, and constitutes a "scientific" abstract covering all the speciation and evolution, engineered and naturally selected, that facing the human race in the next few million years. Intelligent species arise after humans, but none achieve spaceflight, and in a final twist reminiscent of Dougal Dixon's Man After Man, posthuman descendants of Terrestrial colonists on Mars return to Earth in the far future, with no memory of their original connection.

No comments: