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Exploring Posthumanity in Science Fiction

By / February 16, 2016 / no comments

So, I’ve just done a list of best posthuman sf for the main site. This was my introduction:

In 1859, prompted by the similar ideas being developed by Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin finally published On the Origin of Species, perhaps the most revolutionary book in the history of modern civilisation. The notion of evolution had been around for a long time, but now there was a mechanism for evolution, and with that came an understanding of the way it affected every living thing on Earth. Well, for some it did. For a lot of people there was an assumption that humanity marked an evolutionary peak, specifically that there could be nothing higher on the evolutionary scale than a Victorian Englishman.

But H.G. Wells, who had studied for a while at the Normal School of Science under Darwin’s disciple, T.H. Huxley, recognised that evolution was an unending process, and in his first novel, The Time Machine, introduced a future humanity that had divided into two separate and antagonistic species, the Morlocks and the Eloi. For the first time, science fiction raised the question of what might come after humanity as we know it today.

To be fair, the vast majority of the science fiction that followed over the next 100 or so years didn’t give the question a second thought. There are countless stories set in the immensely distant future in which the characters are indistinguishable from whoever we might have encountered in a mid-20th century American city. But some have asked what comes next if we are not the end, enough to make a substantial if sometimes disturbing list.

Basically, there are four answers to the question of what comes next. 1: Evolution; following on from Wells, a few writers have considered how we might be changed by the natural processes of time. 2: Usurpation; there is a large body of work that simply assumes that humanity will die out, will kill itself, or will be killed by others, and the Earth will be taken over by another race, whether ants or robots. 3: Alteration; by far the most common assumption is that we will simply change ourselves to suit different circumstances. After all, this is something we already do, from artificial limbs to hearing aids, from pacemakers to dialysis machines, so it seems like a natural not to say inevitable progression. The only issue is whether the alteration is mechanical, biological or digital. 4: Exogamy; the final route, which is not really as common as you might expect, involves some form of merger with the alien, whether willingly (marriage) or unwillingly (infection).

All of these four approaches to posthumanity are represented in the following selection of novels. Some are set long after the moment of change, by which time the posthumans are familiar and unexceptional; some leave us with no more than a harbinger of change, a hint of what might follow; and some attempt to convey some of the processes involved in that change. But all assure us that you and I and everyone we see around us is not the end of the story.

Then I happened upon this old list from i09, The Essential Posthuman Science Fiction Reading List.

It’s interesting to compare the lists. There are five works that appear on both lists, and another five authors that I picked for different works. And there are a couple of works on the i09 list that I would have included if my list had been a little longer: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, for example, plus a couple of short stories that I would have included if I hadn’t limited myself to novels (“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree Jr is the prime example here).

But there are works on this list that I just wouldn’t consider posthuman at all; and I’ll lay odds there are works on my list about which they feel the same.

I guess we just don’t know what “posthuman” actually means – and that is probably inevitable.


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