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Top 25 Post Human Science Fiction Books

Best Post Human Science Fiction Reads

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.

The best way to start is by diving in at the deep end, and when it comes to posthumanity you wont find deeper. Uploaded personalities, clones, advanced technologies, extraordinary developments in biology, a person born with no parents: what can it possibly mean to be human in among all of this? When even humans who have been enhanced so that they can live longer or live under water are looked upon as rather old fashioned, we are in a future where posthumanity has become more established and more diverse than us.

The result is a dazzling, at times confusing display of the different ways of being human that technology and biology might open up to us.

Why it tops the list:

No-one writing science fiction is more alive to the ideas of posthumanity than Egan. He approaches the idea, sometimes tangentially sometimes directly, in a lot of his work, including Permutation City, Distress and Schilds Ladder; but nowhere does he deal with the subject so directly and with such startling invention as he does in Diaspora.

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And if Diaspora is one of the most developed works of posthumanity, this is probably the first. Wells brings ideas of Darwinian evolution squarely into science fiction, and uses it to cast a caustic light upon ideas of human development and Victorian social policy.

A Victorian gentleman travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future and finds two distinct races, the childlike Eloi and the dark, chthonic Morlocks who prey on them, while the learning and wisdom of humanity is dust. Only gradually does he discover the two races are the descendants of humanity, effete aristocrats on the one hand, workers driven into a subterranean existence on the other (Wellss novella, A Story of the Days to Come, illustrates this coming about). Its a chilling condemnation of Victorian industrial policy and a revelatory account of how evolution has not finished with humankind.

Why its on the list:

Evolution is one of the most important themes in science fiction, and the key to the whole notion of posthumanity, and it all begins here.

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Almost as important as Greg Egans work in describing posthumanity is Bruce Sterlings sequence of Mechanist and Shaper stories in which posthumanity is divided between those who use mechanical means to augment the human body and those who use biology to shape the body. And that sequence reaches a glorious climax in this novel.

The novel follows two one-time friends who become bitter enemies in the on-going battle between the Mechanist and Shaper factions to control the Solar System. In a novel filled with betrayals, assassinations, battles, alien encounters and much more, the central story concerns the constant reimagining of what it is to be human and still cope with the wildly varying conditions of life throughout the universe.

Why its on the list:

To some extent, all four of the routes to posthumanity come into play in this novel, which is a vast, panoramic vision of what humanity may become in space.

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This huge, panoramic novel takes us from the present, where we First Men are confined to Earth, to the 18th Men of the far distant future. In between we see evolution and technology produce incredible changes on the nature of humanity, as different forms of humankind rise and fall, adapt for life on other worlds, take on extraordinary new shapes, destroy themselves and rise from the ashes.

No other work in the entire history of science fiction has such an extraordinary sweep, taking the story of mankind onward over millennia after millennia, and out across the solar system.

Why its on the list:

This is simply the most comprehensive, the most gobsmacking, the most awesome account of posthumanity you are ever likely to encounter.

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When the Earth is destroyed, the only hope for human life is in the form of the alien Oankali, who have rescued a precious few survivors. But will humans cope with having to interbreed with the repulsive-seeming aliens, and what hybrid form will appear as a result?

Over the three novels, Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago, Butler explores the conflicts that arise from the human relationship with the Oankali, and between the human survivors and the hybrid children.

Why its on the list:

Exogamy, the marriage between human and alien, has never been more thoroughly explored than in this trilogy.

Books in Xenogenesis Series (3)

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If Xenogenesis explores the emergence of posthumanity through exogamy, Blood Music explores it through infection.

A renegade biotechnologist faces having his research shut down, so he injects himself with the noocytes he has created. These are biological computers that quickly multiply inside his body, and then become self aware. At first the noocytes improve his health, but in time they dont just take over the researcher, but everyone else they can infect, until the whole of North America becomes one biosphere.

Why its on the list:

Expanded from an original novelette that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Blood Music is both a terrifying and an exhilarating account of how something so small can have such a monumental effect.

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For as long as we have had the technology to do so, we have attempted to improve our own bodies, from pulling teeth to using glasses to correct poor eyesight. But how far can such technological change go, and how will it affect what makes us human?

When the cold war threatens to turn hot, the push to colonise Mars is accelerated, and one man is gradually turned into a cyborg in order to withstand the pressures of life on the red planet. His body is enhanced, and changed, his ability to process sensory information is radically altered. But with every new improvement to his own body, he becomes more and more detached from humanity. Only when he gets to Mars does his new body make sense to him, but by then he is totally separated from everything that made him human.

Why its on the list:

Transforming our bodies is one of the common themes of science fiction, but this novel, which won the Nebula Award, shows the human cost of that transformation better than any other.

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Like both Blood Music and Man Plus, The Ship Who Sang deals with the transformation of one persons body in a way that comes close to horror. But this novel, a fix-up of six linked stories, transforms the horror into delight.

Helva is born into a world where the severely disabled are liable to be euthanised, but because her brain is fully developed she has the chance to become a shell person. Her body is further broken and crammed into a titanium shell, which she will never be able to survive outside, and her brain is then connected directly to computers. She is then placed in a spaceship, a brainship, which she controls, discovering a freedom and ability that her body would never otherwise have known.

M. John Harrison includes an overt reference to The Ship Who Sang in the character of Seria Mau in his novel Light.

Why its on the list:

This is another example of the way direct interface between human and computer can open the way for a host of new posthuman possibilities.

Books in Brainship Series (6)

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There was a period when science fiction tended to refer to the next stage in human evolution as homo superior, and one of the ways of achieving this state was through a gestalt, a number of individuals working as one. The idea is there, for instance, in The Inner Wheel by Keith Roberts, but its most successful expression was probably in this novel by Theodore Sturgeon.

Through three linked stories, we follow the development of a gestalt, starting with a loner with telepathic abilities who begins to gather odd children around him. When he dies, a sociopath takes over the group, but in the last story an air force engineer who has been locked in an insane asylum becomes the groups conscience, and so completes the homo gestalt.

Why its on the list:

The novel, which won the International Fantasy Award, is perhaps Sturgeons masterpiece, a brilliant account of how the collective outweighs the individual, and opens up new ways for human development.

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Ever since the computer became a fixture in the ordinary life of every one of us, it has been one of the most potent images in the idea of posthumanity. Whether it is flesh and blood humans interfacing directly with computers, or the essence of our individuality being rendered in digital form, the computer has become the key to posthumanity. And no one has rendered the process that gets us from here to there with as much detail and conviction as Charles Stross does in this extraordinary novel.

Through a series of linked stories, the novel takes us from the near future, where everyone is permanently connected to the internet (so much so that when the heros memories are stolen he has difficulty finding out who he is), to alien contact aboard a spaceship the size of a Coke can where the crew are stored as digital information, to a point where the planets of the solar system are dismantled to form a vast solar-powered computer to provide a digital home for infinitely more advanced intelligences than humanity.

Why its on the list:

Winner of the Locus Award, this is one of the very best accounts of a digital future.

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Practically all of Cordwainer Smiths fiction belongs within a future history that starts just a few years from now and extends for tens of thousands of years into the future. At the heart of this, and the core of his very best work, was the Instrumentality of Mankind, the body that ruled an elegant, utopian realm that extended across space. But what makes these stories interesting in posthuman terms is the Underpeople. These are genetically enhanced animals, such as the cat-derived CMell in The Ballad of Lost CMell or the dog-derived DJoan in The Dead Lady of Clown Town, which are originally treated as slaves, but gradually revolt and win their freedom. By the time we come to the stories set furthest in the future, they are fully integrated into the social order.

Why its on the list:

One of the persistent themes of posthuman fiction is that the future does not belong to humankind. Time and again we are shown that something else will replace man, or at least share the world with our descendants. This may be robots or AIs, or, as here, it may be evolved or enhanced animals. And nobody has shown those enhanced animals with as much elegance and delight as Cordwainer Smith.

Books in Instrumentality ... Series (6)

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If Last and First Men is the most spectacular, panoramic view of the future of life in our Solar System, Evolution runs it a close second.

It begins 65 million years in the past, with early mammals struggling to survive in Africa; it ends 500 million years in the future, after the extinction of human life, with the beginnings of machine sentience. In between, we witness the course of evolution, both brutal and uplifting, with the death of the dinosaurs, the rise of the Neanderthals, the first tentative explorations of Mars, the consequences of genetic engineering, and the spread of replicator machines taking Humanitys legacy throughout the Universe.

Why its on the list:

Whatever we may think, the forces of evolution are always likely to be the most important driver in creating what comes after humanity, even if we give evolution a little genetic and mechanical help. And this is a spectacular account of the forces involved.

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In the far future, humanity has split into the Unevolved and the Augmented. The latter have been forged by biotechnology into forms that allow them to live anywhere, including acting as their own spaceship. It seems there is nothing they cannot do, no environment they cannot conquer, and when they encounter a solar system with seemingly abandoned alien technology, the Augmented plan to claim it as their own. Only then do they discover that the technology is far from abandoned; they have encountered an even more advanced form of life, one that is intent on subsuming them into its own Unity.

Why its on the list:

Natural History, along with its sequel, Living Next Door to the God of Love, offer an idiosyncratic and pyrotechnic account of humanity coming to terms with ever greater powers (including a pocket universe where New York contains genuine superheroes whats not to like!).

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One persistent aspect of posthuman science fiction is that the future may not belong to humanity. It might be our creations, robots, that inherit the Earth; or it may be another creature that evolves to take over our ecological niche.

Both appear in Simaks best work. As humanity becomes ever more isolated and eventually dies out, their robot servants become ever more important, until it is the robots who eventually lead the few surviving humans to a new world. Meanwhile, it is the dogs left behind who build up a new, more peaceful civilisation, and whose stories about the near-mythical humans form the substance of this book. And all along, the ants are building up their own industrialised society.

Why its on the list:

The winner of the International Fantasy Award, City expresses a view common in the science fiction immediately after the Second World War that humanity would never be able to get along peacefully together. The idea that others might take our place is therefore a hopeful vision of the future.

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As we have seen in books like Man Plus, one way to achieve posthumanity is to remake ourselves in a new form. But experimenting upon ourselves in that way comes at a cost for the subject of that experiment; it also reveals something unpleasant about those carrying out the experiment.

Phoenix is the subject of such an experiment. Her development has been artificially accelerated, so although she is only two years old, she has the body and mind of an adult. She has been raised in Tower 7, and is quite happy there until her best friend discovers something and dies. Phoenix breaks out of the Tower, and as she slowly begins to realise her awesome powers (she has wings, she bursts into flame, she dies and is reborn), so she also uncovers the sinister motives of those who created and imprisoned her.

Why its on the list:

Like a strange mix of traditional oral storytelling and modern superhero adventures, with a powerful postcolonial subtext, this is the most extraordinary recent novel about the costs of creating a posthuman.

Books in Who Fears Death Series (1)

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The play that introduced the word robot into the language, is also the play that introduced the idea of a robot uprising.

The robots, closer to androids than the metal beings they later became, start out being happy to work for their creators, usually in factories where their labour has become an absolutely essential part of the global economy. But at the same time, humans become less important and the human birth rate starts to decline. Eventually, as the robots become more self-aware, they revolt, demanding their freedom, and in the process wipe out humanity.

Why its on the list:

R.U.R. has a vitally important place in the history of science fiction, and an equally important place in the development of posthumanism. It is here, in this play, that we first encounter the idea that humankind might create its own successors.

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Award Nominations:1976 NEBULA

Also published as Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, the novel was conceived as a response to Ursula K. Le Guins Ambiguous Utopia, The Dispossessed. But at the core of the utopian society that Delany presents is the posthuman idea that people can make themselves whatever they want.

The technology available on Triton allows individuals to take whatever form they wish. It is easy for people to change gender, change their physical appearance, their sexual orientation, even their personal tastes. Given that the government on Triton has no powers to control personal behaviour, the chance to be who and what you wish, and to try other genders is the key to the utopian society.

Why its on the list:

By freeing people from the limitations of how they are born, the ability to change oneself that is at the heart of Triton is an important step on the way to posthumanity.

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It was in the isolated environment of the Galapagos Islands that Charles Darwin made the observations that were crucial to the development of his ideas of natural selection, and it is on the Galapagos Islands that another epic of evolution is played out.

A small, mismatched group of people are shipwrecked on one of the Galapagos Islands just as the world economy collapses, and when a subsequent disease renders all humans infertile, this group are the only ones unaffected. The novel then follows their descendants over the next million years as they evolve into small, furry creatures with flipperlike hands and a smaller brain located in a streamlined skull better shaped for swimming and catching fish. Since Vonnegut acerbically maintains that the biggest problems human beings face are caused by their over-large brain, this is clearly meant to be a happy ending.

Why its on the list:

One of the consistent threads in a lot of posthuman science fiction is the idea that humanity as we know it is not the end point of evolution, and we have no right to consider ourselves the natural inheritors of the future. But the idea has rarely been expressed with the sour wit on display here.

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Frederik Pohls Man Plus is, to say the least, ambiguous about the benefits of cyborgisation. But that is not how most people see it. The most popular examples of the idea are from film and television, specifically from films like Robocop and from television programmes like The Six Million Dollar Man. This last was based on Martin Caidins novel, Cyborg, and it suggests that the biotechnology used to rebuild Steve Austin after a near-fatal crash effectively turns him into a superman.

Like Nnedi Okorafors The Book of Phoenix, novels like Cyborg bring posthuman fiction close to superhero fiction, but with fewer caveats. Prosthetic limbs in real life might be a fairly poor substitute for the real thing, but in fiction they give us unbelievable strength and speed. Cameras and radio transmitters can be integrated into the body, other devices might make us immune to injury. To make us posthuman is to make us superior in every way.

Why its on the list:

Quite simply, Cyborg and its television offshoot made everyone aware of one form of posthumanity.

Books in Six Million Doll... Series (10)

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Award Nominations:1998 BSFA

Of course, we like to imagine that we wont change; but nothing is going to stop the environment around us changing, and that is inevitably going to have an effect upon us. That is the theme of Kathleen Ann Goonans Nanotech Quartet, beginning with Queen City Jazz.

Nanotechnology has changed everything. The countryside has been devastated by nan plagues, while cities have been transformed in extraordinary ways that are beautiful and threatening at the same time. In Cincinnati, where the novel is set, the skyscrapers have been transformed into nan flowers, with huge bees carrying information between them. You cannot live in that world and not be changed.

Why its on the list:

One of the simplest approaches to posthumanity is just adopting to an ever-changing environment; and by situating her heroine within a radically transformed environment, Goonan offers a radically different way of functioning as a human.

Books in Nanotech Series (4)

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Cyberpunk, despite its interest in body modifications and computer interfaces, was never really concerned with the posthuman. But occasionally a cyberpunk work would start probing towards the posthuman, raising issues that clearly pointed in that direction. One such was Fools.

It is set in a world in which memories can be bought and sold, and hence what goes on in the mind is separated from the body. This obviously raises key questions about the nature of identity and what it is that makes us human, and it is this that makes Fools a harbinger of the posthuman. When one character starts to play host to memories that are not her own, she finds herself at war within herself.

Why its on the list:

Fools won Cadigans second Arthur C. Clarke Award. Its a novel in which the digitising of the mind, the fluidity of memory, open the way for the sort of digitised future that has become one of the common features of posthuman sf.

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There was a time when the arrival of a new form of human, a homo superior as they tended to be called, would be signalled by the appearance of a sport, an oddity, someone with talents or abilities way beyond the ordinary, but usually in these stories someone to be pitied rather than admired. Such unlikely characters appear in Another World by J.-H. Rosny or Odd John by Olaf Stapledon, or, later, novels like Slan by A.E. Van Vogt; but one of the first and still one of the most interesting was this novel by the little-known English writer, J.D. Beresford.

The Wonder is a child born with greatly enhanced mental abilities. To give room for his larger and more powerful brain, his head is somewhat deformed, which inevitably results in his being tormented by the other children of the village. But his mental powers mean that he feels himself superior to the lesser beings around him, so the isolation works both ways. In the end, his intelligence leads him to reject religion, and thus, it is implied, he is murdered by a jealous clergyman.

Why its on the list:

Beresford was himself slightly deformed and the son of a clergyman, so the suggestion is that there is an autobiographical element to the book. Be that as it may, it is a wonderful account of the isolation of a superior child.

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Awards Won:1988 HUGO
Award Nominations:1989 NEBULA

As we have seen, in works such as Man Plus and The Ship Who Sang, body modification is often associated with making people fit to work in particular, usually hazardous, circumstances such as space. And, in R.U.R. or The Book of Phoenix, we see that people who have been made are often regarded as chattels, as possessions with no rights, until they revolt. Both those strands in posthuman fiction emerge in Bujolds Falling Free.

This is the story of the Quaddies. These are a special space labour force who have been manufactured to have a second pair of arms instead of legs, so that they are superbly adapted to work in zero gravity. But they are regarded as no better than slaves by the company that owns them; legally, they are not even classified as human. So when a new artificial gravity technology renders them irrelevant, the company plans to kill them all, until one man helps them to escape.

Why its on the list:

In a later novel, Diplomatic Immunity, Bujold shows that a couple of centuries later the Quaddies have a thriving society, so once again we see that biotechnology has created a new form of viable humanity.

Books in Vorkosigan Series (15)

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The Belgian writer, who used the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny an, was possibly the leading continental rival to H.G. Wells, producing a string of vivid and inventive short novels. This one, for example, is set in a distant future when human life on Earth is coming to an end. The whole planet has become a desert, and small isolated communities huddle around any rare source of water. But they are only too aware that the water they have cannot last for long, and their whole life is built around conserving what little they have and seeking out any new source.

But while human existence is in decline, out on the horizon something new, mysterious and menacing is stirring. The ferromagnetals are a barely comprehensible form of metallic life that has developed spontaneously and may even be achieving sentience, and they are getting ready to inherit the Earth.

Why its on the list:

This was one of the first stories to suggest that any posthuman life may not be human at all; it is also perhaps unique in positing a form of metallic life that has not initially been manufactured by humankind.

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Award Nominations:2009 LocusSF

Strictly speaking, Bankss Culture novels have nothing to do with posthumanity, since the humans of Earth are no part of the Culture, and many of the novels are actually theoretically set in our past. Nevertheless, the dominant biological race within the Culture is human, and many of the themes and ideas of posthumanity that we have laid out in this list emerge seamlessly in these novels.

Thus machine intelligence, the AIs or Minds that control the ships and orbitals of the Culture, is fully part of Culture society. The body is no longer a restriction: as in Triton, people can and do change gender at will. Body modifications, as in Man Plus, are commonplace, and can be very imaginative: in Matter one character has taken on the appearance of a bush. As in Diaspora or Accelerando humans interface with machines constantly, personalities can be downloaded readily, and digital storage is one way that Culture citizens have developed to avoid death. And, as in Natural History, at the end of the day there is the prospect of Subliming, of being translated into an 11-dimensional state of existence and leaving the Real behind.

Why its on the list:

Without it ever being the focus of any of the novels, every volume in the Culture sequence is filled with images that are familiar from posthuman science fiction. In other words, the Culture makes the posthuman normal.

Books in Culture Series (10)

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