Science Fiction

    SF and posthumanism

    Sherryl Vint

     

    Donna Haraway famously pronounced, “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” in her influential “Cyborg Manifesto.”[1] This statement epitomizes the myriad connections between the genre and posthumanism, entwined discourses that ask similar questions about what it means to be human and whether the “human” should be the limit of our ethical obligation. Examples of the posthuman in science fiction (SF) range from enthusiastic embrace of augmented embodiment post the limits of the human form, through mediations on how we might imagine a world post the anthropocentric values of humanism, to fearful depictions of how contemporary technoscientific regimes of genetic modification, neural mapping, nanotechnology and more are fundamentally changing humanity.

    Rosi Braidotti defines the posthuman condition as an “assumption about the vital, self-organizing and yet non-naturalistic structure of living matter itself,” a view that can become the starting point, equally, for “playful experimentations with the boundaries of the perfectible body,” for “moral panic about the disruption of centuries-old belief about human ‘nature,’” or for “exploitative and profit-minded pursuit of genetic and neural capital.”[2] Various traditions in SF materialize all of these scenarios and give voice to political visions from the radical left to the ultra-conservative right. Octavia Butler creates worlds that confront us with the difficult but necessary task of moving beyond homogeneity and anthropocentrism,[3] while the space opera tradition often refuses to accept any end of humanity and imagines our species moving beyond the limits of this finite solar system to colonize the stars.

    The genre inspired transhumanism and many SF texts used to be featured on Extropian reading lists; recently, links to genre origins have been erased as such fantasies seem within the grasp of material practice, with descriptions of anticipated technologies that often read like SF. Organizations such as the 2045 Initiative, Extropy Institute,Humanity+, Singularity University, and the Future of Humanity Institute operate in recognizably SF modes. Publications such as Arc Magazine, an offshoot of New Scientist, and the Twelve Tomorrows collections published by MIT Press[4] demonstrate an increased interest in the SF imagination among those developing technology. Recent SF scholarship refers to the genre as a “kind of awareness … that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction.”[5]

    Links between posthumanist theory and SF are most obvious in the cyberpunk subgenre that imagines fusions of human and machine. Scott Bukatman theorizes this as a kind of “terminal identity” that emerges with the digital, postmodern subject,[6] while Thomas Foster argues that such fictions are a vernacular form of posthumanist theory.[7] Along with Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles has done the most to bring posthumanist themes in SF to the attention of a wider audience.[8] Cyberpunk fiction by authors such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling—whose mechanist/shaper fiction imagines a future split between tech-oriented and biologically based posthumans—Greg Bear, and Pat Cadigan has been crucial to shaping the cultural imaginary that informs posthumanism; especially key is Vernor Vinge, whose “The Coming Technological Singularity” inspired both a subgenre and a subculture. Greg Egan’s philosophical and mathematical speculations on embodiment and consciousness[9] and Paolo Bacigalupi’s environmental fable “The People of Sand and Slag” are powerful extrapolations in this mode.

    Authors who focus on genetic rather than IT technologies include Nancy Kress[10]—who is particularly strong in examining the social consequences of the emergence of the posthuman—Alistair Reynolds, and especially Joan Slonczewski, whose recent Highest Frontier series (2011—) imagines interspecies relations between humans and an alien based on a macroscale version of microbial culture. Much SF also focuses on how material posthuman culture is implicated in the fantasies of a specifically capitalist technoscientific culture, explored most provocatively in the work of Charles Stross[11] and Cory Doctorow.

    Beyond obvious connections to technological posthumanism, SF has long imaged subjectivities beyond the human, value systems premised on systems other than humanism, and the expansion of agency and ethics to non-human actors—participating in a long tradition of challenging what Elaine Graham calls the “ontological hygiene” of Western cultures.[12] Here we might read Bruno Latour’s Aramis as a kind of posthuman SF, and there are myriad examples of SF that focuses on animal protagonists whose sentience is either raised by technology or newly recognized by non-anthropocentric culture.[13]

    Much of this SF, especially the transcendental fantasies of human-machine fusion, remain largely humanist in their frames—imagining an augmented version of the autonomous liberal subject. Equally as much, however, achieves the transformational capacity Cary Wolfe calls “posthumanist posthumanism,”[14] reconceiving not only its subject as posthuman but also transforming the very categories by which subjectivity is comprehensible. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), Ian Wilson’s The Jonah Kit (1975), and Joseph McElroy’s Plus (1977) exemplify different facets of this aptitude. The genre’s chief power is its recognition that the human is only one among countless species, our history only a fragment of the story of the universe.

    Other SF texts illuminate the recent critical interest in extinction theory,[15] in thinking the possibilities of thought after the human, and in what Eugene Thacker calls “the world-without-us.”[16] If at times SF treatment of these themes seems to suggest, in Thacker’s words, that “we are so fixated on the Earth—that is, on ourselves—that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all,”[17] in other ways the genre prompts us to think of life as postanthropocentric. Science fiction can offer us tools for reimagining our world and ourselves in ways that may help us escape the catastrophes of our present, as recent critical work on postcolonial and environmental sf demonstrates.[18]

    — University of California, Riverside, May 2015

    Keywords: singularity; cyberpunk; genetics, animals; Anthropocene

     

    [1] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

    [2] Rosi Braidotti. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

    [3] See especially the Xenogenesis series (1987-1989) and Clay’s Ark (1984).

    [4] Twelve Tomorrows: Visionary Stories of the Near Future Inspired by Today’s Technologies edited by Neal Stephenson (2013) and Twelve Tomorrows: Visionary Stories of the Near Future selected by Bruce Sterling (2014).

    [5] Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 2008.

    [6] Scott Bukatman. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

    [7] Thomas Foster. The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005.

    [8] See especially How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (U of Chicago P, 1999) and My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (U of Chicago P, 2005).

    [9] See especially the collection Axiomatic (1995), Permutation City (1994) and Schild’s Ladder (2002).

    [10] See especially the Sleepless series (1993-1996), Nothing Human (2003) andYesterday’s Kin (2014).

    [11] See especially Stoss’s Accelerando (2005) and Nepture’s Brood (2014), and Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) and Pirate Cinema (2013).

    [12] Elaine Graham. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002.

    [13] See further Sherryl Vint. Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2010.

    [14] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009.

    [15] Claire Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman: Essays on Extinction Open Humanities Press, 2014.

    [16] See In the Dust of this Planet (Zero Books, 2011), Starry Speculative Corpse (Zero Books 2015) and Tentacles Longer than Night (Zero Books 2015).

    [17] Starry Speculative Corpse

    [18] See Eric D. Smith Globalization, Utopia and Postcolonial Science Fiction: New Maps of Hope (Palgrave 2012) and Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (Wesleyan UP, 2014). Relevant theoretical work that draws on sf examples include Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Nature: Science, Environment and the Material Self (Indiana UP 2010) and Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global(Oxford UP 2008).