Publications and Research

Document Type

Book Chapter or Section

Publication Date

2016

Abstract

Literary and cultural critics call science fiction the premiere story form of modernity because it relates the adventures of educated men and women who use science and technology to reshape the material world and build new, hopefully better societies. As such, it is no surprise that many authors working in this popular genre explore how educated men and women might use science and technology to reshape the physical body and build new, hopefully better versions of humanity itself. Yet, lingering even in the most optimistic imaginings of a posthuman future is the doubt that these transformations will be evenly distributed or desired. In the first part of this essay, Yaszek and Ellis show how the stories of nineteenth century proto science fiction authors such as Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne responded to the founding principles of the emergent modern scientific community--especially as they pertained to the treatment of human subjects--with stories about the often-disastrous results of scientific experiments designed to alter human bodies and life processes. In the second part of this essay, Yaszek and Ellis explore how early and mid-twentieth-century sf writers responded to the ascendancy of engineering and cybernetics and early attempts to seize control over evolution itself with stories about part-organic, part-technological cyborgs. While authors such as C.L. Moore and directors such as Fred McLeod Wilcox generally treated individual cyborg characters sympathetically, they also depicted them as one-off, isolated beings created before their time had really come. Finally, Yaszek and Ellis demonstrate how new technologies of simulation and replication have engendered a wide range of stories about the meaning and value of post humanity over the past 50 years. Beginning with New Wave sf, Philip K. Dick and other sf writers leveraged psychopharmacology and the neurosciences to explore how various technologies transform the inner space of the human mind to make humanity more like machines and our posthuman offspring more like humanity. Later, with the exponentially progressing developments in personal computing, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering, sf shifted to ask how these sciences and technologies might remake humanity. On the one hand, cyberpunk tales by artists including William Gibson and the Wachowskis explore the promises and perils of disembodied virtual life, while on the other hand post singularity stories such as those created by Charles Stross consider how infinite life extension might change our understanding of humanity as well. Meanwhile, science fiction writers associated with various social justice movements, including feminist Joanna Russ, Afrofuturist Octavia Butler, and environmentalist Kim Stanley Robinson, ask readers to think about how allying ourselves with the post human (and even nonhuman) might produce new modes of psychological and social organization that do a better job of securing justice for all than earlier, human-oriented modes of civil rights activism.

Comments

This chapter was originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini.

 
 

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