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Making Sense of Wonder
Extraterrestrial Colonisation by Post-Human SF Fans
by David Sivier
One of the recurrent themes in much speculative SF is the use of specially adapted varieties of humans in the colonisation of space. These new forms of humanity arise, not through the slow Darwinian process of natural selection and genetic drift, but by the conscious use of genetic engineering and cybernetics. One of the first novels to explore this theme was Olaf Stapledon's monumental Last And First Men, published in 1930. An encyclopaedic future history of the 16 human species to arise and populate the Solar system, it can in retrospect also be seen as one of the first literary explorations of the post- or trans-human condition, an issue which has recently taken on a pressing urgency with the development of advances in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and prosthesis which may produce a new generation of children radically different from their parents. Stapledon, writing in an era before the birth of molecular biology, considered such intentional speciation would arise from 'manipulation of the foetus'. The central concept - the artificial re-engineering of human biological material - is the same, however, doubtful the technical details are to generations raised after Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA. It's an intoxicating, epic, prophetic novel, which came at the beginning of a decade that would see the Nazi regime in Germany trying to put such notions of a specially bred homo faber into brutal eugenic reality.
Despite the atrocities of the Nazi regime, the idea of the development of such post-human species to colonise the Solar system still remained popular, at least in SF. Some times these discussions have focussed on the terrifying psychological and sociological harm such a policy could cause, such as Bob Shaw's Medusa's Children (1977). More recently it has been framed as a celebration of these technologies' potential for immense biological and cultural diversity. It's a complete repudiation of the Nazi past, an absolute inversion of the usual aims of such breeding programmes. Just as the advocates of Martian colonisation invert the logic of previous imperialist expansion by stressing the opportunities to create a new, vibrant culture against the increasing homogeneity of terrestrial civilisations, so some of the more recent science fictional treatments of extraterrestrial colonisation also foresee the enrichment of human culture and experience through the emergence of 'clades'; new, daughter species to mankind - a form of post-humanity, growing steadily more diverse. One of the novels which first introduced the term and the concept into the vocabulary of speculative fiction, Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix (1985), based the philosophical foundations of such societies on the theories of entropy and societal development of the Russian physicist, Ilya Prigogine. Although SF, it's actually an accurate statement of present trans-human groups, such as the Extropians and Japanese Otaku, who actively promote the post-human emergence of a fully machine consciousness. These groups are also vociferous advocates of human expansion into space, which they view as the next, logical step in our evolution along with the downloading of human consciousness into intelligent machines, in a manner identical to the racial development of the alien architects of the black monolith in Arthur C. Clarke's novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These post-human groups exist now, keenly interested in space colonisation. There is thus every possibility that the trans-human clades foreseen by Sterling will eventually arise.
It also seems likely that they will be SF fans. The strongest support for the continued exploration of space has always come from the science fiction community. To many historians of science, it was SF fandom that kept the space programme alive despite government cutbacks and the apathy of the general public. Arthur C. Clarke himself noted that the early pioneering membership of the British Interplanetary Society overlapped with the early pioneering readers of 'scientifiction'. As SF fandom has developed, however, its members are no longer quite content with merely writing or discussing the worlds, cultures and beings that inhabit their literature. Many of them actively wish to live out their fantasies and speculation. This isn't a phenomenon confined just to science fiction. The romantic urge to escape into a more colourful, adventurous world is a characteristic of the late 20th- early 21st century. It's the essential raison d'etre of most historical re-enactment groups such as the Sealed Knot and Regia Anglorum. Taken to its logical conclusion, when extended to science fiction this romantic urge to live out these fantasies necessarily leads to the formation of various fan groups in which the members actively try to recreate the cultures and physical appearance of their heroes. As early as the mid-1970s there was the Vulcan embassy, whose members dressed as Vulcans and specialised in particular areas of Vulcan culture. This fascination with Star Trek is not coincidental either. As arguably the world's most popular SF show, with over 50 percent of all Americans describing themselves as fans or viewers of Star Trek, it naturally provides the raw fictional material for a sizable fan milieu wishing to explore the nonhuman identities of its alien characters. The most popular aliens on the show are the Klingons, undoubtedly because they appeal to the same longing for a lost feudal age of romance, honour and violence which animates not just historical fiction and re-enactment, but also contemporary works of fantasy and space opera such as Star Wars and Dune. The Klingon language, invented by linguist Marc Okrand, has overtaken Esperanto as the artificial language with largest number of speakers, and seems to be developing its own literature. There is already a translation of Hamlet published by the Klingon Language Institute. Like SF fans generally, Trekkers are also keen advocates of humanity's destiny in space, a fact that NASA has recognised by naming one of the space shuttles 'Enterprise' after the series' central spaceship. The natural, logical progression for this type of active, passionate fandom is for them to exchange the makeup techniques currently used to transform their appearance for the surgical procedures of body modification to sculpt their features permanently into those of the galaxy's denizens currently inhabiting our cinema and TV screens. Perhaps, when genetic engineering finally comes of age, they will alter their genomes so that they truly become their alien heroes, not just act them out at weekends. If this seems a little farfetched, consider this: one female Trekker writing in one of the fan magazines a decade ago lamented that she could not persuade her husband to have his ears surgically reshaped like Mr Spock's. One hopes she was writing humorously. Nevertheless, there's always someone willing to take that first step. With their keen advocacy of space flight, these new, post-human SF fans will without a shadow of a doubt, travel and establish colonies on the alien worlds now being explored. The first aliens humanity will encounter will be these clades, evolved through generations of natural selection from these first SF romantics. To paraphrase the film slogan for the first Star Trek movie 'the Trans-human Adventure is just beginning'.
tZ - Mutants Season article on mutants in SF and comics
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