Transhumanist Science Fiction: The Most Important Genre The World Has Ever Seen? (An Interview with David Simpson)
Science fiction has been part of creative literature for several centuries, with the genre having come into modern form in the early 19th century. Unbeknownst to the casual reader perhaps, the role of science fiction in society has changed to some extent over this period of time, with new styles, mediums and subgenres developing, each with differing goals and appeals.
Exploring possible future technologies and their implications is only one aspect of the science fiction genre, but in regards to this facet writer and futurist Dr. Thomas Lombardo has said that science fiction “speaks to the total person about the future”, believing that it “resonates with all the fundamental dimensions of the human mind and human experience”. While science fiction fans may immediately grasp this sentiment and concur, I think it begs the question: why, if it does indeed address human identity in a deep and holistic way, has the genre (in written form in particular) always been somewhat of a marginalized interest? I don’t believe there is an easy answer to this question, but I suspect that in some ways science fiction literature has failed to seem pertinent or accessible to a more mainstream audience.
If technological development follows the paths predicted by futurists, however, and continues to become something more critically and meaningfully integrated with our lives, it seems reasonable to suggest that creative explorations of the relationship between technology, science and humanity in the future will come to be perceived as more and more vital. That is to say that Lombardo’s statement may be true, but only to those who can somehow be invested in the narratives, which implies that the genre itself, and those works exploring transhumanist ideas specifically, may be poised to become much more broadly salient.
I explore this and related ideas with David Simpson, science fiction author, transhumanist, and award-winning English literature teacher. David’s science fiction work is of unique interest to transhumanists in that his Post-Human series (which include the novels Sub-Human, Post-Human, Trans-Human, Human Plus, and Inhuman) is centered on the topics and interests of transhumanists. David is also currently working with producers to turn the Post-Human series into a major motion picture, which can be tracked on the Post-Human Facebook page. David’s thoughts on science fiction give me much optimism and enthusiasm for what has yet to come in this genre, and I look forward very much to the movie adaptation of his books.
Nikki: Both the World Transhumanist Association (now H+) and the Wikipedia entry “Transhumanism in Fiction” provide lists of what can be considered “Transhumanist science fiction”. Also, Wiley’s “The Science Fiction Handbook” describes a subgenre called “Posthuman” which includes many of the same authors and titles. Being a science fiction author and transhumanist yourself, as well as a teacher of literature, what would you say are some of the central characteristics of this subgenre?
David: Transhumanist or Posthuman science fiction’s days as only a sub-genre are numbered, because as I argued fervently in my recent Foreword to The Robot Chronicles, transhumanist/singularity science fiction is the most important genre of literature that there is, not just in science fiction, but in fiction in general. That might sound shocking for someone to hear or read at first, but I agree with Ray Bradbury, who said that science fiction is the history of our species birthing itself, and we’ve entered a moment in history where the science has outstripped the fiction in most instances, with most visions of the future in popular science fiction being way too conservative, and as Arthur C. Clarke would surely echo, “laughably” so. Even my Post-Human series has to be somewhat conservative, because it’s not possible, by definition, to write a post-singularity book, since the author would have to be mentally enhanced to do so. So we’re left with this brief but incredibly important moment in history where we can imagine the few decades left before strong artificial intelligence is achieved and humans begin to literally merge with technology. And that’s the central characteristic of transhumanist/singularity science fiction: one or more characters have to be either in the process of merging with technology or dealing with that merger in some way. It opens up a whole universe of possibilities!
Nikki: There are many popular science fiction books and films involving transhumanist ideas that are heavily didactic, in particular involving the intersection of politics, economics and technology (most recently in film, for instance, Elysium) as well human-medical advancements such as genetic engineering (ex. Gattaca). To some extent, these books and films, however unrealistic or infeasible they can be, do seem to end up having a deep impact on opinions held regarding future technology, and so possibly carry over in their impact into how the future actually plays out to some extent. How do you see your own goals and books fitting into this picture?
David: Joseph Conrad said that the job of an author was to “make you see,” and I agree whole-heartedly, but I think making readers aware of something and telling them what to think are two entirely different things. I don’t ever want to tell a reader to have a certain opinion, which is why I think the Post-Human series is so ridiculously popular (it’s had nearly 100,000 downloads on Amazon since March!) because I don’t treat anyone’s preconceived notions as “uneducated” or ignorant. The series is very accessible and I think that’s a credit to my training in epistemology. There are characters expressing just about every opinion you can think of in the series and they all get their chance to make their respective cases, which is why I think the series is described, time and time again, as “thought-provoking.” A character might seem evil in one book, and later in the series he or she seems to be a lone hero, sacrificing themselves for a greater good. The truth is, transhumanist/singularity literature is about the most important thing there is, which is the future of our species and of intelligence itself, and as Kurzweil will tell you, intelligence is the most powerful thing in the universe. As we talk about building strong AI and merging with it, we have to admit that the stakes are huge, as nothing less than the continued existence of intelligence in the known universe is on the line. It’s the greatest subject a novelist, screenwriter, or storyteller of any kind could have to write about and I count myself lucky to be at the forefront of it. And I think the success of the Post-Human series is evidence that the general population is figuring this out too and they’re hungry for stories that are about this new, fresh vision of a future that is much more likely to be relevant than the old visions with galactic senates and humanity unable to cure male pattern baldness even after having had access to advanced technology and medicine for hundreds or thousands of years! The reality of science has changed, so our understanding and vision of the future needs to change with it. What an exciting time!
Nikki: The recent film “Transcendence” is a major motion picture that details many aspects (“hard” and “soft”) of the “uploading” phenomenon (and aftermath) as has been most rigorously discussed in transhumanist writing/discussion. I found there to be something very familiar to the dialogue in the film, as though it could have been extracted directly from discussions between transhumanists. What value do you see in such authenticity? Could fidelity to transhumanist futurism ever be widely regarded as sought after value in sf media? How do you yourself balance the challenge of resonating with transhumanist interests while creating something captivating for both a science fiction and more general audience?
David: I think the surprising popularity of the Post-Human series is clear evidence that transhumanism is ready for prime time as far as the general audience is concerned. These ideas are still new to a general audience, but the world has shifted beneath their feet, and people who would’ve called you loopy just five years ago if you predicted that you’d be able to talk to your phone and it would talk back to you are now starting to see that the future isn’t what they thought it would be. I think the acceleration of information technology is something that people who aren’t experts now sense and accept, and the number of people who realize that our visions of the future need to be updated is greater than most people realize. I’m in the privileged position of receiving mountains of emails from these people daily, so I get to talk to the underestimated masses directly, and believe me, people get it. Hollywood is having some trouble, because big budget movies need to have proven track records now to justify the risk, which is why we see these reboots and remakes and science fiction in film and popular culture is having a hard time adapting, but it’s really not the fault of the people. Like most fans, I can’t wait to see the next Star Wars, because the stories are so great and there is something to be said for nostalgia, but I certainly won’t and can’t take it seriously as a vision of the real future (and in fairness to George Lucas, Star Wars was supposed to be a classic throwback to Flash Gordon even when it was new in the 70’s). We’re still missing our updated vision of the future in popular science fiction film to feed this hunger viewers have for something that’s more accurate, but I’m working on changing that.
Nikki: Science fiction in print (not including literature of other literary genres borrowing characteristics of science fiction) has always been viewed as a more marginalized and/or hobbyist interest, attracting certain personality types but remaining largely unappealing to a more general audience. However, as I have noticed, the transhumanist culture has grown quite a bit over the past 5 years, and in general, casual conversations, more and more, seem to include perspectives on the role of technology in our lives today, and where it may be going. How do you envision the landscape of interest in science fiction evolving? And, could it be that Transhumanist science fiction is in a position to become, or even already has to some extent become, the most popular form of science fiction?
David: Yep, Nikki, you hit it right on the head. As I mentioned above, there has been a huge change in people’s attitudes in a very short period of time, but what’s really unique is that it has been driven by science fact, rather than science fiction. If you think about many science fiction movies in the 80’s, for instance, you’ll see these huge space ships that are supposed to be flying in the late twenty-first century, but they have computer screens that look like they were on the space shuttles. I think part of that strategy was to keep people’s suspension of disbelief in check, as not many would’ve bought floating holographic flat screens back then, but now that flat screens and holograms have become reality, anyone with a vacuum tube screen in their science fiction movie would look ridiculous. I had this in mind when I first started writing Post-Human back in 2005 and, being heavily influence by Marshal McLuhan, I was trying to think outside the box and envisioned the idea of a “mind’s eye,” which is an on board mental computer that is controlled by the user’s thoughts. Last month, I watched a video where researches had combined Google Glass with MindRDR, which is a program that measures brainwaves and allows users to control the device with their mind. When people see things like that for real, they expect their science fiction to keep up, and I’m just lucky that Post-Human was ahead of the game (a little bit…science moves fast!) Google also patented contact lenses with cameras back in 2012, but the patent was only published in April. EU Project Space Radiation Superconductive Shield is working on generating magnetic fields to protect astronauts (fans of the series will know why that’s relevant) and I had a shocked outpouring of emails from readers when suspended animation was approved for clinical trials recently, as I think many readers didn’t realize I’d been reading about DARPA’s research on suspended animation body bags and knew it was close to fruition when I included it in Sub-Human. People are just going to get hungrier and hungrier for stories that can depict a vision of the future that fits with what they are seeing in reality, and I think this brief period we’ve had of post-apocalyptic dystopias dominating the landscape is about to come to an end. Post-apocalypse, though fun and eternal (as we can always have an apocalypse) is a bit overdone lately. It’s so much more interesting to explore what’s really on the horizon! Get ready for your upgrade.
Nikki: Thank you David for taking the time to share your insights!
Nikki Olson, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a transhumanist writer/researcher Involved in Singularity research for 4 years as a full-time research assistant, she worked on an upcoming book about the Singularity, aided in the development of the University of Alberta course “Technology and the Future of Medicine”, and produced educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation. She attained a bachelor’s degree in 2007 at University of Alberta, Canada, in Philosophy and Sociology.