Humanity is evolving into something different—again. There’s no doubt that we’re at a new tipping point in what it means to be “human,” although it’s now on our technological terms. Whether through genetic manipulation, cyborgization, or joining the World Wide Mind/AI through communication technologies, it’s naïve to think this is just Humanity 2.0. It’s more like Humanity 6.0, if you assume Australopithecus africanus was once the definition of “human.”
I wrote (R)EVOLUTION and its upcoming sequels because this next great change is upon us and I wanted to explore what it might mean. By telling a story, others might empathize and consider the ramifications, too. I grappled with upcoming cognitive technologies designed to reverse our brains’ degeneration and consider what that might mean for the future of humanity.
But it’s more than imagining what it feels like or how it could be used for good or evil. What if you’re the first of your new kind? What reception would one expect to receive from unevolved humans who can be frighteningly tribal and short on empathy for the Other? What are the pernicious effects of loneliness and self-preservation? Does a new definition of humanity demand a new form of society?
SF has followed the theme of human enhancement, with its pluses and perils, from the very beginning. I chose to discuss the classics in the genre (with the most recent published almost 40 years ago), because without the near-term whiz-bang of real technocool evolution at their doorstep, the authors focused on the larger context of meaning. They confronted the ethics and ambiguities of the improved humanity co-existing with the normals and dared to imagine inner lives unlike our own.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Shelley created the empathetic archetype for the enhanced Other: a nameless, manufactured being who was more than human and considered a monster. He was bigger, stronger, faster, more robust—he was even a sympathetic vegetarian!—and he was so smart, he could learn both the best and worst from humanity in a Switzerland Minute. Problem was everyone, including his creator/father, was scared of him. For all Shelley’s attempts to promulgate Romantic era ideology, her big takeaway was parent abandonment and isolation creates monsters, not hubris-filled scientists.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
In Heinlein’s masterpiece, being a human born on Mars and raised by Martians makes one more than human. Unlike the loneliness of the other protagonists noted here, Valentine Michael Smith can’t get away from all the people who want a piece of him and his wealth, superpowers, sex appeal, empathy or Martianity. His unique point of view revealed new ways to assess our civilization’s approach to relationships, sex, religion, and social structures. Everything we took for granted could be redesigned to improve our lives, if we could only grok it.
Man Plus by Frederik Pohl
In another “Martians-are-more-than-human” story, an astronaut is transformed into a mostly-mechanical cyborg to live on Mars as the first Martian. In anticipation that the rest of humankind may have to follow him into the solar system to survive, Roger Torraway’s new body must be smarter, faster, nimbler and adapted to consume solar energy. Pohl demonstrated that the physical body dictates psychological destiny. As Roger becomes less human and more his own species, his existential crisis exposes the loneliness and limitations of being the only one of his kind—for now.
More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
Six unusual people “blesh” (blend/mesh) together to create Homo gestalt: a group organism that is greater than the sum of its already-extraordinary parts. With individual superpowers in telekinesis, teleporting, telepathy, computer-like rationality, and future knowledge, the group suffers from social, physical and psychological handicaps, including psychopathy, mental and physical disabilities, and superloneliness. They discover that being the next step in humanity requires not only the collective harnessing of their psychic abilities, but adopting the ethics necessary to not harm everyone around them.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
In my favorite (and weepiest!) SF story of all time, Charlie Gordon’s damaged intellect is enhanced to the outer edges of human genius—but at a terrible price. If ignorance is bliss, the superintellect bestowed, then taken away, with all the painful observation and self-knowledge that comes with it, may be the greatest curse of all. Charlie Gordon’s brief time as one of the world’s smartest people may not have changed the world, but he showed that we all have the possibility of meaningful and expanded lives, and a responsibility to do the best we can with what we are given.
PJ Manney is a former chairperson of Humanity+, the author of “Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy,” and a frequent guest host and guest on podcasts including FastForward Radio. She has worked in motion-picture PR at Walt Disney/Touchstone Pictures, story development and production for independent film production companies (Hook, Universal Soldier, It Could Happen to You), and writing for television (Hercules–The Legendary Journeys, Xena: Warrior Princess). She also cofounded Uncharted Entertainment, writing and creating pilot scripts for television. Manney is a culture vulture and SF geek, and the daughter and mother of them, too. When not contemplating the future of humanity, she is a mother, wife, PTA volunteer and education activist in California.