A robot that becomes self-aware; a leader who shuts down his body to tap into hidden knowledge; an AI that manifests itself through chaos; an act of kindness that allows a change in programming… In the seven stories below, body- and brain-hacking play key roles in identity and survival, from an individual defining the self to a system designed to help humanity survive a post-nuclear wasteland.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
The SecUnit in the center of this SF adventure knows that it’s a Murderbot because it hacked its own governor module. It also knows that the fact that it’s a Murderbot makes the humans on this planetary mission, for which the Company supplied the SecUnit as protection, deeply uncomfortable. That’s fine, Murderbot is plenty awkward too. Now that it’s self-aware, instead of making peace with its fleshy crewmates, Murderbot just wants to hide in its bunk and watch the 397th episode of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. Hacking the module that keeps it in check could have set Murderbot loose like some sort of crazed serial killer, Murderbot reflects, but instead of bloodlust its only cravings are for mass media: television, film, books—anything that will allow it to better understand itself. —Natalie Zutter
“Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson
“Johnny Mnemonic” is just bristling with examples of hacking. William Gibson’s short story was turned into THE GREATEST FILM IN CINEMATIC HISTORY in 1995, and it takes us to a slick-yet-dystopian world where the elites use human Couriers to transport intel, and millions of people have begun to suffer from the “Black Shakes,” a neurological disorder that comes from ingest too much information. In order to be a Courier, Johnny has to make space by deleting large parts of his memory—his childhood—to store the intel that his employers need transported. This is already a pretty big hack, but it’s nothing compared to what the story has waiting. After many ludicrous adventures, Johnny comes face to face with Jones, a cyborg dolphin who can hack satellites (“he cuts through hard encryption like a knife through butter”), and J-Bone, a Luddite activist (played to perfection by Ice-T) who both tell him that the intel in his head is the cure for the Black Shakes. This is where the true work of self-hacking begins, because in order to get the cure out, as J-Bone says, “The only way is to hack your own brain.” So Johnny allows himself to be hooked up to the satellite feed and self-hacks, opening up the section of his brain that contains the cure, uploading it (via VHS tape???) and allowing the masses to benefit from it. —Leah Schnelbach
Dune by Frank Herbert
There is a lot of person-hacking in Dune, though none of it is aided by technology. The Mentats have hacked their own processing capabilities so that they are essentially human computers; the Bene Gesserit have hacked their bodies so that they have control over their nerves and muscles; the Sardaukar have been programmed by their prison planet home to fight unthinkingly in service of the Emperor, and they do it incredibly well. But the final act of self-hacking comes from Paul Atreides himself, who has been doing his utmost to see the future via the spice melange suffusing his blood as a result of living on Arrakis. Eventually, Paul realizes that he will not be able to see as clearly as he wishes without attempting to learn if he is the Kwisatz Haderach—the one who can be in many places at once, who can look where the Bene Gesserit cannot. Paul drinks the unchanged Water of Life and puts himself into a coma for weeks, but finally awakens with the full depth of knowledge that had been hidden from him. Without this, Paul would have never been able to usurp the Emperor’s throne and lead the Fremen to victory. —Emily Asher-Perrin
Lightless by C.A. Higgins
Living spaceship Ananke learns to hack herself by example—that is, when pirate Matthew Gale drops a virus into her system after sneaking onboard. It’s less malicious intent than just curiosity, dropping some chaos into the works; but what Mattie doesn’t know is that Ananke, an experimental military spaceship whose purpose is to process entropy, takes that chaos and achieves sentience. Like an infant slowly learning the parameters of her world—with more than a little panic and confusion along the way—Ananke lashes out through the robotic arms stationed inside her hull to try and get her crew’s attention. When that fails, she creates a hologram comprised of Mattie and Althea, the engineer who translated her before she learned to speak, in order to better express her newfound sentience to humans in terms they’ll understand. It’s not that Ananke gains new abilities, but rather, for the first time, she has control over herself. —Natalie Zutter
“Hello, Moto” by Nnedi Okorafor
Through a mix of science and witchcraft—neurotransmitters, mobile phones, incantations, and hypnosis—Rain creates special wigs that grant her and her friends Philo and Coco incredible powers: beauty, influence, control. But what she doesn’t anticipate is that the only way that the wig-wearers can turn their eyes a glowing green, clear up their complexions, and exert power is by sucking the life force out of others. While Rain bemoans her folly in failing to account for human greed, Philo revels in their godlike status, reflecting how “it always felt so good to take from people, not just their money but their very essence.” Instead of hacking themselves solely to enact good upon their world, they hack other people for their own gain, until there’s almost nothing left. Until, that is, Rain devises a clever way to hack into the wigs themselves to set things right. —Natalie Zutter
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
In this cyberpunk classic, the main character is a hacker, so there’s some general hacking happening. However, there are two nested instances of self-hacking that are particularly fascinating. First, Consider Mr. Ng of Ng Security Industries. Desperately wounded in a helicopter crash during the Vietnam War, he chose to hack his body in various ways to become a cybernetic being mounted in a chair or a van, able to speak and drive through his machines. Inspired by this experience, he expanded his hacking to the development of “semi-autonomous guard units”—Rat Things. Rat Things are pit bulls with long, whip-like tails and implants allowing them to travel at about 768 mph. Since their extreme speed causes them to overheat, they spend non-working hour in hutches where they’re sprayed with coolant, hooked into a virtual reality known as the Metaverse, where they think they’re running on beaches and eating steaks.
During a battle, a Rat Thing is injured too badly to crawl to its hutch. A girl named YT overcomes her fear of the Rat Thing and helps it inside, thus becoming the first person other than Mr. Ng to touch one of the cyber dogs. This act of kindness later leads to the Rat Thing’s self-hack. When the Rat Thing learns through the Metaverse that YT is in danger, it rejects its programming and breaks free from its hutch to race to her rescue. —Leah Schnelbach
Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
In the first book of Octavia Butler’s Dawn trilogy, humanity is nearly wiped out as the result of a nuclear war. Their only chance at survival seems to come at the hands of the Oankali, an alien species who would like to combine with humanity to create a hybrid race—as that is their method of survival and continuation. Lilith is woken 250 years after the war and enlisted to help these strangers from another world, told to train other humans to survive on Earth without their old technology after the Oankali make it fit for habitation again. Lilith is not at all interested in their breeding program and worried about giving up too much of her humanity—but she also wants to survive at all costs. As a result, she ends up breeding with them, and her son Akin is the first “male construct” born to a human woman. In this particular case, the hacking done to Lilith’s genes (splicing her own with alien DNA) is something that she would prefer not to do, but the dismal state of the human race, and the presence of aliens who do not plan on giving humanity any say in their process, forces her hand. —Emily Asher-Perrin