Transhumanism in the bleak midwinter

At this time of year, when the cold, grey sameness of winter softly wraps us in the bitter knowledge of our own mortality, I find myself squarely in the mood for a little transhumanist science fiction.  

What is that, you ask? It’s a highly philosophical body of literature dedicated to the rich question of what would it would mean to be human if science made “death” unnecessary. Your body could be killed, sure, but what if your consciousness were transferred to a new body, or a clone, or uploaded into a purely digital universe? Would you still be the same person if you were wearing different skin? What if an accident occurred and you and a clone lived concurrently, with the same memories–which one would control your bank account? How would you find work if no one born before you ever retired? Would life have as much meaning without death as a counterpoint? The right book in this category could fuel an excellent book discussion.

If you’ve never read a book with a transhumanist theme, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, is a great place to start. It’s the first book in a trilogy and is driven by a compelling mystery that appeals to all kinds of readers. The main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is a former U.N. envoy who was murdered but had “backed up” his consciousness against the possibility of physical death. When a wealthy man “re-sleeves” Kovacs to a new body as payment for his investigation of a murder, the resourceful loner finds himself caught in a dangerous conspiracy.

Another good choice is Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. This is a coming-of-age story in which our youthful centenarian hero Jules finds his work improving the Disney World Haunted Mansion ride interrupted by his own murder. Alive again, he begins to suspect a conspiracy that shakes his world view and may dramatically alter life as he knows it.

If political philosophy fascinates you, you may especially like The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod. This is a very complex love story, where cloning and sentient robots play key roles. The narrative crosses back and forth through time, and is alternately set in the UK and on Mars.  Our main character is a sympathetic, disenfranchised Libertarian suffering under the machinations of a secretive government.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “hard science fiction” titles Diaspora, by Greg Egan, and Slant by Greg Bear. These books use complex math and physics to explore transhumanist possibilities. You’ll enjoy them most if you’re in the mood for highly cerebral tech-talk.

In Diaspora, three modes of life are now possible for humans: a flesh-and-blood existence, inhabiting a robotic body, or transcending the physical to live in a digital universe where death is meaningless. All is well until one group of transcendent lifeforms places the Earthly population in great danger.  Slant flashes forward to the year 2050, when nanotechnology has nearly eradicated violence in the U.S. but half of the population is unemployed, addicted to virtual reality feeds, hopped-up on mood stabilizers, and starting to go inexplicably crazy. One of the main characters has a transhumanist secret.

Do you have a transhumanist science fiction book to recommend? If so, do tell! There is still a lot of winter ahead of us and I’d love more ideas on what to read next.

3 thoughts on “Transhumanism in the bleak midwinter”

  1. Thanks for reminding me about Altered Carbon! I loved that book and meant to read more by that author, but never got around to it. Placing a hold on the Cory Doctorow right now, it sounds great!

  2. Ooh. Sounds like Stone Canal will be next on my reading list! I’d also like to throw The Accord by Keith Brooke into the mix. Consensus tries to build a digital heaven into which a copy of our souls can be downloaded. There’s also Phillip Jose Farmer’s classic Riverworld trilogy, where all the world’s dead suddenly wake up on the banks of an unfamiliar river. It’s honestly not my favorite, but it won plenty of major awards.

    Also, I always think that much of the very, very best science fiction every written is in short story form, and so often gets overlooked. There are some great transhumanist short stories, but the one that comes to mind is Ian MacDonald’s Some Strange Desire. Near-immortal gender-shifting creatures who appear human grapple with a rare fatal illness.

    Thanks for this great post!

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