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We’re getting close to the end of the series of Cognitive Mapping columns I wrote for Vector. This one first appeared in Vector 194, July-August 1997.

Among the familiar things that he would encounter would be creatures recognizably human yet in his view grotesque. While he himself laboured under the weight of his own body, these giants would be easily striding. He would consider them very sturdy, often thick-set, folk, but he would be compelled to allow them grace of movement and even beauty of proportion. The longer he stayed with them the more beauty he would see in them, and the less complacently would he regard his own type. Some of these fantastic men and women he would find covered with fur, hirsute, or mole-velvet, revealing the underlying muscles. Others would display bronze, yellow, or ruddy skin, and yet others a translucent ashgreen, warmed by the underflowing blood.

Last and First Men (1930)
Olaf Stapledon

 

Elena was beside him – superficially unchanged, although they’d both shrugged off the constraints of biology. The conventions of this environment mimicked the physics of real macroscopic objects in free-fall and vacuum, but it wasn’t set up to model any kind of chemistry, let alone that of flesh and blood. Their new bodies were human-shaped, but devoid or elaborate microstructure – and their minds weren’t embedded in the physics at all, but were running directly on the processor web.

‘Wang’s Carpets’ (1995)
Greg Egan

 

It is probably impossible now to imagine the effect H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) must have had upon its first readers. Not the effect of Wells’s sublime invention of the time machine itself, but of the discovery that Eloi and Morlocks alike evolved from a common ancestor, from humanity. The concept of Evolution had been common, if controversial, intellectual currency since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). It sparked a vigorous debate based on the idea that human descent from the apes not only directly contradicted any literal interpretation of the scriptures, but by so doing also undermined the stout Victorian establishment whose dignity and power were built firmly upon the Church. But both the scientists – like Wells’s tutor, Huxley – who defended Darwin and built upon his work, and the churchmen who just as stoutly argued against evolution, were primarily concerned with how it had operated. The centre of the debate was how Man – and by extension Englishmen, the high point of God’s creation – had developed; attention was fixed upon the past. Who among these warring intellects of the latter half of the nineteenth century looked ahead?

Wells did, and the most shocking thing about his radical book must have been the idea that humankind would evolve – and devolve – further, that the dignified and successful Englishman who ruled the world was not the pinnacle of evolution, not the peak than which there was no higher.

Wells, of course, went further, and in that bleak beach under a fading sun he showed that even the Earth itself was subject to the same evolutionary forces, that all things must change and die. But it was in the simple application of evolution to humanity’s future that he achieved one of his most startling effects.

For all his vision in looking to how evolution might develop, however, Wells still appeared to see it as a straight line: humanity rose to a peak and then declined. And Darwinism was far more interesting to Wells in its social or political dimension: in book after book, from In the Days of the Comet (1906) to The Shape of Things to Come (1933) he explored our political future in evolutionary terms. Most of the science fiction writers who came after him followed this lead. Even those who wrote about the distant future, such as John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart) in ‘Twilight’ (1934) or Isaac Asimov in Foundation (1951), wrote about an evolved technology but an essentially unchanged humanity. And where some few, such as S. Fowler Wright in The Amphibians (1924), wrote about the evolutionary struggles of other species after humanity, the overwhelming impression was still one of a unique rise and fall.

Nevertheless, in saying that we shall change and in speculating upon what form such change might take, Wells opened a door for many writers who have used science fiction to explore more philosophical notions. The most notable of these was Olaf Stapledon, whose interest in what we might become caused his work to be filled with wonderful images of changed mankind. This is most vivid, of course, in Last and First Men, which takes as its focus a broader and more detailed sweep of our destiny than any science fiction novel before or since. Stapledon painted a picture in which humanity rose and fell in a ceaseless range of evolutionary guises. At times these future beings rise to near-unimaginable heights, at others they barely crawl from the depths, and always they are physically different to cope with different conditions. But it isn’t just the ‘hirsute, or mole-velvet’, the yellow or ‘translucent ashgreen’, that marks the difference, for with these physical changes, as our modern observer begins to grasp in this extract, come changes in outlook, in behaviour, in taste. The physical evolution of humankind that Stapledon traces allows him also to trace differences in the human soul – and also, perhaps more importantly, what stays the same, what makes these grotesquely different creatures also recogniseably and sympathetically human.

Though he seemed at odds with his science fiction contemporaries and immediate successors (even Arthur C. Clarke, who owed so much to Stapledon’s influence, peopled his far futures such as The City and the Stars (1956) with humans who had not changed significantly from our common stock) Stapledon’s multifarious humanity has come to have a great effect upon more recent science fiction writers.

For a while any change in humankind came from outside, either as a representation of external threat (as in Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955)) or, particularly during the 1960s, as a manifestation of the hero’s isolation or alienation (as in Robert Silverberg’s Thorns (1967)). Gradually, however, as the pace of change in the world around us speeded up and the notion of Future Shock became familiar to all science fiction writers, the idea that we might change ourselves as some of Stapledon’s future men had changed themselves seemed like a serious way of coping with our future or with other environments. Evolution was receiving a helping hand, and the changes we faced could be greater and more immediate than nature alone might bring about.

In an age of pacemakers and dialysis machines, such assisted evolution tended to be mechanical. We created cyborgs, which may have been further symbols of alienation in stories such as Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) or James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ (1973), but which became, through Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (1972) and more importantly its television spin-off, The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8), and the later film on the same theme, Robocop (1987), neither disturbing nor threatening but rather a way of preserving the status quo.

By the time of Robocop, however, science fiction had already found another avenue for our assisted evolution: the computer. Cybernetics had replaced the cyborg, downloading human personality into a computer was largely a way of cheating death, as in Iain M. Banks’s Feersum Endjinn (1994), Christopher Evans’s Mortal Remains (1995) and Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1995). Nevertheless, cyberpunks in particular saw the computer, coupled with the growing science of genetic engineering, as a new way of shaping our futures. Bruce Sterling explored some of the possibilities in his Mechanist/Shaper stories, notably Schismatrix (1985), while Greg Egan, in ‘Wang’s Carpets’ and its novel-length expansion, Diaspora (1997), is typical of the current generation of science fiction writers who have used bioengineering, cybernetics and other such notions as a way of presenting varieties of transhumanity as diverse as anything Stapledon came up with. In this world, a logical development from the evolved future presented in Sterling’s stories, people are able to choose any of a host of forms, whether biological or mechanical or cybernetic, and to slip into different shapes as easily as we might slip into a different coat. Though he has escaped the slow patterns of evolution that underlie the stately rhythms of Stapledon’s work, the same exuberant diversity of possibility is there. Stapledon would readily identify his Last Men in Egan’s computer simulations. And in both cases, whether our future is feathered or flowered, as pixels of information or waves of energy, one thing remains constant. The outward shape may affect many things in terms of our behaviour and outlook, part of the future that both Stapledon and Egan project depends on physical differences to raise different questions and expectations about what these future humans might do. Nevertheless these fabulous creatures, our successors, are never anything other than human in their impulses and desires, fear and motivations. It seems that however the body might be sculpted, the inside is forever the same.

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