The creative process has been famously described as the leaves of ideas and stories falling and composting in the mind, where after some years, new shoots spring up from the mix. I’ve always liked that metaphor and with a couple of my novels featuring transhumanism in bookstores, someone was asking me about influences and roots. As the metaphor goes, some of the influences are visible, while others are fragmented and mulched, nourishing future creativity.
Transhumanism itself wasn’t a concept I understood I’d been using until after the fact. Using technology to improve the human experience seems so self-evident and pedestrian that I didn’t know it had a name until a few years ago. But when I looked back at my reading over the years, of course I found genetic engineering, bionic, AIs, and many of the other elements of transhumanism.
Maybe one of the earliest books I read about overtly changing ourselves is Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus, where a colonist for Mars is augmented, organ after organ, capability after capability, into something capable of surviving the harsh Martian days and nights. It’s a haunting novel whose mild body horror unsettles, while at the same time not shying away from the fact that terraforming Mars, if it’s possible at all, would take many, many human lifetimes.
Dan Simmons’ Hyperion was also an early read for me. The first two books don’t give the Ouster swarms a lot of screen time, but what we see bundles sense of wonder, inevitability and alienation into the reader experience. Of course if people are going to live in micro-gravity among the comets, they’ll need to modify their bodies, their organs and so on. The Ousters have different body types, different biologies and ways of interacting with technology and it’s all fascinating.
Stephen Baxter’s collection Vacuum Diagrams is filled with ideas of deep time and the possible fates of humanity, most often how we will expand to the stars using technology. The title story features a character who has quantum perceptions; this transhuman idea stuck with me, in part because of how compelling it was, and in part because I could see many other directions it could have been developed. Eventually, I couldn’t resist playing in that sandbox and my novels The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden feature a new engineered subspecies of humanity called the Homo quantus. Those novels explore the implications of a people with quantum perceptions.
Artificial Intelligence, thinking machines, has been a sci-fi trope that still far overestimates the way that machine learning is actually taking over our lives in the present. One of the most original treatments of what a true general AI might look like is in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. Her AIs are conscious and want to help humanity. They care about humans. The AIs are housed on star ships and show how a distributed intelligence might actually perceive the world. Gareth Powell’s Embers of War features a different kind of AI. The personality and concerns of the star ship AI Trouble Dog is partly developed from canine brains for the loyalty to humans, which is a fascinating and heart-warming idea.
Alastair Reynolds is a favorite author of mine and his books Revelation Space and House of Suns look at humanity centuries and millennia from now. Neural pattern uploads, nanotech, a dark melting plague and all sorts of suspended animation technologies create different space opera societies for the readers to explore.
Transhumanism has a much broader meaning than it did when I first encountered it, and this list of books and authors is just my view, informed quite a bit by my love of space opera and far future sci-fi. Someone who read different flavors of sci-fi would have mentioned Rich Larson or Nancy Kress or Linda Nagata or any of several dozen authors. The important thing about transhumanism in sci-fi is that we’re thinking about how we’re going to engage with technology and bioengineering, because the future is barreling down on us.
Derek Künsken write science fiction in Gatineau, Québec. His debut, The Quantum Magician, is an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper in space and was nominated for the Locus, Aurora and Chinese Nebula awards. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden, is available now.