post humanism Archive

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Book Review: Crux

My summer of sequels continues with the sublime Crux, Ramez Naam’s follow-up to last year’s near-future post-human techno-thriller, Nexus.

When I sat down to write my review of Nexus, I remember feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to package a complex novel within the confines of a short review. Crux has had much the same effect upon me. In the simplest possible terms, this book is speculative fiction at its finest. Full stop. Crux offers the sort of writing which literary wags could easily point to and declare, “Proper literature looks like this.”

Meanwhile genre readers will smile, knowing full well that their medium has always produced works of this caliber.

For anybody approaching Crux without having read the first novel, the book’s prologue provides a primer on Mr. Naam’s vision of our not-too-distant future. It is a world where a Ph.D. student named Kaden Lane creates Nexus 5, a designer “drug” – more on the danger quotes in a moment – which allows users to hack and subsequently network the human brain. Though Nexus continues in this novel as an allegorical critique on America’s war on drugs, it catalyzes Crux’s much deeper study into a post-human future. NB: post-human does not equal post-apocalyptic or any other sort of end-of-the-world cliché. Tempting as it may be to look at the novel’s union of cyberpunk motifs and climate change as a means of facilitating a dystopian label, the novel is very carefully balanced against such a framing.

I draw attention to this because it’s worth recognizing when a near-future science fiction novel doesn’t unfurl a big banner proudly declaring “We’re all screwed, and everyone is going to die.” Sure, it’s fun to watch writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood destroy the world. But it’s hard not to walk away from their novels without a palpable fear for the future outweighing any sense of wonder. By comparison, Crux rallying cry is that post-human problems require post-human solutions. The optimism for the future may be measured, pragmatic, and contingent upon change, but it is there none the less. And given a near-prescient plot point that saw a hurricane affecting political change, I think it is important to recognize the ability – and dare I say need? – for smart fiction to inspire readers to do better with our world.

Crux also sees the return of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. The ERD, and those who share its worldview, publically demonize Nexus as little more than a narcotic. In that light, the novel pulls no punches in showing how the ability to network a mind lends itself to the worst sort of abuses and affronts to human dignity. Alternatively, Nexus proves capable of awakening a capacity for learning and socialization in children with autism spectrum disorders while also facilitating next generation research between scientists. A think tank takes on a whole new meaning when a dozen scientists can collectively work on a problem at the speed of thought.

For the latter, and certainly individuals within the book’s target demographic, the ERD’s actions seem retrograde. What progressive nation bans a tool and further exploits a constitutional loophole to strip the users of said tool of their citizenship rights? But just as it was in Nexus, the debate in Crux is so much deeper than a simple binary between conservative and progressive ideologies. The proponents of The Chandler Act – imagine the Patriot Act, on anabolic steroids, targeting post-humans – can easily be read as a good piece of legislation designed to protect the rights of a majority who refuse to, or are incapable of, redefining humanity beyond natural selection. Think on that for a moment; the ERD waterboards and tortures Kade’s friends and Nexus co-developers on behalf of Americans who don’t want to be anything more than human. I’d be tempted to smirk at the idea of the government so effectively entrenching mediocrity through a clumsy law, but the strength of Mr. Naam’s ideas precludes such a simple reading. After all, what would happen if the next generation saw an open source technology that makes a person better than any natural born human?

Suppose I go into a job interview with a Nexus-esque neural computer feeding my brain every feel-good neurotransmitter in the book while reminding me of certain speaking points appropriate to each answer. It might not guarantee success, but certainly it grants an advantage otherwise absent to me. In this scenario a defacto ban on post-human technology would be necessary to protect the rights of a majority incapable of being anything more than they are. And once again, Ramez Naam has found a way to take my natural “damn the man” outlook on life and make me sympathize with the establishment.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much I should read into the Chandler Act’s ability to strip post-humans of citizenship as a parallel to North American immigration laws that redefine certain humans as “illegal.” A case could be made, but I’ll leave that to a critic better informed on the topic.

Moving beyond politics, which is hard to do in such a politically astute novel, Crux expands on Nexus’ exploration of post-human technology and religion. One such study focuses on Kade’s flight from justice through Southeast Asia via a series of Buddhist temples. The other looks at a character from the first book who has become the first true post-human after having her consciousness uploaded into a network of quantum computers. It’s standard enough fare to see science fiction writers using non-terrestrial actors as a lens for religious studies. Seeing similar discussions emerge out of scientific innovation is a delightful subversion of a standard trope. Would Buddhism adjust itself in the wake of technology that can allow novices to achieve an oneness with their fellows? Dare we invoke Descartes mind-body discourse in viewing a person of pure consciousness and computer code within her own digital realm? These questions further demonstrate the awe-inspiring extent to which Mr. Naam has considered the implications of post-human tech. My only regret therein is that there isn’t more room in the novel for probe for answers therein.

I’ll preclude any further rambling by closing on this point; if I don’t see some Nebula and/or Hugo buzz orbiting Crux within the next year I will be genuinely surprised. The novel is a poignant reflection on the sociological, economic, climate challenges of our changing world. Meanwhile, Mr. Naam masterfully mobilizes the zeitgeist of contemporary political and tech culture in his creation of a near-future which tempts readers with equal parts dread and optimism. This is not a book to be missed, and certainly one deserving much discussion in the months to come.

Crux by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books



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Book Review: Nexus

Nexus by Ramez Naam is the second novel I’ve read from UK based publisher Angry Robot Books. Much like my first experience with this imprint, vN by Madeline Ashby, Nexus offers a narrative exploration of humanity’s relationship with advanced technology. In doing so, Naam mobilizes language orbiting contemporary debates on copyright in the digital world, net neutrality, and some good old fashioned Marxism. While the aforementioned concepts are essential to the story, the central conflict lives within the resoundingly grey area of trans/post-humanity. Put into a single question, Nexus asks at what point does our technology change us from what we are, into what we are not? And perhaps more important, who do we select as the arbiter of a decision that speaks to neurology, engineering, philosophy, and metaphysics?

Set some thirty years into the future, the plot focuses on Kaden Lane, a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco. Kade, his lab mate Rangan Shankari, and their friends are all practitioners of a designer drug called “Nexus 3”. However, Nexus isn’t so much a drug as it is a lattice of data relays which take up residence inside a person’s mind. The Nexus nodes allow users to experience the thoughts, memories, and consciousness of other users. Adept users, such as Kade and company, can even use Nexus to manipulate the motor cortex of another Nexus user.

Were that not enough, Kade and Rangan have found a way to evolve Nexus into something which takes up permanent residence in a person’s mind. In combining this wetware with an open source operating system Kade has turned himself into something new, a human capable of fully networking his mind with other Nexus users. This potential frontier in evolution, a technology which could unite vast swaths of individuals into a rapturous gestalt of collective understanding and empathy, or in the wrong hands be used for radical thought control, slavery, and domination, attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emerging Risks Division. In a world filled with Chinese clone soldiers, potentially emergent AI, bio-neural hacks to augment any mood or sensation, and human enhancement through nanotechnology, Kade’s discovery of “Nexus 5” leads to his arrest. Therein he must either work with the ERD to bring down another post-human or spend the rest of his life in prison.

Given its direction and philosophy, Nexus is reminiscent of other memorable “us versus them” narratives. Throughout Marvel Comics’ X-Men series readers witnessed the struggle between Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapiens Superior as the government sought to regulate and control those outside the normal definition of humanity. 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution explored questions of state versus free market control with respect to human augmentation through cybernetics. Yet where those stories dealt with relatively small groups of individuals, superheroes and those with the money to afford implantation and regular gene therapy, Nexus expands the scope of potential transhumans to seemingly all of humanity. I mean if perpetually destitute graduate students (though maybe it was only us social science grads who lived on ramen and the scavenged leftovers of catered conference talks) can afford to permanently augment themselves with a neural architecture, which makes assimilating new data akin to Neo learning Ju Jitsu in The Matrix, why not everybody else?

Asking “Why?” and “Why not?” forms the basis for Nexus’ core philosophical inquires. Though always seamlessly woven into the narrative, Nexus revels in daring the reader to justify their thoughts on technology beyond the confines of a black and white paradigm. The Nexus drug is aptly named in that it is the focal point for every one of the book’s big questions, none of which are particularly easy to answer.

While the novel may be driven by near-future human augmentation technology, much to the delight of futurists, all of its attempts at parsing a grand design for humanity stem from current world issues. Through skillful narrative exposition and the odd bit of character dialogue that borders on a prose soliloquy we learn that the United States revokes citizenship from people who stray too far from the Supreme Court’s definition of humanity. Moreover, the DHS, FBI, and CIA make use of warrantless surveillance and networks of unmanned drones possessing rudimentary AI. Soldiers are augmented to be more than human, but left to their own devices when the enhancements lead to cancers. All of these examples should resonate with current issues of immigration, reproductive rights, state surveillance, veterans’ affairs, and America’s various wars on terror/drugs/crime. While Mr. Naam is ever the foresight specialist in his story telling, he artfully anchors the text’s speculative and heavily scientific building blocks to readily accessible sociological challenges.

At the same time, the novel is not a technocrat’s manifesto for nanotech augmented anarchism. Despite my instinct to take up a radical banner as Kade and Rangan were interrogated and tortured (sort of) in federal custody, Naam’s writing managed to evoke some genuine sympathy for the establishment. Despite their questionable methods, the ERD and their agents are trying to protect a great majority of people from an exponential growth in technology that exists outside of their functional world views. Though it can be hard to see benevolence in the ERD’s contemporary analogues, there is a certain resonance to the ideas at hand. Digital libertarians complain about the FBI meddling with the internet, yet said agency as well as many others offer a tangible benefit to people who use the internet without holding a personal stake in how it operates. Once again, Naam skillfully mines the present to draw out logical near-future extensions of today’s issues.

As a story told from the intersection of theoretical neuroscience and contemporary geopolitical issues, Nexus is a fascinating study into how technology might inform human evolution. At times it is also a scathing commentary on the United States’ “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”. Perhaps equally so, the novel is a critique of how ivory tower approaches to scientific progress can necessitate invasive third party oversight. Though a many headed hydra of foresight, Nexus is always thoughtful and never particularly dense or heavy handed in its prose. Indeed, there’s a near poetic quality to the way in which Mr. Naam describes the otherwise cold linkages of Axons and Dendrites within the human mind. Bearing that in mind, I would not be surprised if Nexus becomes as influential within academic and scientific quarters as it is certain to be for a more general audience.

Nexus by Ramez Naam

Published by Angry Robot Books

Available as a print and eBook as of December 18th, 2012.


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Short Story Review: Ascension

Summary Judgement:  A fantastic piece of flash fiction that subverts the tropes of the zombie apocalypse while exploring a disquieting vision of a post-human future.

Story by: Matt Moore

*Minor Spoiler Warning*

What to say about Ascension? I suppose I could come out and say that it is the best piece of horror fiction that I’ve ever read.  Although, I’ve been told that a good reviewer is never supposed to be so direct in their praise as it may come off as being too obsequious.  But when a story works as well as this one does, there’s really no need to be circuitous with the praise.

Ascension beings amid an outbreak of zombification.  The nameless narrator introduces readers to a description of chaos in the form of shambling bodies, panicked onlookers and feasting un-dead.  In that sense, it is everything that I would expect from a thoughtful piece of zombie fiction.  Mr. Moore, having thoroughly convinced me that I was sailing in familiar waters, then fired a broadside wherein the narrator, who I assumed to be a survivor, was actually in the midst of transforming into a zombie.  That is where the fun begins.

While zombie-like in their desire to feast upon the flesh of others, Matt Moore’s zombies retain aspects of their individual self.  Moreover, a shared consciousness emerges among the zombies.  It’s the sort of idea that would have Carl Jung wetting himself as he ran for the safety of the Swiss Alps.

Save for the flesh eating, Moore’s creations seem more like a “bio-Borg” than traditional Romero zombies.  Moore’s creatures are living dead rather than simple walking dead.  On that note the story forces me to consider questions of zombie sociology, perhaps even zombie religion.  The question begs to be asked, has Matt Moore created something that is genuinely new?  I’m too much of a horror neophyte to say that it has never been done before, but it certainly hasn’t been seen within the last twenty-five years of popular culture.  Even when depicted in Max Brooks’ World War Z, a novel that I consider a high water mark for horror, zombies are things to be killed, not studied and certainly not treated as something post-human.  The very notion of zombification as evolution is utterly creepy, but I can’t help but want to know more.

The title of the story is also quietly subversive.  As the narrator feeds upon bits of scalp that he – or she as Moore deliberately plays with gender pronouns within the story – tore from the head of a frantic teenager, he/she states that, “Only my body desires this flesh. To feed. To spread this special death so we can change, leave, ascend.”  As a metaphysical event within genre fiction/literature, ascension stirs images of transformation into an energy based life form a la Stargate SG-1’s Dr. Daniel Jackson.  The notion of becoming something grander through violence and cannibalism is an absolute anathema to the spiritual purity that is commonly associated with rising to a higher plane of existence.  Again, Moore offers a contrasting idea that is simultaneously grotesque while wholly seductive from a literary perspective: where the Borg would augment an individual into their collective, Moore’s bio-Borg literally consume vessels of life essence to transform it into something new.

From that perspective, Ascension is very much a story about surrendering one’s individual agency.  In comparison to the conventional zombie story which is all about the survival of self and self-identity, Ascension is explores the struggle to abandon one’s ego.  What I find particularly interesting therein is the story’s urban setting and the narrator’s reference to other cities around the world.  I can’t help but wonder if this is some sort of enduring metaphor relating to questions of autonomy and community within urban spaces.  Consider that cities are their own sort of collective where people augment themselves to suit the environment.  In dense urban areas it is normal for humans to live on top of, next to and below other people.  Add a global computer network to that claustrophobic isolation and perhaps we can, in the words of the narrator, “…see everything through everyone’s eyes.”  In an era of addictions to social media, online multiplayer games and cybersex, the desire to “ascend” is closer than we might think.

Matt Moore has proven his masterful talent in using flash fiction to create a rich and thoughtful world.  Ascension emphasises the living in “living dead” to create a unique demarcation from the established forms of zombie/horror fiction.  Now will somebody please give Mr. Moore a bucket of scotch, an empty room and a blank cheque so he can write a novel of this calibre.

Overall Score: +4.5

The full text of Ascension can be found on AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

You might also want to check out Matt Moore’s Aurora Award nominated short story, Touch the Sky, They Say, also found the Canadian Science Fiction Review.  Make sure to check out Matt’s blog for details on how you can vote for his story in the Auroras.


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Short Story Review: Breakaway, Backdown

Summary Judgement:  James Kelly de-romanticizes life in space with such skill as to make me thank the gods for gravity and magnetic fields.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that this story only qualifies as a story by the thinnest of margins.

Written by: James Patrick Kelly

Image from: NASA’s Ames Space Colony Art Gallery

Originally Published in Asimov’s Science Fiction

Republished in February’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine, James Kelly’s Breakaway, Backdown seems, at first, to be a rather pedestrian affair.  The story consists of one half of a conversation between Cleo, a would-be astronaut who “backs down” from a permanent commitment to life in space, and Jane, a girl working at a shoe boutique.  At no point in the story does Jane actually speak.  Readers must fill in her dialogue on their own as they read Cleo’s reactions to Jane’s rather obvious interrogatives.  This odd narrative construction leads me to my first question about the story: if a female character talks to another female character who never speaks back within the text, does the story pass the Bechdel Test?

For the moment, let us set aside the sociological issues and explore the potential advantages of such a unique writing style.  Forcing the reader to fill in the blank dialogue has the benefit of directly inserting said reader into Jane’s character.  There is an instant empathy for poor Jane as she has all of her naive thoughts on life in space summarily blown to smithereens.  The counter point to that benefit is that the story seems to presume that Jane, and by extension anybody reading the story, is ignorant of the science facts that Cleo dispenses.  While this approach might work for some, those familiar with “hard” science-fiction would be well advised to prepare for a sermon on the rigors of life outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Both the story’s style and content had me set to write it off as a thorough waste of time.  Then I found out that the story was originally published in 1996.  The story’s age forced me to reconsider my initial line of inquiry.  Make no mistake, I’m not backing down on the clumsy style.  This isn’t a story; it’s a preachy sermon.  However, the content within that lecture has more weight when its age comes into play.

Cleo lived in space for eighteen months before backing down from a life as a spacer.  In relating that story to Jane, she discusses some of the very real problems that humanity will have to endure when living in deep space: osteoporosis, muscle atrophy, clogged sinuses, nausea/space sickness and the very real dangers of leukemia from direct exposure to cosmic and solar radiation.  Cleo even manages to make sex sound tedious and underwhelming for want of gravity.

““Most hetero temps use some kind of a joystrap. It’s this wide circular elastic that fits around you and your partner.  Helps you stay coupled, okay? ”

Upon a first read through, none of these insights seemed particularly interesting to me.  I’ve read my fair share of Robert Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson and Issac Asimov thus I’m well aware that space is a nasty place that would probably kill me before it gives me a chance to have a roll in the holodeck with an open minded and uninhibited Orion slave girl.  But what about fifteen-year-old Adam?  What would he have thought if he read this story back in ‘96?  He wouldn’t scoff at James Kelly and say, “If we can go to Saturn then we can use gene therapy and advanced engineering to endure the rigors of space.”  No, fifteen-year-old Adam would have read this story and asked himself why nobody in the Babylon 5 universe seems to suffer from any of the above problems.  There’s no deflector shields a la Star Trek and a bunch of Earth Alliance starships have no artificial gravity.  Somehow, though, everybody is good and healthy in the Earth Alliance military.  For that reason, fifteen-year-old Adam would have been floored by the horrors of space travel as portrayed by Kelly.  Star Trek, B5, Blake’s 7, Space: Above and Beyond, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica and other staples of my childhood never bothered to explore the real dangers of space.  They made it seem easy.  This story draws upon now established, then theoretical, science to prove that it will be hard.

Still, Heinlein, Robinson and Asimov were writing about the biology of space travel well before Kelly published his story.  Why then was it worthy of publication in the gold standard of sci-fi magazines?  In my estimation it has nothing to do with empowered females, implied lesbian liaisons or other elements better left to sociologists – all of which are present, all of which are notable but none of which seem particularly avant garde for ’96.  The strength of Kelly’s writing is that it manages to create a group of post-humans entities without resorting to the tropes of genetic engineering.  “Breakaways”, the subset of humanity that have committed to living and working in space, are the product of their environment. There are absolutely no references to re-sequencing genomes for these space people.  As a result, life among the void becomes a life of biological sacrifice.  These astronauts regularly cut away parts of themselves that serve no purpose in microgravity.  In some instances, “Breakaways” endure body modification surgery to make gravity-evolved limbs more useful in space, an opposable big toe for example.  This is a terrifying example of the post-homo sapien evolution that space exploration could precipitate.  Futurists may wrap themselves in a Gattaca-esque mythos of gene therapy when they dream of life among the stars, but the cold hard reality of Kelly’s vision should always be lurking in the background.

Veterans of hard science fiction literature will likely find nothing new in this story.  Despite its potentially condescending tone, the story remains unapologetic in the details that it offers.  Never before have I read such a clear vision of what the rigours of life in space could demand of us.  Even Heinlein and Robinson seem candy coated compared to the evolutionary crossroad that Kelly offers.

Click here to read Breakaway, Backdown for yourself.

Overall Score: +3