TT: Stronger? Better? Faster?

JANE: So, Alan, after we finished our discussion of immortals – especially regarding the edge they could have over shorter-lived humanity – I started recalling that a long life is not the only advantage SF has speculated about humans gaining through the advancement of science. Indeed, the “superman” – although that term is probably out of favor these days, being rather sexist – was, at one time, a very popular trope in SF.

Is the Invisible Man Under There?

Is the Invisible Man Under There?

ALAN: Unlike the other topics that we’ve been chatting about, that of the superman is an SF idea that hasn’t really migrated into the mainstream. I think it is exclusively an SF theme.

And I actually think that SF has the best of it here.

JANE: Eh… I wish this were an exclusively SF concept, but the idea of the “superman” has been widely used in another context: that of eugenics.  Eugenics widely fell out of fashion after the Nazi adoption of eugenics as a justification for mass murder, but the idea of “good birth” or good breeding being advantageous is very much a part of the lore of the superman.

ALAN: Eugenics itself is an ugly subject because of its political connotations, but it has a close modern cousin in the science of genetics. Our deeper understanding of how genetics work has given us real-world tools for direct genetic manipulation – and these, of course, provide us with a legitimate science-fictional mechanism for exploring superhuman ideas.

JANE: I’d prefer not to discuss Nazi (or other eugenic) atrocities here, but I do think we need to acknowledge that they are a ghost that haunts any writer who wants to write about the “superman” even in a fictional context.

Is there a newer term?  One that doesn’t automatically leave out females or evoke muscular men who wear their underwear outside their tights or Nazi experiments?

ALAN: Given the current fashion of sticking the word “post” in front of common nouns (post-truth, for example – the current word of the year!) we might perhaps use the term posthuman?

JANE: I like it!  It indicates a form of humanity “post” or “after” the current human model and lacks the automatic assumption that the new form of human will automatically be better, as is implied by “superman,” “ubermensch” or “homo superior.”  Let’s go with it!

ALAN: If I can get a bit pompous for a moment, one of the purposes of literature is to look for answers to the question of what it means to be human. By using the idea of a posthuman as a contrast to the “merely” human, SF is very well placed to try and find answers to the question that the mainstream simply cannot approach at all.

JANE: That’s a provocative idea.  Do you have a specific example in mind?

ALAN: Yes, I think I do. H. G. Wells gave the protagonist of one of his novels the ability to become invisible. The invisible man was certainly posthuman, but was he still human? Did invisibility give him any advantage over his fellow men? Actually, no it didn’t. Towards the end, the invisible man is more to be pitied than envied.

JANE: I agree… In fact, the plight of the invisible man is a good example of how posthuman developments might not, in fact, create “super” humans, only humans with different problems.  This is a theme that SF has used repeatedly and to good effect.

ALAN: Wells was really rather fond of poking at that question. His most famous use of the technique is probably in the short story “The Country of the Blind”.  His sighted hero finds himself in a settlement where everyone is blind. He feels that being sighted must give him an advantage over everyone else – he keeps telling himself that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But, of course it turns out that, generally speaking, the blind people can run rings around him because they are completely comfortable in their environment. Only at the very end of the story does an exceptional circumstance put him in a position to save his life at the expense of theirs…

Strictly speaking, this short story isn’t SF – but it does use the human/superhuman trope to great effect. It’s probably the closest that the mainstream can get to the idea.

JANE: What you’ve just demonstrated very nicely is that there are many ways that “supermen” could be defined – and they wouldn’t even need to be biologically “posthuman.”  For example, time travelers from the future would be potential superhumans because they have technological advantages, as well as a knowledge of events that would permit them to take advantage of the past.

So we don’t start repeating ourselves, I was thinking that we should try to focus on the truly science fictional “supermen.”  For purposes of limiting our discussion, I’d also like to leave out the rich and varied field of superhero comics.

ALAN: That sounds like a good idea. And let’s also take it as read that SF posthumans are the product of some kind of genetic manipulation that can involve any or all of selective breeding, genetic engineering and natural mutation.

JANE: I’m game!  I can see you’re bouncing up and down, so you go first.

ALAN: OK – but can I go and do my Christmas shopping first?

JANE: Absolutely…  I wouldn’t want Robin or Jake or Harpo or Bess to be without presents under the tree.

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7 Responses to “TT: Stronger? Better? Faster?”

  1. Peter Says:

    I may be chopping fine hairs, but I think “the idea of the superman hasn’t crossed into the mainstream” only holds true if we exclude our four-colour cousins, who have pretty enthusiastically colonized the mainstream if we look at box office or television ratings numbers. Even if we exclude direct adaptations, I think the notion of “people with abilities that are more – or at least other – than human” is pretty firmly established in the mainstream by this point, Bruce Wayne (okay, poor choice – Steve Rogers, maybe) and Clark Kent just have a lot wider name recognition than Gully Foyle or Jommy Cross.

    Why that is exactly is an interesting question (and one I don’t have any really good answers to, although I have a few ideas.)

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Hi Peter… I think you missed this line: ” For purposes of limiting our discussion, I’d also like to leave out the rich and varied field of superhero comics.” I assume these are the “four color cousins” you refer to!

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Hmmm….

    I think if you look, you’ll find that ‘posthuman’ is already in use. And that the squatters have already shoved the sorts you want to discuss off into ‘transhumans’.

    A quick, and quickly cross-eyed, look at Wikipedia suggests that they’ve mostly emerged from the brain-damaged end of the philosophical spectrum. But then, I’m a noted philistine 😉

  3. James M. Six Says:

    One of my favorite short story collections is “Mutants” by Gordon R. Dickson. Its introduction shows an alchemist who has distilled 11 variations of “human” for the 11 stories within, some of which involve the ideas you mentioned above.
    The one story in that collection I re-read whenever I want to be sad is “By New Hearth Fires,” in which the changes in humanity as a species in the future have had an unintended consequence. We’ve lost something we’d never realized we had. Which is another facet of post-human/transhuman. There are usually losses as well as gains.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    Well, we’re stuck for terminology, because metahuman, mutant, and inhuman are already in use by the comics. Superhuman is a perfectly good word, but it’s an adjective more than a noun. Since Superman has been around for decades, it’s also a little awkward to claim that SF has been sitting around in lowly isolation while comics copied it. There’s certainly a dialog, if not mutual swiping, going on.

    Still, that’s not the first thought I had when I read this. My first thought was, “here we go with the Hogbens again.” And this brings up a fairly useful point: the whole mutation thing got going in the 1920s (IIRC) with the geneticists using it to attempt to shoot down Darwinian evolution. Their point was that Darwin was talking about gradual change, but his mechanism was non-genetic. The geneticists saw mutations that did weird things in flies, and went from there to discount gradual change and to posit that it was all about jumpy, wild mutations. When you couple this with racial politics, well, I don’t want to go there.

    Now, any biology student knows that the neo-Darwinian synthesis that combined genetics and evolution happened back in the 1940s, and we’re a couple of revolutions past that now (with our understanding of how DNA works from the 1960s and cladistics from the 1990s, to name two).

    What’s sad to me is how the comics especially, but SF as well, got stuck back in the 1920s, with mutations being used as a convenient substitute for magic and/or superhuman powers, and subsequent scientific advances blown off for the sake of selling in Wichita. It’s a catchy meme, even though it’s increasingly archaic and out of touch with the science (unlike the Hogbens when they were written in the 1940s). Still, I’d disagree with Alan: it’s been explored more thoroughly in the comics and related literature than in SF, I think. I’d need some decent examples to change my mind on this.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Leaving out superhero comics (which we’ve decided to not deal with because it’s a huge field that neither of us follows enough to provide a good discussion) and non-fiction scientific speculation, can you give some “decent examples” of what you say?

      Alan and I are only two people chatting, not a literary convention. See my comment below.

      What we are are readers who are happy to hear about other good books, but don’t really want to be yelled at for not knowing everything.

  5. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Think of these Tangents as a panel discussion broken into chunks once a week. Obviously, Alan and I can’t cover everything in the thousand or so words we permit ourselves, or even on those weeks we binge and allow 1,200.

    Writing longer pieces hasn’t worked in this format. People start skimming and miss key elements!

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