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.
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.