JANE: So, Alan, last week I suggested that in our discussion of classic science fiction tropes, the logical successor to the immortal was the “superman” or, as we decided to dub it, the “posthuman.” We laid our foundations as follows, 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.
However, we didn’t get into many examples. As I recall, you had one you were eager to bring up.
ALAN: Absolutely! A. E. Van Vogt used the idea of posthuman beings with super powers all the time. In his novel Slan, the eponymous slans (named after their creator Samuel Lann) can read minds and are super-intelligent. They have limitless stamina and superior strength. Gilbert Gosseyn, the hero of Van Vogt’s Null-A novels, has an extra brain that gives him the telekinetic power to manipulate matter with his mind. He also has a lot of spare bodies stashed away and every time he dies, a new body reactivates…
These are perhaps extreme examples of the idea, but pretty much every Van Vogt novel has a hero has been bred in some way for some kind of super power.
Van Vogt’s novels really don’t stand up well to serious scrutiny and analysis. They are very spectacular, but (in the Shakespearian sense) they are just full of sound and fury, signifying nothing whatsoever. Nevertheless, I love them to bits. They are my not so secret weakness. Sorry about that.
JANE: No need to apologize. Actually, starting with over-the-top examples is good. I haven’t read either Slan or Null-A, and, as a writer, I’m curious. How were the slans received in larger society?
ALAN: There are two types of slan – one has golden tendrils, which makes them very easy to identify, of course. They have been hunted almost to extinction because society perceives them to be a direct threat. The second kind of slan has no tendrils and therefore they can merge more easily with humanity at large. These slans remain largely unknown to human kind. They flourish in secret, conspiring to take over the world from within.
The symbolism is crude but effective.
JANE: Indeed. I really like the two types element. I shall restrain myself from asking why Samuel Lann thought tentacles were a good idea, and maybe go and read the book. But I do have another question.
Was Gilbert Gosseyn deliberately created or was that extra brain a mutation? Again, I’m curious how someone that powerful was received by society in general.
ALAN: That’s hard to pin down – the novel is very confusing. But on balance I’d say that he was created, though it’s not clear how or by whom. He might be an agent of the Games Machine, which is the ruler of the Earth and the preserver of Null-A logic, or he might be an agent of the Galactic Empire which is attempting to subvert Null-A. Take your pick.
What is clear is that Gosseyn seems to have very little ability to act freely. He reacts to situations that he is presented with but he never manages to influence them directly or overcome them. He’s a pawn in somebody else’s chess game. It isn’t a coincidence that the sequel to the novel was called The Pawns of Null-A…
JANE: What fun! Conspiracy or some sort of puzzle is always a good “hook” for a novel.
ALAN: Larry Niven flirted with the idea manipulating breeding for a given purpose in Ringworld where Teela Brown has been genetically enhanced to be very lucky indeed. And Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit (in the Dune novels) are attempting to create a messiah – a frightening can of worms whose implications Herbert doesn’t really get around to exploring.
JANE: I’m not sure I’d say Niven merely “flirted” with the idea. He continues with the implications of the luck of Teela Brown in Ringworld Engineers and The Ringworld Throne with very dark implications.
ALAN: I’ll take your word for it – I gave up on both those novels quite early in the story.
JANE: Same goes for the Bene Gesserit in Herbert’s “Dune” books. They get their messiah. The problem is, the greater perspective they were breeding for causes their messiah to behave in a fashion completely contrary to their wishes.
ALAN: Biologists have a saying: under conditions of constant temperature and pressure, the organism will do what it damn well pleases! Perhaps the Bene Gesserit shouldn’t have been too surprised by what happened…
JANE: Absolutely… This is where the author’s art comes in. If the Bene Gesserit got exactly what they wanted, Dune Messiah would have been a completely different book. However, everyone scrabbling around trying to deal with the implications of what Paul has become makes for a much different – and to me – much more interesting book.
ALAN: But there’s no reason to believe that this kind of tinkering will always lead to posthumans who have some genetic advantage over us. What if we ended up with homo inferior instead of homo superior? The Morlocks (from Wells’ The Time Machine) were a perfect example of devolution as opposed to evolution.
And there’s a very famous story by Cyril Kornbluth (“The Marching Morons”) where a tiny minority of bright people look after a world that is full of dullards who can barely tie their own shoelaces. The ancestors of the dullards were too dim to use contraception and so quickly outbred the brighter, more thoughtful people… Kornbluth used the idea again in a novel he wrote in collaboration with Frederik Pohl (Search the Sky), so he was clearly rather taken with it.
JANE: I have more thoughts about the posthumans trope but, if you don’t mind, I’d like to wait until after Christmas before we chat about them.
ALAN: Righto! Have a great Christmas, and I’ll talk to you again when the champagne I’ll be drinking has worn off.
JANE: Actually, given some of what I have in mind, champagne might be an advantage…