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Transhuman by Mark L. Van Name and T.K.F. Weisskopf

Cover art by David Jeely

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Ever since the Industrial Revolution initiated the era of rapid, pervasive technological change and resultant social change, people have both welcomed and feared what changes the future may bring. Welcomed because of the promise of improved standards of living for themselves and their children, but feared because of the erosion and even loss of old certainties and the sense of stability they brought. Lines of work that had formerly been reliable for a steady income suddenly became economically worthless, leaving large numbers of people cast adrift and scrambling to avoid the humiliation of indigence. Worse, relationships and social hierarchies that had been previously regarded as sacrosanct suddenly became mutable, even irrelevant.

But the technologies of the Industrial Revolution primarily changed the way goods were produced. The medical and computer technologies that are being developed in the twenty-first century offer the possibility of transforming what it means to be human. To some it is the promise of a new Golden Age of health and prosperity, while others see it as a Frankenstein horror of humans trespassing into matters properly reserved for the Creator alone. Even as some conservatives call for restrictions or outright bans on further development of certain technologies, others argue that bans will only serve to ensure that such technology is developed illegally, without any sort of oversight, and will put inordinate power in the hands of the same sorts of people who turned the streets of America's major cities into war zones during the 1920's.

In this volume eleven authors examine the possibilities of these transformative technologies. Will they better or lives or make them worse? Will we find ways to live with the change or will we fight it tooth or toenail? How will people with differing responses to the same technology manage to live together in the same society?

In "Firewall" David D. Levine gives us a new twist on the old nightmare of the Computer that Takes Over. It's a trope as old as popular awareness of computers -- Colossus: The Forbin Project was one of the earliest versions to appear. But Levine adds the interesting complication of his protagonist being on the Moon, the information security officer of the first permanent moonbase, using super-sophisticated computer technology to keep hackers and crackers out of the computers which not only are critical to the scientific experiments in progress there, but also to the life-support systems upon which they all depend for their very existence. Thus, when he gets the first reports of strange happenings in a Chinese city associated with renegade computer experimenters, he has to protect his people from the threat, even if it means cutting himself off from the very sources of information he needs in order to assess the nature of the threat -- or if it is even a threat at all. When computers were giant machines in basements somewhere, handled only by an elite priesthood of specialists, it was easy to see them as inimical to human freedom, but now that computers have become ubiquitous and many people have more processing power in their cars than those early giants even possessed, it is easier to see other possibilities besides Us vs. Them.

Editor Mark Van Name offers us his own take on transhumanism in "Reunion," in which an artificial person struggles to create for himself a sense of connectedness with humanity by sneaking into class reunions, counting on the fact that the classes are so large that nobody will remember everybody in them to cover the fact he doesn't really belong there. However, the ending gives us an intriguing suggestions that the protagonist's certainty that he is an artificial being may in fact be a symptom of mental illness. Thus the story can be read either as technological speculation or as a metaphor of the anomie of modern society in which social ties become increasingly tenuous and fragmented, and I could completely see it published in a literary magazine.

In "The Guardian" Paul Chafe gives us a story that takes the human-machine transformation the other way. Mark Astale was a Chicago city cop until the day a perp shot and killed him. Scanning his brain and digitizing it was a way to keep something of him alive, and since then he's been earning his keep by catching fugitives. Ordinary computers can't distinguish the fine details that distinguish one face from another, and ordinary humans can't process the images fast enough to get through more than a fraction of the data coming in. But he combines human-level judgment abilities with a computer's sheer speed, and his success in capturing some truly nasty criminals who skipped bail has ensured that the project will continue to be funded. However, not everyone who was involved in the project agrees with the ends to which it has been put, and he too soon faces an ethical dilemma, one that ties in with his own existence and the age-old question of who will watch the watchmen. And in the end, Mark Astale is a man who takes the mandate to serve and protect very seriously.

Wen Spencer gives us a story about the enduring nature of human connectedness in "Being Human," in which the protagonist's mother continues to live in a sort of digital Heaven after her body's death. Through the network he returns to visit her in her recreation of his childhood home, where he meets with other family members, both those who still live in the meat world and those who have gone all digital. And some of them are exploring the possibilities of a new generation of digital humans who will never be creatures of flesh and blood.

After so many stories set on Earth, John Lambshead's "In Command" takes us to deep space and ancient wars of super-advanced beings, to a partnership between human and computer that is almost like a marriage. Who is in charge? Does the expression "in charge" even have any meaning, or can it be an illusion? Anybody who's been married for any length of time or who lives with a cat can attest to those sudden moments of reversal when we realize that no, we're not the ones in charge of the relationship at all, but we're just being allowed to have the illusion that we are because life without us would be so dreadfully inconvenient.

In "G@vin45" Daniel M. Hoyt takes us to a future in which people routinely interface with their computers via brain-bots that vastly increase their ability to deal with information flow. Much as we today use screen names or handles on Internet fora, they create faces for themselves, probably short for interfaces, which are a sort of stylized characters based upon various archetypes and media/literary characters. However, not everybody approves of this lifestyle, including the protagonist's own father, who refuses nanobot-based medicines when he has a fatal heart attack. Those who have rejected brain-bot technology and the faces associated with it are called blanks, and their leader is urging everybody to participate in an event called Blank Day when they turn off their bots and live only through their senses. In anticipation of Blank Day, the protagonist comes out with a new face that includes a hidden blank mode which gives the illusion of being a blank for a pre-set number of minutes, at which point the brain-bots cut back in. I enjoyed this story particularly for its new twist on the old expression "face reality." Typically it's an admonition to accept it as is and deal with it squarely, but in the new technology of Hoyt's future, it becomes a practice of using technology and sensory interfaces to put a pleasing face on reality, blocking out unpleasant sensations such as foul odors or ugly bits of background.

After that piece of serious extrapolation Ester M. Freisner gives us "Home for the Holidays," a humorous take on suburban domestic competitiveness and the trophy house as it is transformed by new technology. Sometimes the more things change, the more human nature at its most fundamental remains the same.

In "Soul Printer" Wil McCarthy explores what transhuman technology will mean for art and artists, and for those who manage to make it big. What does wealth mean in a future where everything has changed? This is the one story that I had the most trouble getting into, but it may just be that I'm not quite the right audience for a story about the problems of the incredibly wealthy.

Sarah A. Hoyt takes a look at the dark side of transhumanism in "Whom the Gods Love." Even today, we have vast divides between those who have access to computer technology and all the opportunities it represents and those who are too busy struggling just to stay alive to worry about opportunities they're missing out on. But in the future, might there be some effort by some of the less savory elements of society to deliberately preserve a community of have-nots as museum pieces or worse, as entertainment? What should be done when such schemes are found, to simultaneously make sure that the full range of opportunities are available to the victims and that their autonomy and dignity are preserved? Do we have the right to decide what they should want, solely on the basis that we would want it for ourselves and therefore are sure it would be for their own good, or should they be allowed to make their own decisions even if those decisions aren't the ones we would make for ourselves or think they ought to make?

In "Wetware 2.0" David Freer takes a look at how the Singularity will affect not just humanity, but humanity's best friend. Humans and dogs have a partnership that go back to the paleolithic, and many scientists now believe that its beginning was a mutual process of accommodation and acculturation to both species' benefit rather than the anthropocentric model of humans domesticating captured wolf cubs as hunters and guards. If we extend the benefits of mind-enhancing technology to our canine friends, they may well return the favor in surprising ways. All I can say without spoiling the ending is that David Freer most definitely has lived with both dogs and cats and knows them very well.

In "Escape" James P. Hogan gives us a new look at the old idea of using a condemned criminal as an experimental subject in particularly risky transhumanist project. On one hand, we might well be handing enormous power to someone who has already shown himself unwilling or unable to live within the boundaries of society. On the other, might we be giving someone the capacity to appreciate the interconnectedness of life that he has previously never seen. Or in simpler terms, might it let him him grow a conscience?

On the whole, it's a good collection, if a bit tilted to the optimistic side, the assumption that on the whole transhuman technology will be a net gain for humanity even if some selfish individuals may choose to use it to gain at others' expense. But considering that it's from Baen Books, it's not surprising. Jim Baen always did have a strong preference for happy endings, or at least ones in which the moral victory that is won by the protagonists is of sufficient value that the prices paid for it are felt to be worth it.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Mark L. Van Name
  • "Firewall" by David D. Levine
  • "Reunion" by Mark L. Van Name
  • "The Guardian" by Paul Chafe
  • "Being Human" by Wen Spencer
  • "In Command" by John Lambshead
  • "G@vin45" by Daniel M. Hoyt
  • "Home for the HOlidays" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "Soul Printer" by Wil McCarthy
  • "Whom the Gods Love" by Sarah A Hoyt
  • "Wetware 2.0" by DAve Freer
  • "Escape" by James P. Hogan
  • About the Contributors

Review posted January 14, 2010

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