Are we finally going to get a posthuman mass culture? With movies like Surrogates and Avatar hitting theaters later this year, it may be now or never.
Both Surrogates and Avatar feature posthuman heroes, in very different ways. And television's Lost is starting to look as though its protagonists are going to wind up evolving past their standard-issue humanity. But Hollywood has tried to explore posthuman ideas in the past, but has either fallen flat or lapsed into standard "fear the other" tropes. But this time around, things may be different, because books have shown the way forward, and we need a new dose of optimism and escapism. Will posthumans finally conquer our screens? Maybe.
For the purposes of this post, I'm thinking of posthumans as "vanilla" humans who get upgraded somehow, either by becoming cyborgs, or connecting their minds to cyberspace, or becoming part-alien, or enhancing their bodies with nanotech, biotech or some other improvements. I know that's not the only definition, but it's one that's easy to talk about in the context of SF.
Posthuman stories are a long-standing staple of science fiction books. Finishing the addictive Eclipse Two anthology the other day, I couldn't help but notice how many of those stories were about posthumans. (You have humans whose consciousnesses have migrated to virtual worlds, and an immortal emperor whose brain has gotten so large and wired, he now looks like a finless whale more than a human.) We almost don't remark on the occurrence of posthuman themes in novels like Charles Stross' Glasshouse and Accelerando any more - they're just part of the backdrop of the story. (SFSite called 2005 the "Year of the Post-Human Novel," with a rich harvest of posthuman tales.) Literary authors Kazuo Ishiguro and Michel Houellebecq tackled post-human themes in their 2006 novels, Never Let Me Go and The Possibility Of An Island respectively. Cyberpunk is a venerable literary movement at this point. And it's hard to believe it's been 15 years since Octavia Butler's classic Xenogenesis novels, in which aliens and post-apocalyptic humans merge to form a new species.
But posthuman characters in TV and movies? Much fewer and farther between, I think.
Reading about Disney's Surrogates trailer, right after reading Eclipse Two, was an interesting contrast for me. Surrogates is very consciously about people augmenting and transcending their bodies: in the movie's cyber-ish future, nobody leaves his/her home any more - instead you send your beautiful robot "surrogate" out to interact with other people and do errands. (Unless you're Bruce Willis' kick-ass lawman, who ditches his cyber wig and gets his hands dirty in the real world investigating a murder.) Of course, the movie is bound to critique this idea, but it may also show why it's cool, or the ways in which it enhances your life.)
The other big movie coming up which seems to have posthuman themes is James Cameron's long, long-awaited Avatar, where Terminator Salvation's Sam Worthington goes to a planet where humans can only interact with the natives by taking on quasi-alien surrogate bodies, or "Avatars." Worthington's character, a disabled ex-marine, is the perfect choice to inhabit one of these hybrid human-alien bodies. (This could be one of the first movies ever where a human becoming part alien, or having a part-alien body, is presented as a good thing rather than a monstrous bodily invasion, as in Cameron's own Aliens.)
I'm also starting to wonder if TV's Lost could turn into a posthuman narrative. Do we know exactly what the island is doing to the castaways? They seem to have some kind of connection with the place, which seems to confer rapid healing and immortality on its inhabitants, and they're being engineered to withstand time-hopping. Could we eventually discover, maybe in season six, that Locke and some of the others are no longer exactly human? (And commenter im.thatoneguy points out that Heroes is a strongly posthuman show as well, featuring characters who have evolved to have special abilities, plus superpowered people who are the results of scientific experiments. And the protagonists of Heroes often are involved in hacking the future, and are starting to customize themselves as well. This makes me think of a related point: superhero narratives are often inherently posthuman, especially something like Iron Man, where the hero is a cyborg with his own built-in power supply that keeps him alive.)
There was a boomlet of posthuman TV and movies in the 1990s. Star Trek: Voyager gave us Seven Of Nine, a member of the Borg collective who explored her humanity even as she proved that she was superior to any human, in almost every episode. There was 1999's cyberpunk trifecta of The Matrix, Existenz and The 13th Floor. The Matrix, in particular, spends a lot of time showing how the virtual world is a trap made out of lies - and then revels, for the rest of its length, in how much cool shit Neo is able to do with his in-born ability to hack the virtual environment. The Matrix probably wouldn't have captured people's imaginations nearly as much if it hadn't made uploading your consciousness to a VEarth look cool as well as oppressive.
The Matrix tried, and failed, to turn a cyber-rebellion story into a franchise and add more complexity and layers to the original's fairly simple concept. And the past decade hasn't featured much in the way of successful posthuman storylines in movies and TV, that I can think of anyway. (Maybe Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, or The Man From Earth, starring John Billingsley.) As books have continued to obsess about what we'll become after we finally transcend our design specs, movies and TV have stuck to unreconstructed humans, who may encounter "the other" in the form of aliens, cyborgs, robots and monsters, all without changing their configuration.
It's easy to see why posthuman tales might be easier to tell in books than in movies or television: it's a lot easier to depict a divided consciousness - one which is part-machine, or part-alien - in prose. Even with modern CG effects, it's hard to depict an upgraded human on screen without a certain amount of cheesiness creeping in. Also, many of the coolest posthuman stories span thousands, or even millions, of years, as quasi-immortal protagonists travel across the stars. Many of the coolest things in posthuman lit are among the hardest things to depict on screen.
As much as futurists and transhuman pundits would like to insist that the Singularity is coming in our lifetimes, and that the Singularity will turn us posthuman, most posthuman narratives don't really function as predictions about the future at all. Instead, they have two super-important functions:
First, they're metaphors for our current super-rapid progress. We haven't transcended our humanity at all, but we have made huge advances in medicine and improved our life-expectancy massively. Our 90-year lifespans make us seem like 1,000-year-old mega-brains compared to our short-lived ancestors. We have, in a sense, outsourced part of our brains to the internet - I no longer remember a lot of facts or details, because I rely on Google to remember them for me. We're increasingly socializing in virtual realms, where we get to customize our identities and live through "avatars." As Joss Whedon pointed out the other day, we can customize our states of mind with amazingly personalized medicines. None of this, in itself, makes us posthuman. But it's a jarring transition from even a decade ago, and one that people need metaphors to help make sense of.
Second, posthuman stories are pure escapism. It's pretty awesome to imagine futures where we can be instantly beautiful, transform our bodies based on our whims, live to be a zillion years old, and vastly expand our mental faculties, etc. In some ways, it's the purest distillation of science fiction's promise: even more than visiting the stars and meeting aliens, getting past our crappy human weaknesses and becoming fully awesome, thanks to science.
That's what makes me wonder whether the time for posthuman pop has come at last: on the one hand, a degrading environment and deteriorating economy may make us feel less excited about fancy tech gadgets, and life-enhancing medical technologies may be out of reach for more people. But on the other hand, everybody says we're primed for some escapism about now. And pretty much the only easy answer to our myriad problems is some kind of huge leap forward in human evolution, making us smarter and vastly enhancing our brainpower.
People are crying out for a dose of optimism as everything teeters on the edge of disaster. We need a bright, shinier vision of the future, as much as posthumanly possible. Has the posthuman movie star's time come at last?