We all dream of upgrading beyond Human 1.0. But meanwhile, our fantasy worlds are full of creatures who've already become superhuman and semi-immortal. Which deathless creatures are closer to our cherished posthuman ideal: vampires? Or zombies?
We already wrote recently about how zombies are eerily similar to posthumans in some ways. But really, any undead person has a certain amount in common with the posthuman dream, as explored in so many science fiction novels from the early to mid 2000s. Both vampires and zombies have exceeded the limitations of normal human bodies in some pretty basic ways, can survive stuff that would kill any human, and can potentially live for thousands of years.
And yet, for both zombies and vampires, posthumanity comes with some severe drawbacks. In most versions of zombie lore, zombies lose most of their intelligence and start looking pretty unglamorous. Vampires, meanwhile, are often evil, usually can't go out in the daytime, and must contend with a thirst for human blood, among other issues.
In some senses, both zombies and vampires represent the dark side of science fiction's usually cheerful image of posthumanity. And our culture's current obsession with both vampires and zombies can be seen as a recognition that, yes, living forever and transcending your body may not be entirely wonderful, after all. We're inching towards posthumanity, as our lifespans (in the developed world) grow longer, and our technology lets us extend our personalities into virtual spaces more than ever. But already, we're seeing the drawbacks of living too long and having too much of our personalities spread about, outside of our own heads.
Image by Ben Douglass
And as we've pointed out before, actual posthumanity could really suck — if you have cyberimplants, you're bound to download some bad code or a glitchy service pack into your head. If you have genetically engineered super-organs, you're just asking for new and exciting diseases. And so on. So it's good that both zombies and vampires are adding some more realistic downsides to our posthuman dream.
So which undead terror is more posthuman: Vampires or zombies? Let's consider the criteria of posthumanity.
1) Sexiness. Posthumans have to be sexy, according to our limited human ideals of sexiness. Sure, a true posthuman would probably regard our sexuality as quaint and antiquated, and probably would only have sex with rhombuses or something. But it doesn't matter — since we're the ones imagining posthumans right now, we want them to be sexier. And clearly, vampires are sexy in a way that zombies just aren't. (Sorry, Zombie Strippers.)
2) Quasi-immortality. This is really the point of posthumanity, for a lot of people. Not actual immortality, necessarily, but something close to it. Being very, very hard to kill. Like, if you destroy my physical body, I'll just download my brain from a backup, into a new (and sexy) body. Or I'll regrow all of the destroyed bits thanks to nanotechnology. Or I'll just relocate my consciousness to one of my five other selves, running around the place. And here's where zombies have a bit of an advantage: They're the hardest of all to kill. You can stake a vampire, but a zombie will hardly notice a stake through the heart. (Of course, decapitation kills everybody, in most versions.)
3) Modular bodies or multiple bodies. The standard human body is so limited, what with having two of everything except mouths and noses and junk. Once we've transcended humanity, we'll want to have more genitals, and maybe fewer ears. We'll be able to have multiple bodies (see above) or turn ourselves into tanks, like in Charles Stross' Glasshouse. We'll be able to take off limbs and add limbs, or change our gender, or reassemble ourselves into new forms. This is another point for zombies, who can lose limbs without even blinking. And if you think of zombies as a collective force rather than individuals, then they have multiple bodies as well. Vampires only keep their standard human body type, for the most part.
4) Super-intelligence. Just being able to hack your body isn't enough — most of us want to hack our brains, too. We want to be able to remember loads of stuff, and extend our mental capacity beyond our meat brains into an enhanced virtual brain space. We want to be able to write poems in our sleep — literally — and solve huge problems in an eyeblink. We want to be artificially enhanced supergeniuses. And while neither zombies nor vampires are usually depicted as crazy smart, I think we all know which one comes closer.
5) A postmodern identity that goes beyond our current limited ideas of selfhood, a la Donna Haraway. In her influential Cyborg Manifesto (which you can read here) Haraway argues for "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction." She's talking more about cyborgs than other types of posthumans, but people have applied her ideas to all sorts of enhanced people — especially the idea that growing past regular humanity means leaving behind traditional divisions between people and identities. And here's another area where zombies have an advantage. After a while, zombies become totally postmodern, lacking any gender or race or other cultural signifiers. As their clothes and skin slowly rot away, the zombies lose any sense of individuality or selfhood, becoming just a killing mob.
So yeah, I think zombies win out, in the end, in the struggle for posthuman excellence.