Something's missing in our pop culture lately. We have lots of massive spectacle and brain-melting plots, but no real human beings in the middle of it. Or we have great characters, but no sense of awe and discovery. But what about more stories that include both: The great characters and the sense of something huge and awesome?
I'd like to propose a theory: the absolute best heroes are the ones who come as close as possible to losing their humanity in the face of something massive or inhuman, but somehow remain human beings in spite of it all. Call it asymptotic post-humanity, if you like.
When you think about the quintessentially science-fictional protagonist, you're thinking about someone who goes to strange places, or experiments with strange new science, and then comes out of the other end able to tell the tale. The "coming out the other end" seems to be a crucial part of this idea: You're being changed by a radical experience, in ways that are hard to explain, but you're also still recognizeably a person afterwards.
So maybe the closer the hero comes to losing touch with humanity, without actually reaching a kind of post-human event horizon, the more epic his or her adventure seems?
I sort of think of Jean-Luc Picard as the classic example of this: over the course of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the follow-up movies, he becomes a temporary cyborg, he lives an entire life as an alien, he learns to communicate with an alien on another planet, he meets a kind of shitty god, he visits alternate timelines and his possible future, he gets tortured, and so on. But he's always ready to sit in his bathrobe and reflect on his latest brush with madness, cup of Earl Grey in hand.
It's that combination, of going way beyond the realm of human understanding without turning into a permanent cyborg or mutating into something bizarre, that's so irresistible.
Batman, too, has an element of that — especially in some of the comics where he's increasingly had insane, mind-bending adventures like getting drugged into insanity or splintered throughout time, but he's still just Bruce Wayne, average billionaire, under the cowl.
Doctor Who's recent companions, too, have followed a thread of nearly, but not quite, becoming gods. Rose Tyler opens up the TARDIS and becomes the godlike "Bad Wolf," but then just goes back to being an ordinary woman. Amy Pond gives birth to a sort of god and her husband lives for 2000 years, but in the end they're still more or less a regular couple. Donna Noble... let's not get into that.
The final arcs on Fringe, too, seemed to be increasingly about the Bishops and Olivia getting more and more "out there," and then snapping back to humanity. At one point, Olivia has enough superpowers to help wipe out reality, and at another moment Peter almost becomes a full-fledged Observer — but then they're back to being their regular, human selves, wiser but not actually omniscient or anything.
Meanwhile, contemporary science fiction literature is full of the posthuman — partly because upgrading ourselves is fun to think about, but also because the more we know about cosmic radiation and the timescales involved in space travel, the harder it is to dream up scenarios for deep space flight that don't involve massive reconfiguration.
But for those of us who are still living on Earth in the early 21st century, there's something exciting about the idea of going to the very edge of humanity (however we define that) and yet still being human at the end of that.
(This is with the caveat that we'll probably continue to define "post-humanity" differently as time goes by — 20 years from now, we may decide that someone with a cybernetic eye isn't really fully "posthuman" unless it connects directly to the brain. This is a goalpost that will probably move over time.)
Right now we have tons of stories about dystopian futures and post-apocalyptic Earths, along with fantasy realms — but there's a difference between surviving a disaster and choosing to go into the unknown. There's a difference, too, between exploration and simply being born into a secondary world, either fantastic or dystopian.
I also feel like there are lots of cautionary tales about how technology will change us into something unrecognizeable and monstrous. And these days, there's a constant stream of books on either side of the issue: either technology is making us smarter and better, or it's destroying our powers of concentration, or it's making us into self-absorbed loners, or it's making us into monster jerks.
But with all the debate over how technology and scientific innovation will change us, it would be nice to see more stories where they don't — not in the essential core of our humanity. Where we reassure ourselves that we can touch the edge of the unknown and still return to our armchair and our cup of Earl Grey, still ourselves.