Science fiction has long influenced the development of technology and science. Together, they've formed a working relationship, where art inspires future real life creation. I recently had a chance to sit down with Canadian David Simpson, a young science fiction author whose compelling books have helped push forward transhumanist ideas. Here's our conversation:
Q: David, your recent foreword to The Robot Chronicles, a short story collection featuring some of the biggest names in science fiction, seemed to herald the arrival of transhumanist/singularity science fiction as a dominant sub-genre. Full disclosure, I’ve written a well-known transhumanist novel myself, but for the sake of argument, couldn’t we say that Asimov’s Foundation Series was also transhumanist since it dealt with AI and robots? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an even older example of a novel about a scientist trying to achieve immortality. Given the history of these science fiction concepts, how can we say that transhumanism in science fiction is suddenly something new?
A: It’s paradoxical for sure, and who doesn’t love a great paradox? Issues like immortality, AI, robotics, and even more recently, virtual reality in the sub-genre of cyberpunk, have been around for decades (and centuries in the case of immortality and Frankenstein). But science fiction, perhaps more so than any other type of fiction, reflects the reality of the moment and the mood of the people. I’d argue there was a period beginning with the release of Star Wars in 1977 and ending with the attacks of September 11th, 2001, that was, looking back, a period of relative optimism, both in science fiction and in western culture as a whole. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, which both seemed to encourage dreaming positively about the future of humanity, were huge successes, not just on the big screen but also in television, comics, and fiction. I think science fiction was doing what it is best at, and that is inspiring people and influencing untold thousands of people to become scientists and dream of better futures. After 9/11, the mood of America and the world became, understandably, distinctly darker. This echoes what happened prior to Star Wars in 1977 as a result of the long and drawn out conflict in Vietnam. Similarly, the Iraq war certainly bred cynicism, and then just as it seemed we were ready to come out of the darkness, the global economy collapsed and the Great Recession commenced. As a result, popular science fiction has been mired in books and movies that reflect the times, so post-apocalyptic visions and dystopias became the rage. It’s been a long, thirteen-year dark mood bordering on a depression that the world, only now in the late summer of 2014, seems to be threatening to emerge from. Serious setbacks in Russia and the Ukraine aside, the economy is rolling again, technology seems to be advancing with personal mobile computing revolutionizing our lives, and with companies like Space X talking about sending humans to Mars within fifteen years, it seems to be providing a ray of hope that perhaps we’re about to get back to seriously moving the species forward in an exciting and optimistic way.
I think that’s why the Post-Human series has had very close to 100,000 downloads on Amazon since the middle of March this year, because Post-Human is a transhumanist/singularity inspired adventure series that depicts a future of fantastic possibilities that people are just starting to realize is actually on the horizon and they’re hungrily looking for stories about it. When Asimov was writing about similar themes, it was still just a little too far away to seem urgent, but the accelerating pace of information technology has changed all of that, and now transhumanist science fiction is posed to become the dominant sub-genre of science fiction, and in a way, what’s old is new again.
Q. What would you say to someone who countered that a lot of things actually go wrong because of technology and science in the Post-Human series? Doesn’t that make your series as negative as the post-apocalyptic books you’re referring to?
A. A good friend of mine who used to be the Executive Director of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+) and the founder of H+ Magazine is a big supporter of the Post-Human series and pointed out that, despite what he called the “necessary conflicts,” the stories actually depict technology making people’s lives better. I was so happy that he understood that drama is conflict. If I were to write a book about the fantastic technology that is on the horizon and nothing ever went wrong, then I’d really be writing a polemic, and polemics are rarely interesting. The truth is, strong AI, meaning AI that surpasses humans in intelligence, is going to be a game changer on a level not seen since humans evolved their neocortex, except that the first strong AI is likely to emerge in a matter of a few years rather than through thousands of years of evolution, and it’s guaranteed to soar past human intellectual capability. It’ll be an incredible moment, one that’s been called our “last invention,” and it’s possible that the time period leading up to this event, and even the time period in the immediate aftermath, will be turbulent. I hope it won’t be, but the implications of the super-advanced technology on the horizon are so vast that it’s a fiction author’s dream come true. The myriad of possible conflicts are rife for exploration, and that’s what the Post-Human series does. Just as Star Trek is generally thought of as having a very positive view of science, humanity, and the future, yet there was conflict in every movie, episode, book, etc, the same is and will continue to be true of the Post-Human series. And just as in Star Trek, the humans won’t give up because the technology presents challenges. They’ll do what humanity has always done, which is persevere and hopefully overcome. The only difference is that Post-Human picks up where Star Trek had to leave off, since Star Trek is a franchise that was born before the implications of the acceleration of information technology were understood. Now that it’s becoming clear that nanobots will end aging and lead to upgrades in intelligence and that we’re going to merge with our computer technology sooner rather than later, a future in which humans still age, bald, and die doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. But the positive spirit of that franchise lives on. I guess I’d say that, in a way, Post-Human is attempting to be the real Star Trek reboot.
Q.You say that it has become clear that nanobots will end aging, we’ll upgrade our intelligence and merge with machines, but how do you respond to those people who’d argue that those technologies aren’t on the horizon or are perhaps unlikely to ever be possible?
A. When I first had the idea for Post-Human and began writing it in February of 2005, some of technologies I was writing about might’ve been too far ahead of their time for a lot of people to understand. Luckily, it took me until 2009 to get it published and I wasn’t able to Kindle Direct Publish it and reach a wider audience until early in 2012, so the technology the general public had been exposed to had time to catch up in the meantime. For instance, the post-humans in my books have an onboard mental computer called the mind’s eye, and Google Glass could easily be said to be the first-gen version of this, so it’s easy for new readers to accept that the mind’s eye is the logical upgrade. Another example is that in the summer of 2012, I published a prequel that is now book 1 in the series, called Sub-Human, and I had one of the characters placed in suspended animation for more than a decade in a suspended animation body bag. When it appeared in the media that suspended animation was cleared for human trials earlier this spring, multiple readers posted links to the news articles on my Facebook and exclaimed their shock that a technology from my books was appearing in reality, as though it walked right out of the safety of fiction and plopped itself in the middle of real life. I wasn’t surprised, however, as I’d only included suspended animation body bags in the book because I knew DARPA was really working on them, and I’d even watched a TED talk about it while doing my research for the novel. Basically what I’m saying is that the technology in the series, fantastic though much of it seems, is based in reality. In 2014, with Siri or Google Voice Search in most people’s pockets, the general public seems to accept that AI is close at hand. With fingers and even organs being grown with stem cells, the idea that immortality will be achievable within decades doesn’t stretch people’s ability to believe or comprehend anymore. In short, the people have come a long way in just a very short time, and it’s time for science fiction to reclaim its rightful place and get back out in front of the science reality. For the last ten years or so, too much sci-fi has been playing catch up, with the scientists and engineers leading the way while authors imagined end of the world scenarios that were arguably not even science fiction at all. Sci-fi authors have the opportunity now to do the research, understand transhumanism and the acceleration of information technology, and start inspiring the scientists and engineers of the future again.
David Simpson's Post-Human series Books 1-4 edition is free this weekend (starting 8-30-14) in Kindle for Amazon. Grab a download here. And here's his website for more information about him: http://www.post-humannovel.com
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and leading transhumanist. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Zoltan is also the author of the award-winning, #1 Philosophical and Sci-Fi Visionary bestseller novel The Transhumanist Wager. Available in ebook or paperback, the controversial novel is a revolutionary reading experience. You can check it out here.