In a recent post, I discussed transhumanism in Anil Menon’s The Beast with 9 Billion Feet. The book is terrific, offering insight into the politics of transhuman enhancements along with some of the dangers. Transhumanists in the U.S. and Europe would be well-advised to take a look.
Menon builds an analogy between genetic enhancement and parkour, the sport of running and tumbling through city streets. Of the latter, Menon writes: “when you come across an object–an edge–it’s a clue to generate a new kind of motion. Example: a wall is an edge that needs a running vault. A slope is a clue to slide. A person tying shi shoe is a leapfrog that’s gotta happen. A ramp calls for a takeoff…In parkour, there’s no such thing as an obstacle, only different ways to move.” This description of parkour provides a brilliant analogy for transhumanist thinking, for the idea that the contours of life are opportunities for adjustment, movement, and progress. I don’t believe that anyone has described transhumanism more elegantly.
Menon’s work is captivating, and he was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions regarding transhumanism, science fiction, and the differences between India and the U.S. He cannot be held accountable for the inadequacies of my questions and yet in spite of these, he offers some fascinating insight into technology, literature, and culture.
- What were the first influences to spark an interest in transhumanism for you and how did those change the way you see the world (if at all)?
I read Ursula Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” when I was about twenty, and its setting— a society in which cloning individuals for specific purposes had become the norm— deeply impressed me. I’d learned genetics, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that humans could be seen as design objects, that genetics could be one of the “sciences of the artificial”, as Herbert Simon put it. I think it was around this time that I began to really interested in the transhumanist project.
- What transhumanist ideas or desiderata do you find most compelling to write and think about and what makes them so?
It has varied over the years. In the initial phase, I was fascinated by the technological possibilities. For example, I was interested in how an auxiliary DNA strand could be used to effect selective gene expression. Later on, I grew interested in the potential conflicts between humans and transhumans. My novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet came out of this phase. These days however, I see transhumanism as an old idea in new bottles. I see it as a tantric project with technological and gnostic elements.
- Do you think the future of technology will be dependent upon geography? Specifically, do you think that India will have different interests from the United States?
I think we will see divergence in how technology develops around the world. It also depends on what we mean by technology. Perhaps we’ve become used to thinking of technology “classically”, namely as something that manipulates space, time and energy. But the most interesting technologies are those that manipulate human behavior, and through behavior, entire cultures. So for me, micro-lending is a technology. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a technology. Hunger fasts are a technology. Even with technologies in the classical sense, there is a lot of variation in how technologies are put to use. For example, even though net and smartphones have made online matchmaking possible, it’s a possibility that expresses itself differently in different cultures. In India, these technologies needed to evolve a caste and class consciousness for them to really take off. To give another example, we can be quite sure that technologies to combat corruption will be of special interest in the Global South. Another area of great interest to Indians is mental mastery. Technologies that help effect greater control over our consciousness will probably emerge in the next fifty years or so. So yes, seen from this broader perspective, the future of technology on the subcontinent may be expected to be very different from the US.
- In a related note, do you find that people in India and the United States view technology differently (in general or with regard to specific technologies)?
I don’t think so. Most Indians— most of the Global South— received their first impression of what counts as technology from western sources and western models. It will be a while before these places develop their own views. But perhaps the use-value of technology is different in these two places.
- Do any such differences affect the reading and writing of fiction in India, as opposed to the U.S.? (or, conversely, do you find that the fiction of India affects how people see technology?)
For some Indian readers, technology isn’t just associated with progress, but also with power, with authority, and with proof of cultural superiority. In the Hindu epics and puranas there are descriptions of flying vehicles and weapons powered by mantras. For these readers, such occurrences are proof that the ancients had aircraft and missiles. They either ignore or don’t see the fact that the stories also make it clear that there was no indoor plumbing. Or the fact that science is fundamentally disruptive, anti-authority and driven by causal explanations, not our need for reasons. In other words, these readers have a quasi-religious approach to technology and SFF fits into a nationalistic project.
For another kind of Indian reader, mostly informed by golden-age American SF, science and technology represents modernity, but a modernity that has washed out all heterogeneity. It doesn’t matter whether a story is set in New York or Kanpur, because as they see it, in the future neither of these places will differ in a way that makes a difference. So if the former reader escapes into nationalistic fantasies of various kinds, the second kind escapes into universalist fantasies.
These types aren’t unique to the subcontinent. The singularitarian movement that originated in technocratic extrapolations may be explainable, as Benjamin Bennett has done, as 20th century millenarianism. The reader who awaits the singularity is waiting for a world in which all the heterogeneous complexities of modern life are bleached by technology into a monochrome utopia.
- What responsibilities or opportunities do you have, as an author of speculative fiction, to affect how technologies are deployed by industry, government, or individual users?
I see speculative fiction as part of the humanities and thus responsible, as is the rest of the humanities, for imagining what it means to be human. Sometimes this means subverting technocratic fantasies. At other times, it means trying to make the future a place worth living in. As my friend Athena Andreadis said somewhere, science will give us the spaceships, but science-fiction will give us the reasons to get into them.
- What would be your top three recommendations in the realms of contemporary fantasy, science fiction, and/or speculative lit for readers unfamiliar with Indian contributions to these?
Indra Das’ The Devourers and Samit Basu’s Simoquin Prophesy trilogy are interesting examples of contemporary Indian fantasy. In spec-fic, I recommend Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority. Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome and Sami Ahmad Khan’s Aliens In Delhi are representative of the two broad streams in Indian SF–the first is a philosophical, post-colonial take on the idea of science and the second is an entertaining novel inspired by golden-age SF.
- Can readers expect you to continue discussing transhumanist technologies in your future work?
My recent work seems to have taken a turn leading out of science fiction, so transhumanism is less of a preoccupation than it once was. A direct preoccupation, I should say. As Harold Bloom tried to explain, perhaps not very persuasively, Shakespeare did as much to change human nature as may fancy future technologies. Language is our subtlest technology and there is no avoiding the transhuman project in literature. Any story changes some human, somewhere. This change may be temporary. It may not be transmittable. It may be localized to just one individual. But taken collectively, stories are arguably just as effective as genetics or physics or chemistry in altering the nature of our species.
There’s a lot here for thought, which I’ll leave to a third and final posting. In the meanwhile, I expect others will find some inspiration for reflection in Menon’s words.