Michael Bérubé, THE EX-HUMAN

Michael Bérubé is one of our best social and cultural critics. He has written important books on cultural studies, disability studies, and the politics of the “culture wars” in academia and beyond. Bérubé’s new book, The Ex-Human, is about science fiction. Bérubé offers thoughtful close readings of a number of classic science fiction texts: Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? (with some reference to its film adaptation as Blade Runner), Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (with some reference to its better-known film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick), and Octavia Butler’s Parable series and Lilith’s Brood series.

Bérubé’s discussions of all these texts are subtle and insightful. But close reading in its own right is not the point of the book. Bérubé includes autobiographical personal reflections, and discusses writing the book in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which deeply changed the dynamics of his own personal and family life, together with everyone else’s. Above all, though, the book is concerned with how science fiction allows us to entertain non-human perspectives upon human life and existence, and specifically to imagine the end of humanity — or rather (and better) its transformation in radical ways that exceed our capacity for imaginative projection and continued empathy.

I am inclined to share Bérubé’s pessimism about human futures. Immanuel Kant said that, regardless of its mistakes, excesses, and bad human rights record, the French Revolution was inspiring and positive because it demonstrated the sheer fact that human beings were capable of rebelling against injustice and envisioning something better. But today we find ourselves facing a sort of inverse of this situation. Regardless of whether Donald Trump gets elected to a second term or not, his widespread support by millions of American voters is frightening and horrific because it demonstrates the sheer fact that human beings are so enthusiastically vicious, bigoted, and sadistic that they are more than willing to embrace a worsening of their own lives, as long as this guarantees that other people will be treated even worse than they are, and that they will retain the privilege of enjoying the spectacle of other people’s suffering, like Christians in Heaven who gain surplus gratification from observing the torments of sinners in Hell. Though Bérubé doesn’t express himself precisely in these terms, he is definitely saying something similar. He cites, for instance, Octavia Butler’s insight that human beings are both highly intelligent and inveterately hierarchical, an extremely deadly combination.

Bérubé chooses the works he discusses precisely because they all share something of this ferociously negative vision, even though many readers/viewers seem to have gone out of their way to avoid acknowledging this. He defines his perspective by identifying it with that of Ye Weinjie, the character in The Three-Body Problem who deliberately contacts the Trisolarians (the aliens who inhabit the Alpha Centauri three-star system), thus encouraging them to invade Earth. Having suffered through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and subsequent tyrannical and environmentally destructive actions of the Chinese government, Ye Weinjie concludes — mistakenly but not unjustifiably — that an alien invasion might well be the one thing that “can somehow save us from ourselves.” Bérubé is careful to distinguish this position from the more overtly radical one (also dramatized in the novel, and expressed in theoretical terms by such anti-natalists as David Benatar) that straightforwardly seeks the self-annihilation of Homo sapiens altogether.

For Bérubé, then, the greatest virtue of science fiction is its ability to articulate perspectives “in which we have become able to see ourselves and our sorry fate from the vantage point of something other than the human.” Rather than using such common terms as posthuman or transhuman, Bérubé describes his perspective as ex-human. To me, this suggests the scenario of tending one’s resignation from, and retiring from, the human race, although Bérubé does not quite describe it in these terms. In any case, the term ex-human avoids the self-congratulatory visions of exceeding and transcending the human that we find in Nietzsche, say, or more to the point in recent Silicon Valley TESCREALists (TESCREAL = “transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and longtermism”). [You can find out more about TESCREALism here]. For Bérubé, the ex-human “is distinctive in that it is framed by the possibility of human extinction and driven by a desire to imagine that, somehow, another species is possible.” Becoming otherwise is desirable, and may well be a better alternative than remaining conventionally “human”; but it should not be seen as a conquest, a triumph, or a heroic accomplishment.

The novels and films discussed by Bérubé all express this desire in various ways, albeit often tentatively. The bioengineering of a less malevolent successor species to Homo sapiens is most explicitly envisioned in Oryx and Crake. Much more mildly, Ursula Le Guin’s vision of a society that is not governed by gender in The Left Hand of Darkness proposes a modification of “human nature” that is not flawless, but evidently more desirable than not. Though Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? is explicitly premised upon the supposition that human beings are able to feel empathy, whereas androids are not, it is not only set in the aftermath of a human-made catastrophe (nuclear war), and questions its human-supremacist premise in many other ways as well. 2001 also contrasts banalized human characters with the supercomputer HAL, who is arguably the most empathetic character in both the novel and the movie. 2001, like Androids and Blade Runner, suggest that transcending, or at least reforming, what we understand as “the human” is urgently necessary, and indeed perhaps inevitable.

The richest discussion in The Ex-Human is that in the final chapter, devoted to Octavia Butler. Here Bérubé discusses both the Parable diptych, and the Lilith’s Brood trilogy. The Parable books presciently envision a Trumpian America, and set against it a small-scale utopian community project. In the course of the novels, the protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina does succeed in setting up a worthwhile intentional community, but only after the most horrific and painful tribulations. And in any case, such a result is not scalable to humanity as a whole. This leads Butler to posit space travel and migration to other worlds as a more permanent solution to self-inflicted human suffering; but it is all too symptomatic that Butler was never able to write a third novel in the series that would convincingly envision such a movement. Here Bérubé cites Gerry Canavan’s exploration of Butler’s many abandoned manuscripts. (In fact, this impasse was already encountered in Butler’s early novel Survivor, which she ultimately disowned as a result).

Bérubé then turns to Butler’s earlier Lilith’s Brood series, consisting of Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. In these novels, Butler envisions an Earth devastated by nuclear war, survived only by a small number of humans who are rescued by an alien species with superior technologies, the Oankali. These aliens define themselves as gene traders; they seek to produce a genetic hybrid between themselves and humans. I won’t go into Bérubé’s reading of this trilogy in detail. I will only note that the biggest interpretive disagreement about the trilogy is over whether we should regard the Oankali as benevolent saviors, or whether we should regard them as manipulative and oppressive colonialists. There is good evidence for both approaches in the books. The Oankali insist, quite plausibly, that human beings are bound to destroy themselves (again; since the premise of the novels is that we have already done so once), unless they accept the deep species modifications that are being offered them. However, the Oankali clearly maintain a position of superiority vis-a-vis the surviving humans, lying to them, forcing them into actions against their will (up to and including what can only be understood as rape), and continually overriding human demands and desires, supposedly for the humans’ own good. Bérubé offers a remarkable synthesis of these two opposed readings; he agrees that the Oankali’s treatment of human beings is entirely, unacceptably nasty; but at the same time he suggests that (from Butler’s own perspective, which Bérubé endorses) such a forcible remaking of humanity into something *other* is preferable to human beings remaining as they are. The human condition as it actually is can only lead to horrors of nuclear holocaust, devastating epidemics, or the re-election of Donald Trump. I have to say — much as I do not want to — that Bérubé has a point.