Natural History

Justina Robson‘s SF novel Natural History is a brilliant exploration of what it might mean to be posthuman.

In the future world of Robson’s novel, “Unevolved” human beings live side-by-side with the “Forged,” genetically-altered, enhanced, and engineered beings who combine human characteristics with those of other organisms and with machines. There are Forged in the form of birds, of jellyfish, of weapons of mass destruction, and of spaceships. The Forged are adapted for tasks that Unevolved human beings could not easily perform, and for environments (deep space, the bottom of the sea, the atmosphere of Jupiter) where the Unevolved could not easily live. The Forged all have recognizably human minds — in terms of language, rationality, and emotion — even though they differ greatly from the Unevolved, and from one another, in terms of life history and body-experience. Their biggest problem is that they have all been designed for specific tasks — their Form is determined by their Function — which means that their lives are constrained in ways that those of ordinary Unevolved human beings are not, even though their imaginations and senses of selfhood and freedom are as extensive as those of the Unevolved. Robson’s greatest accomplishment in Natural History is to make the Forged come alive as speakers and characters, so that their emotions and neuroses and desires and political activities make as much sense (are as unique, and at the same time as recognizable) as those of the Unevolved characters. The Forged are neither alien (radically other, utterly outside our experience) nor “the same” (belonging to some universal, essential, unchanging category of humanness, just as “we” allegedly do). No one is a “blank slate,” independent of the predispositions that have been built into them; but also, no one is determined by these predispositions. Will and imagination play too strong a role for these posthumans, just as they do for us.

So Robson imagines what it would be like to be, for instance, a sentient spaceship, gendered female, whose body includes a nuclear engine, whose senses involve what for us could only be readouts on various monitors, whose reaction times can be measured in femtoseconds, and whose sexual feelings are almost entirely auto-affective, focused upon her own bodily sensations. And who is driven by rage, fanaticism, vulnerability, ambition, neediness, and revolutionary fervor, and who is capable of sarcasm, irony, reserve, and manipulativeness — much as a human mind/body of any other shape might be. Actually, what it is like to be a sentient spaceship is not far different from what it is like to talk to one: for language is not only how one talks to others, it is also how one talks to oneself. Robson insists on distinguishing between living and speaking other-sentience, and mere artificial intelligence, which in the world of Natural History can calculate, and use and respond appropriately to language, but which cannot be creative or self-reflective, which cannot talk to itself, which does not express any sort of will, and which does not seek after higher Meaning nor regret its absence (307-308). In positioning consciousness in this way, Robson rejects the strong-AI position (that there is no difference between human mentality and what machines are capable of), but in a more nuanced and sophisticated way than John Searle (for instance) does. That is to say, Robson explores how consciousness could be different, or other, from our “common” experience; but she does this without reducing mentality to computation (as cognitivists are always prone to do).

The future society depicted in Natural History is one of immanent differences. There is no unity between the Unevolved and the Forged, nor among the Forged themselves. Also, the Forged have access — but the Unevolved do not — to a full-immersion virtual reality in which they can change their environments and body forms at will, interact with other Forged and have sex with them, and generally escape the limitations of their Form and Function. There are thus multiple perspectives which cannot be reconciled; and none of which can claim to transcend or overcode the others. This leads to a fractious politics: the Forged, spread out across the solar system, form unions and independence movements, fighting and negotiating both among themselves and with the Unevolved authorities on Earth. Here Robson explores the possibilities and impasses of what might be called a network-society, “post-globalization” politics, one where the traditional orders of States and territories play little role, and where traditional ideological myths of unification have ceased to function, but where questions of “identity,” together with economic power and the unequally distributed possession of military strength and of the tools of surveillance, continue to play major roles.

The plot of Natural History doesn’t resolve any of these issues — Robson suggests that, for all practical intents and purposes, they are simply not resolvable — but instead does an end run around them. The book narrates the encounter of its vividly imagined world with something truly alien, truly Other: a technology that entirely transcends the immanent differences among Unevolved and Forged, and that therefore seems to promise infinite power, magically driven by Will alone. Of course, things turn out to be much more complicated than that, and there are some wonderful passages where Zephyr Duquense, the most prominent Unevolved character in the novel, explores an alien architecture that is clearly the product of intelligence, but just as clearly uninterpretable in human terms. The social-emotional play of immanent differences, which cannot coincide but which are open to negotiation and mutual reflection, is here contrasted to a kind of absolute Difference, a limit in relation to which we face the alternative of either only getting our own expectations and presuppositions reflected back to us, or else of gaining access to this Otherness at the price of ceasing to be ourselves, of being irrevocably changed by what we encounter, and indeed absorbed into what we encounter. At certain moments, Robson presents this latter alternative (somewhat unfortunately) as a kind of New Agey mystical oneness, cosmic consciousness, oceanic feeling, with almost absolute power to affect the physical universe — but this is balanced out at other moments by a continuing harsh skepticism. At the end, you can retain your individuality against this alien, totalizing encounter by killing yourself before you are absorbed — suicide is not exactly an attractive or life-affirming option, but at least it does remain an option, a via negativa resisting an otherwise relentless dialectic.

So I wasn’t entirely happy with the conclusion of Natural History, but I liked the way that Robson at least in part resisted her own conclusion. Robson’s novel is not really about my current overwhelming preoccupation — the ubiquitous culture and circulation of capital — but its passionate intelligence is a sterling example of how science fiction, at its best, works today as an experimental laboratory of embodied social and philosophical thought.

One Response to “Natural History”

  1. Before Nietzsche said, “God is Dead.” Luther and Hegel said it. Before Darwin, we had the Pre-Socratics whose thoughts on evolution were as divined from experience as Darwin’s.

    After Nietzsche’s parable on the Death of God, prophesizing (as a form of witnessing) on the modern culture of the West, we had Foucault come along and declare the death of man.

    I always thought of Foucault as a radical humanist. And to a large extent I still think he is. Was his declaration no more than a parable like those declaring the death of God before him?

    Will introspection one day open a festering wound in which a man must confront the death of himself?

    This is all too much for me to think about.

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