Remembrance of things transhuman (long)

Jim Fehlinger (
Mon, 19 Jul 1999 19:58:07 -0400

I have just been browsing at the Web site now hosting Eliezer Yudkowsky's essays (, and some of Mr. Yudkowsky's remarks in his Meaning of Life essay (tmol-faq), in particular his description of how reading a particular paragraph in Vernor Vinge's
_True Names and Other Dangers_ led him to formulate his
own cosmological interpretation of the Singularity, led me to reflect on just how old some of these ideas are. I was tempted to post this ramble down memory lane a few weeks ago when there was a thread on the topic of folks' first encounters with transhuman "memes", but I didn't get around to it.

Anyway, my entre to transhuman speculation came about when I was in sixth grade, in 1963, by way of the publication of a paperback version of Arthur C. Clarke's non-fiction book _Profiles of the Future_. I ran into this in the paperback rack of the local Food Fair, back in those days when a trip downtown to the Newark (Delaware) Newsstand counted as a visit to paperback heaven, and I mostly had to make do with the selection in the nearby supermarket or drug store (the titles available at school through Scholastic Books somehow seemed less interesting, though I got copies of _The Time Machine_ and a bunch of Andre Nortons, from them).

The chapters in _Profiles_ entitled "The Obsolescence of Man" and "The Long Twilight", which finish off the book, are full of transhuman speculation, and the prose has a touch of the haunting lyricism that Clarke sometimes achieves. I had not encountered A. C. before this volume, but references to Clarke's own _The City and the Stars_ and to Olaf Stapledon's
_Last and First Men_, set the stage for later reading
(though it would be 10 years before I was able to find any Stapledon, when Dover finally reprinted his stuff, though it seems to have stayed continuously in print since then). _The City and the Stars_ I was able to dig up in a public library.

I read and re-read _Profiles_ for many weeks, and toted it with me to school. I remember, in a free-form homeroom discussion, bringing up Clarke's speculations on the possibility of personal immortality, and it really hit a nerve, both with the teacher Mrs. W_ and with the other kids. They seemed both fascinated and appalled by my remarks, and some of them got angry, until Mrs. W_ smoothed things over by cutting off the discussion and reassuring everybody that of course this was all nonsense and wouldn't ever come to pass, and I got a strong feeling that I'd be better off keeping Clarke at home.

During the same period of time there was a television show that also counts as a formative influence in my life -- the Leslie Stevens/Joseph Stefano sci-fi anthology show
_The Outer Limits_, which premiered on ABC television in
September 1963. Though contemporaneous with _The Twlight Zone_, _Outer Limits_ had an effect on me, perhaps due to the noir cinematography (so beautifully black and white that color could only have spoiled the effect), or the memorable musical scores by Dominic Frontiere, that _Zone_ seldom matched, though I came to understand later that the _Zone_ scripts were more highly regarded among serious aficionados of literature.

There was one _Outer Limits_ episode in particular which aired soon after the show's premiere, called _The Sixth Finger_, about a Welsh coal miner (Gwyllim Griffiths, rivetingly portrayed by David McCallum) who achieves post-humanity by volunteering as the experimental subject of a physicist turned molecular biologist (memorably portrayed by Edward Mulhare), but who is ultimately done in by the unwillingness of his erstwhile girlfriend Cathy to let him go (also beautifully portrayed by Jill Haworth). It may have been the result of my nascent Anglophilia and the all-British cast, but this has always been my favorite
_Outer Limits_ episode, though it didn't take me long to see
through the bogus evolutionary theory in the script (our destiny is already encoded in our genes, so that when Professor Mathers' good-gene-enhancing device is brought to bear, the coal miner is propelled into the race's biological future). The silly science doesn't detract from the impact of this episode for me, and McCallum's performance as the transhuman is stunningly convincing -- his delivery of Gwyllim's final speech to Cathy, in perfect Shakespearean tones -- "...I could feel myself approaching that stage in the dim future of mankind when the mind will cast off the hamperings of the flesh, and become all thought and no matter: a vortex of pure intelligence in space..." is a high point of dramatized SF.

Later, in '66 - '67, _Star Trek_ touched on posthumanism in a few episodes (_The Menagerie_, _Where No Man Has Gone Before_,
_Return to Tomorrow, and _Errand of Mercy_ come to mind, though
only in the latter case are the posthumans portrayed positively); we will discreetly pass over _Trek_'s treatment of artificial intelligence.

By the time the movie _2001_ appeared, I had already read Clarke's _Childhood's End_, and I was thoroughly steeped in SF posthuman scenarios, so that I was a bit puzzled why so many people failed to grasp the significance of Bowman's journey and transformation.

The 70's saw the return of Olaf Stapledon to print, and I was able to read _Last and First Men_, _Star Maker_,
_Odd John_ and _Sirius_. Stapledon has a great deal to say
about the purpose of individual lives, much of which seems to parallel what Eliezer talks about in his Meaning of Life FAQ, though Stapledon advocates enlightened (or "wide awake") behavior in the face of a very bleak lack of likelihood that individuals or races will benefit directly from the contributions they make to the ultimate Universal Mind. The mise-en-scene of the two longer books, however, consists of contemporary human beings, very far from the pinnacle of intelligence, being vouchsafed glimpses of far future developments of cosmic evolution, for their edification and encouragement.

Prior to stumbling on the Extropians on the Web, I had read Vinge (_Marooned in Realtime_, _A Fire Upon the Deep_, though not _True Names_), William Gibson, Greg Bear, David Brin, and Iain Banks, among "hard" SF authors who touch on transhuman topics (and Greg Egan afterwards). In fact, I recall that I came across the Extropians while searching for discussions of Iain Banks.

While very many of the stories I had seen and read suggested that the Singularity might happen suddenly (such as via Professor Mathers' machine in _The Sixth Finger_, or the parapsychological awakening of humanity in _Childhood's End_, or direct intervention by an advanced extraterrestrial race in _2001_, or the invention of DNA computers as in _Blood Music_, or natural mutation as in Stapledon's _Odd John_), none of these scenarios seemed particularly plausible as serious prognostications (as opposed to SF story McGuffins). I had been used to thinking of the radical transformation of the human race as taking place over vast stretches of time -- tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years (as in Wells' _Time Machine_, or Stepledon's longer books _Last and First Men_ and _Star Maker_, which actually manage to capture some of the feeling of the passage of time encompassing the rise and fall of so many civilizations and races).

The time horizon in which I have imagined the radical transformation of the human race as occurring (the "Singularity", though I have only started calling it that since stumbling across the Extropians) has been shortened in stages over the past couple of decades. First, in disucssions beginning in the mid-70's with a friend named Joseph Fineman (who has also posted recently to this list), who rather startled me by declaring firmly that there would be no recognizable human beings left within as little as a thousand years, and that we would be replaced by some amalgam of computational machinery and genetically-engineered stuff, with a concomitant blurring of boundaries between individual minds. I had never actually met anyone who believed this as a matter of course. This was in, oh, 1976.

Then there was Vinge's _Marooned in Realtime_, which, rather more plausibly than most SF stories (though in a rather implausible setting, with the "bobbles" and all), described the event horizon of some sort of technological black hole set only a few hundred years hence (with echoes of the overnight disappearance of the Krell in _Forbidden Planet_, but with suggestions of a more positive fate for humanity).