by John Kessel

[A talk I gave in 2001, at a conference sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences at the Field Museum in Chicago]


           I am a science fiction writer, and a professor of American literature.  As an undergraduate I was an astrophysics major who discovered, to my chagrin, that tensor calculus was not my friend, and to my surprise, that my talents did not lie in the sciences as much as in the humanities.  Yet the subjects of this conference have been the center of my interest since I was a teenager.  I am very glad to be here, honored to have been invited to speak to you, and only hope I have something to say that may prove worthwhile after all that has been put before you in the last three days.

           I am going to talk a bit about science fiction’s vision of the post-human condition, and its ethical implications.  I intend to get at this by telling you about some books.

           At North Carolina State University I teach a course in the history and development of science fiction.  This semester I assigned some works by H.G. Wells and W. Olaf Stapledon, and I’d like to begin by exploring what those two writers had to say about the human future.

           It strikes me that you might have done better to invite H.G. Wells to speak to you today—but I understand that, unfortunately, he is otherwise engaged.  Wells spent his entire public career and much of his private life speculating about the human future, and his writing laid the foundation for much of what science fiction has had to say on this subject in the last 100 years.  As a young man, he studied biology under Darwin’s disciple and defender Thomas Henry Huxley, and the vision of evolution that was opened to him at that time informed everything he wrote for the rest of his life.

           This semester my students read Wells’s second novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896, and in connection with that I read his last book, a brief essay entitled, Mind at the End of its Tether, published in 1945, a year before Wells’s death.

           These two works demonstrate that, beginning and end, Wells questioned the viability of humanity, and its ability to sustain a human culture. 

           Moreau is an evolutionary parable.  Dr. Moreau is a vivisectionist, kicked out of England and set up on a South Seas island.  There he attempts to turn animals into human beings.  It is, if you will excuse the pun, a grisly business.  None of his projects achieve more than a parody of humanity, and Moreau discards his failures on the island to fend for themselves.  In order to curb the instincts of these Beast People, he gives them the “Law,” which they struggle to follow against the pressure of their evolutionary natures:  “Not to walk on all fours. Not to tear the bark of trees. Not to eat flesh.”  Periodically Moreau shows up to punish the violators, but otherwise he abandons them. 

           In later years Wells called Moreau “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” and it’s easy to see why.  Of course we are the beast people.  Moreau is a neglectful god. Wells saw humans as slightly evolved apes, with the beast lying very shallowly beneath our social surface.  God may have given us the Ten Commandments, the Tao Te Ching, the Golden Rule, and the Koran, but we cannot maintain "the Law" in the face of our destructive instincts. In the novel's Gulliver-like ending, the castaway Edward Prendick returns to London, but can’t escape his vision of humans as animals prowling the city streets, gibbering like apes from the pulpits.

           After writing this bitterly skeptical book, Wells went on to spend most of his life advocating social change and scientific education. If human civilization as it existed in 1896 was inadequate, Wells thought we might reach a state of post-humanity by social reorganization and scientific understanding.   One of his most famous quotes is “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  He bet his creative life on the hope that education could advance humanity to a utopian stage of existence—we had the means, if we could only muster the will.  He did not believe in a God of theology:  he titled his 1922 utopia Men Like Gods.

           I think it is pretty clear that by the end of his life, Wells thought his bet had failed. Written in the wake of World War II, Mind at the End of Its Tether is a despairing summation.  Wells can no longer see the future.  Like Prendick at the end of Moreau, he finds himself living among the Beast People, and concludes that humanity is doomed unless it makes an evolutionary leap.  Even then we will be displaced.


A series of events has forced upon the intelligent observer the realization that the human story has already come to an end and that Homo Sapiens, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out.  The stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind. 


That new animal may be an entirely alien strain, or it may arise as a new modification of the hominidae, and even as a direct continuation of the human phylum, but it will certainly not be human.…Man must go steeply up or down and the odds seem to be all in favour of his going down and out.  If he goes up, then so great is the adaptation demanded of him that he must cease to be a man.  Ordinary man is at the end of his tether.  Only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive.


      It is important to note that Wells believes humans face this crisis, not because they lack material power, but because of the inability of “hard imaginative thinking . . . to keep pace with the expansion and complication of human societies and organizations.” In 1945, Wells longs, not for any increase in human power to control nature, but for what I might call an ethical post-humanity. 

           (I might add that this longing was implicit in his work from the beginning.  In his 1906 novel In the Days of the Comet, he proposes the earth passing through a tail of a comet that chemically transforms the human psyche.  His hero, as the earth passes into the comet’s tail, is pursuing his lover who deserted him, revolver in his hand and murder in his heart.  He passes out.  When he wakes in the morning, he, his lover and his rival form a threesome.  Men Like Gods, indeed.)

           In what way might our descendants go up or down?  For that, we get a clearer picture in Wells’s successor and contemporary, W. Olaf Stapledon.  Stapledon’s peculiar fiction is everywhere informed by the concern for the evolutionary fate of humanity so evident in Wells.  When asked why he had not acknowledged the influence of Wells on his 1930 book Last and First Men, Stapledon wrote, “a man does not record his debt to the air he breathes.” 

           Last and First Men tells the history of the human race from 1930 until two billion years in the future.  [Over eons humanity evolves through seventeen successive forms, culminating in the Last Men, hardly human at all, living on Neptune.  In the early stages of this saga Stapledon speculates on a great number of changes that seem still relevant today: the Americanization of the planet, the possibility of the annihilation of humanity by accident or political madness, the cultural disaster that could take place when our oil resources are exhausted, the challenge and risks of genetic engineering, the spiritual folly of an obsession with youth, the development of artificial intelligence.

           In Last and First Men (and in his later, even more stunning speculation, Star Maker),] Stapledon envisions a human future of ceaseless evolutionary change and adaptation, guided by a spiritual striving for mutual understanding between individuals, and for oneness with the universe.  He looks down on the human race with a chill detachment, from which the tragedies and achievements of a millennium shrink to next to nothing.  As he says in his later book Star Maker, “It is enough to have been created, to have embodied for a moment the infinite and tumultuously creative spirit.  It is infinitely more than enough to have been used.”

           This is cold comfort to those of us animalcules experiencing our brief moment of time, watching Tom Brokaw and Friends, and worrying about the future.  It’s bracing to realize that Brokaw and Friends are not the apex of the human story, but the equanimity with which Stapledon contemplates an extinction that seems even more likely today than it did in the 1930s is difficult to maintain.

           In his 1935 novel Odd John, Stapledon brings post-humanism closer to home, and shows its ethical implications in more immediate terms.

           Odd John imagines our immediate successor.  John is an evolutionary advance, the next stage in human development.  Morally, he is beyond us. The story is told from the point of view of an adult who serves as John’s confidant and servant, known only by John’s affectionate and contemptuous nickname for him, “Fido”—a fair indication of John’s attitude toward Homo sapiens

           John has his sympathies for us, but they are remote ones.  At the age of nine, he deliberately kills a policeman who catches him in a petty burglary. He compares it to the time he had to kill a tame mouse because the maids did not like it running around the house. He contemplates killing the policeman’s wife as an act of charity, in order to save her the grief that would come to her upon the loss of her husband. John manipulates and discards human beings when the interests of homo superior and those of homo sapiens come into conflict—yet he is as vulnerable, in his way, as you and I, and something other than a villain.

           Odd John raises the question of what moral obligations our successors should have toward us.  Since then, the question has been pursued in numerous works of science fiction.  In the last twenty years, as technology and biology have made the prospect of a post-human race more of a possibility than a speculation, many science fiction writers have weighed in. In William Gibson’s work, Artificial Intelligences end up running the world, and human beings (some of us at least) find refuge as data inside computers. The Australian writer Greg Egan has pursued various visions of humanity as computer information. Greg Bear has written several novels about the human genotype being superseded through biotechnology. 

           The result of these speculations is a menu of visions:


           Male and female are fundamentally changed. The male no longer rules.  The distinction between the sexes—biological as well as cultural—has become fluid or no longer exists.         

           Our descendants create cultural enclaves.  They evolve in clades.  They are possessed by ideas.  They use language differently.

           Through nanotechnology, their dominion over the material world reaches miraculous levels.

            They do not think as we do. They have an altered limbic system.  They are autistic. They have no fixed personalities. They think in other directions.

           Their minds are technically augmented.  Their memories enhanced.  Their sensory abilities expanded.  They have no bodies at all.  They are data in computers, living in artificial environments.

           They live hundreds of years. They do not die at all, unless voluntarily


          One of the most thoughtful of current science fiction writers, Vernor Vinge, [the author of the 1990s novels A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky] published a provocative essay in 1993 ( that sums up much of science fiction’s speculation about these changes.  The best way to summarize Vinge’s paper is to quote its simple and daunting abstract: “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence.  Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

           Vinge coined the term “the Singularity,” to describe this evolutionary leap that waits in our near future. Unfortunately, by its very nature, Vinge says, we cannot see past the Singularity.  We cannot imagine what our successors’ world will be like, we only know that the result will be a sudden and even catastrophic acceleration of “progress.” Vinge accepts Wells’s challenge of “up or out,” and suggests that the answer is “up.”

           Vinge does not define what he means by progress. Does he measure progress by technological advance?  Increased scientific knowledge?  Material power? That’s the problem with much of SF’s speculation—it says little or nothing about the ethics of post-humanism, when in fact that is the question that is MOST essential to us. To be fair, Vinge does briefly raise the ethical question, and propose some standards.  For instance, he quotes the appropriately named I.J. Good’s “Meta Golden Rule” as a guide for post-humans: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors.”

           I like that, but I feel there is more to be asked. To paraphrase that famous exchange between Mohandas Gandhi and a western reporter: 


           Reporter:  Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of post-human civilization?

           Gandhi:  I think it would be a very good idea.


           So do I, Mr. Gandhi.  So here’s my question:  the day after I walk out of the clinic with a life expectancy of 400 years and an I.Q. of 350, able effortlessly to do the tensor calculus that would have made me an astrophysicist instead of a lecturer on H.G. Wells, am I no longer human?  How?  In what way do my ethics differ?  Have I gone from Republican to Democrat, or heaven forbid, vice versa?  Do I still like professional football? Do I find the Marx Brothers more, or less, funny?  Do I care more, or less, about what happens to migrant farm workers? To my cousin?  To my daughter?

           Moral post-humanism may come along with immortality, or computer augmentation of the human brain, or genetic alterations of the human genome, or Artificial Intelligence--it may even be a product of some of those things.  But it is essentially apart from them.  And, as I am about to suggest, it's not as if we haven't seen it already.

           To imagine what the moral landscape of post-humanity might be, I'd like to cite a scene from one last work, Bruce Sterling's 1996 novel Holy Fire.  In this book, power lies in the hands of conservative senior citizens who have watched their health and capital investments with equal care, gaining access to the latest advancements in life-extension technology, so at 90 they look 50 (but are not 50).  The penultimate chapter describes a meeting between the heroine Maya, and Helene, a police agent whose job it is to monitor the bohemian avant garde, young people who are disaffected by this future society dominated by the prudent and the old.  Maya herself is a 94-year-old woman who has been rejuvenated to be physically 20, with serious emotional and psychological consequences (she isn’t really 20, she is 94-going-on-20, a new kind of human neither old nor truly young).

           Maya has run away from her respectable life, and Helene, her contemporary, takes her to task for this.  Helene reminds Maya how irresponsibility with technological resources has in the past has led to immense disasters.  In the middle of the conversation, a real 20-year-old, Natalie, rushes into their meeting.  Natalie climbs out onto a window ledge, and jumps to her death.  Both Helene and Maya are shocked. 


           “I can’t bear to look,” Helene said, and shuddered….I’ve seen this so many times… they just do it. They take possession of themselves and end their lives.  It’s an act of tremendous will.”

           “You should have let me go out there after her.” [Maya says]

           Helene shut the window with a bang.   “You are in my charge, you are under arrest.  You are not going anywhere, and you are not killing yourself.  Sit down.”

           Plato rose and began to bark.  Helene caught at his collar.  “Poor things,” she said, and wiped her eyes.  “We have to let them go.  There is no choice . . . Poor things, they are only human beings.”

           Maya slapped her face.

           Helene looked at her in shocked surprise, then, slowly, turned her other cheek.  “Do you feel better now, darling?  Try the other one.”


           This passage in its moral complexity sums up something about the post-human condition.

           Why does Maya slap Helene?  Maya feels Helene is inhuman in her acceptance of Natalie's suicide.  Young people, in this world controlled by the nascent immortals and proto-post-humans, have little chance to make a difference.  Maya feels Helene is responsible for pushing girls like Natalie into suicide.  Her slap is a rebuke to the cool detachment of the post-human Helene.  Maya represents us, humans with ordinary 20th century hearts, who strike out at others out of our feeling of injustice, or abuse, or conviction.  It’s what we today call “justifiable violence.”

           Helene turns the other cheek.  I can’t tell you how much, as a writer and literature professor, this move delights me.  To have Helene do this is a brilliant stroke by Sterling, calling forth as it does our associations with the deepest mythic roots of Western Christian culture. 

           Turning the other cheek is something human beings have had the freedom to do throughout our evolutionary history—indeed, we celebrate the human who first admonished us to do so.  In the context of this talk, we can recognize Jesus as the archetypal post-human, not just Wells’s man like God, but as the story goes, a man who was god.  We haven’t found it easy to follow his example.  Probably because we are not gods, but only evolved hominids—that is, human beings.

           Helene was born a human being.  But she has lived long enough, and undergone enough changes through technology and a culture based on that technology, to have become something new.  She even conceives of herself as something new—thus her pity for poor Natalie, the “human being” she looks down on.  That pity sparks Maya’s rage.  It’s not that Maya’s blow doesn’t cause an emotional reaction in Helen—she is shocked, and it takes her a moment to turn that cheek.  But in the end she does. Presumably it is easier for Helene than for us to do so.

           I would like to suggest (and I fervently hope) that if—as a result of our conscious efforts to understand and even change our intellect, neurology, biology, culture—that if there is indeed to be a Vingean Singularity, then in that post-human world such an act will be easier.  I hope that our successors, be they biological or other, will find it natural to turn the other cheek. 

           This has little to do with intellect.  And it’s not a sentimental act.  It partakes of some of the chilling coldness of Stapledon’s Odd John, and his attitude toward the dead policeman’s wife.  Helene turns the other cheek because, in the complex and dangerous world that technology has bequeathed her, to do so is survival behavior.  To Maya—who is after all, the hero of the book—Helene is too ready to write off Natalie, too rational to be truly human.  To paraphrase Wells, in Helene, “hard imaginative thinking has increased so as to keep pace with the expansion and complication of human societies and organizations.” Helene does what Jesus does, and the context of the story shows us how inhuman an act Jesus' was.  It is neither up nor down, but sideways of normal morality.      

           What this scene also implies is that we’ve already seen post-human ethics.  Most of us, in our own lives, at one time or another, have practiced them.  We just can’t stay at the post-human level very long, any more than a person jumping up into the air can suspend himself at the apex of his leap. But with technology, we can fly, and perhaps our descendants will. It won’t come simply through education, as Wells hoped.  Something more fundamental must change.

           Can we alter the human psyche?  Should we?  Must we?

           Holy Fire ends with a visit by Maya to her husband Daniel, whom she has not seen for thirty or forty years.  He is living in a cabin in the wilderness in Idaho.  He has become an ancient squat apelike man who spends his days husbanding the land, using both muscle and high technology.  He tells her of a plan to seed the atmosphere with fungus, spores that will repair the damages done by several centuries of industrialism.  Maya questions the radical nature of this scheme.  Daniel replies,


“It’s a response.  New monster versus old monstrosity.  We are as gods, Mia.  We might as well get good at it….”

           He was a god, she decided.  He hadn’t been a god when he’d been with her.  He’d been a man then, a good man.  He wasn’t a man any longer.  Daniel was a very primitive god.  A very small scale god.  A primitive steam engine god.  An amphibian god dutifully slogging mud for some coming race of reptiles.


And you and I, here in Chicago on November 3, 2001, as the world struggles to deal with age old hostilities that threaten new destruction, thanks to the power of our inventions—we’re fish, swimming in the shoals, unable as yet to breathe the air of the land where we must live in order to survive.

           Thank you and good afternoon.