For the final instalment of my transhumanist theme, I’ve picked selections from a Malaysian anthology. Cyberpunk: Malaysia is edited by Zen Cho (whose debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, I read last year and really loved) and features fourteen futuristic narratives.
This book also has inside the front cover my all-time favourite publisher’s note, a thoughtful comment on the practice of italicizing for loanwords:
We will not use italics for non-American/non-English terms […] Nasi lemak and kongkek are some of the pleasures of Malaysian life that should be celebrated without apology; italics are a form of apology.
I’d never thought of italics as being particularly apologetic, before, yet I absolutely see their point. By highlighting certain words, you mark them out from the rest of the sentence, offering the reader an excuse to skip over the perhaps-unfamiliar spelling or assume that they don’t need to understand what’s being referred to.
To return to the point, then: this is a great anthology with a wide range of stories, most of which have a strongly dystopian flavour, taking social inequalities and magnifying them through the lens of technological enhancements. More than a few of the stories consider the intersection of humanity and technology, giving rise to some fascinating juxtapositions; here are three examples by female authors.
Series note: Saints Astray is the sequel to Santa Olivia, but I picked it up on a whim and enjoyed it without having read the first one.
The world was a very, very big place.
That was Loup’s first impression as the sun rose over northern Mexico. By the time it had cleared the horizon and begun to cast strong light over the landscape, they’d been driving for an hour. Still, the road stretched before them, empty and endless.
And except for Pilar, fast asleep with her head on Loup’s shoulder, everything and everyone in the world Loup had ever loved was behind her, behind the vast concrete wall that sealed off the U.S. border and sealed in a town once known as Santa Olivia, known in Loup’s lifetime only as Outpost — Outpost 12.
The thought made an empty space in Loup’s heart. In the light of day, the thrill of their daring escape through the excavated smugglers’ tunnel had worn off. If she were capable of feeling fear, she was fairly sure she’d be feeling it now.
In the not too distant future, following a flu pandemic that ravaged the planet, humanity is gradually putting itself back together. War between the U.S. and Mexico has led to strengthening of the border defences, and the virtual abandonment of towns within a demilitarized zone between the two countries.
Growing up against this backdrop, Loup is one of a small band of genetically engineered humans with preternatural speed, impressive agility, and an inability to feel fear. Her father was deployed as a weapon by the U.S. government, who consider Loup and her kind as items of property; Loup herself has grown up an orphan in the U.S. government-controlled compound of Outpost. Saints Astray picks up the story just after Loup and Pilar have made their escape, and follows them into their new life beyond the fence.
Today’s transhumanist tale is a short story from Alice Sheldon, writing as James Tiptree Jr.
See for instance that rotten girl? In the crowd over there, that one gaping at her gods. One rotten girl in the city of the future. (That’s what I said.) Watch.
She’s jammed among bodies, craning and peering with her soul yearning out of her eyeballs. Love! Oo-ooh, love them! Her gods are coming out of a store called Body East. Three young-bloods, larking along loverly. Dressed like simple street-people but… smashing. See their great eyes swivel above their nose-filters, their hands lift shyly, their inhumanly tender lips melt? The crowd moans. Love! This whole boiling megacity, this whole fun future world loves its gods.
You don’t believe gods, dad? Wait. Whatever turns you on, there’s a god in the future for you, custom-made. Listen to this mob. “I touched his foot. Ow-oow, I TOUCHED Him!”
Even the people in the GTX tower up there love the gods — in their own way and for their own reasons.
The funky girl on the street, she just loves. Grooving on their beautiful lives, their mysterioso problems. No one ever told her about mortals who love a god and end up as a tree or a sighing sound. In a million years it’d never occur to her that her gods might love her back.
Philadelphia Burke is a disabled girl in a future world, her misshapen body leaving her at best invisible and at worst disdained, while the beautiful people are lauded, celebrated, and constantly observed. It would never have occurred to her that she could become one of the beautiful people, but then tragedy strikes, and she’s offered the opportunity to “die” … and be reborn in the body of Delphi, a stunning young thing who’s guaranteed to turn into a starlet.
Next up in this season’s exploration of transhumanist narratives, we turn to a dystopian future imagined by Nnedi Okorafor.
Series note: The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death, which I haven’t read, and I found it works just fine as a standalone.
I’d never known any other place. The 28th floor of Tower 7 was my home. Yesterday, I realized it was a prison, too. I probably should have suspected something. The two-hundred-year-old marble skyscraper had many dark sides to its existence and I knew most of them. There were 39 floors, and on almost every one was an abomination. I was an abomination. I’d read many books and this was clear to me. However, the building was still my home.
Home: a. One’s place of residence. Yes, it was my home.
They gave me all the 3D movies I could watch, but it was the plethora of books that did it for me. A year ago, they gave me an e-reader packed with 700,000 books of all kinds. No matter the topic, I consumed those books voraciously, working my way through over half of them. When it came to information, I was given access to anything I requested. That was part of their research. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
Phoenix is only two years old, but accelerated growth means she has the physical form of a forty-year-old African woman. One of a number of genetically enhanced speciMen, she’s a product of a lengthy and secretive research program into human genetics. As the story begins she’s lived her whole (brief) life in Tower 7, one of a set of such towers distributed across the United States, in which a shady research corporation seems to obey no laws but its own.
For the second book in my Transhumanism season, we’re taking a detour from human-enhancement into human-replacement technology.
What kind of blockhead randomly decides to propose and rushes to ask immediately? Sarah deserved better. She deserved something thoughtful, something that had taken effort.
Devin took the ring box out of his pocket and opened it, then looked around the apartment. How she kept everything so pristine was beyond him. Other than the digimech she’d left on, everything was where it ought to be. Sarah was like that in every aspect, flawless except for some quirk that made her all the more perfect in his eyes. Every hair in place, except for the one lock falling beside her face. Always precisely four minutes late. Her apartment decorated so crisply it might have been done by a computer but for a bizarre painting that appeared to represent some form of bird.
There was nothing out of which he could fashion a romantic scene. Sarah had professed many times that, in spite of the cynicism of modern times, she was still an idealistic dreamer who loved the sweet formulae of yesteryear. So what the hell was he doing with nothing but a ring and a question?
For siblings Devin and Jane, the wealth and privilege of their upbringing is overshadowed by their parents’ wish to control every aspect of their lives. Jane wants nothing more than to be a singer, but that isn’t considered an appropriate career, and she’s pushed towards an unsatisfying role in the family company. For Devin, youthful rebellion manifests in his becoming an elite hacker with a reputation in the cybercrime community — but by the start of the book those days are behind him and he’s preparing to settle down with the perfect, thoroughly suitable Sarah.
I read Unstrung around the time we founded Strange Charm, back in 2014, but at the time I struggled to find enough other transhumanism books to make a full season. Not wanting to waste one, I’ve held it back ever since!
The safe unlocks with a quiet click. Moving slowly, just in case there’s a tripwire I haven’t disabled, I open the door and reach inside. The chip rests in a foam-lined box. I ease it free and slip it into a small pocket inside the gear pouch strapped around my waist.
Robbery number sixty-three: success.
I close the safe, then start a cautious trek back to the window. I’m careful to retrace my steps, traveling the exact path I used to come in. So far I’ve bypassed a laser tripwire net, a few pressure plates, and a motion sensor. Kind of disappointing. I thought one of Precipice’s labs would be more heavily secured, and I like a challenge. This room is too easy — just four wide lab tables with thick, black tops, some data equipment on the counters and the wall safe. A few terminals even provide a soft blue glow to work by. Nothing to get in my way or force me into the motion sensor’s path. Much, much too easy.
Which means something’s wrong.
Lexa doesn’t remember the time before she appeared on Turpin’s doorstep, drugged out of her mind at ten years old. Getting — and staying — clean has been a constant struggle, but her job as a master thief requires absolute focus, and over the past few years she’s had support not only from Turpin but from Jole, a young man who’s like a brother to her. With the help of this adopted family, Lexa’s life has become if not conventional, then at least somewhat stable in its own way.