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.
“You ought to have a name for when I mean all of you, as one. Not Demon. Something nicer than what I’d call a dog, for the five gods’ sakes. How if I pick something? Make it a present.”
The silence this time was so long, he wondered if the creature had gone back to sleep, or into hiding, or whatever it did when he could not feel or hear it.
“In twelve long lives,” it said quietly at last, “no one has ever offered us a present.”
Penric is an insignificant younger brother of a minor Baron of a kingdom in the middle of nowhere. But on the way to his betrothal to the daughter of a rich cheese merchant, he stops to help a dying woman. Unfortunately, it turns out the woman is a sorcerer who carries a demon, and on her death, the demon transfers to the nearest suitable person — in this case, Penric.
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.
This monk was a rutting Bloodwitch. A creature from the myths, a being who could smell a person’s blood — smell their very witchery — and track it across entire continents. If he latched onto Safi’s or Iseult’s scent, then they were in deep, deep–
Gunpowder burst inside firepots. The guards had hit the trap.
Safi reacted instantly — as did the monk. His sword swished from its scabbard; her knife came up. She clipped the edge of his blade, parrying it aside.
He recovered and lunged. Safi lurched back. Her calves hit Iseult, yet in a single fluid movement, Iseult kneeled — and Safi rolled sideways over her back.
Initiate. Complete. It was how the girls fought. How they lived.
When witches Safiya and her best friend Iseult accidentally set up a heist on the wrong target, they are suddenly wanted by the city authorities and start to flee. Worse, Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies — a powerful political weapon in the wrong hands, if anyone was to discover her secret. All they want is their freedom, but they soon run into bigger problems. The twenty-year peace truce of the Empire is about to expire, and Iseult’s guardian and Safiya’s uncle have an elaborate plot designed to prevent a war… and it relies on Safiya co-operating. There is no place for Iseult in their plans, so the girls are separated. While Safiya navigates court politics and makes a tentative ally in a foreign prince, Iseult faces the family she left behind and learns about a powerful new adversary. But whatever happens, they must first find each other again.
Series note: Memories of Ash picks up the story straight after Sunbolt; this review will contain spoilers for Sunbolt.
I glance up, holding tight to the thread of my spell as the mountains throw a thunderous echo back to us. My skin tingles with the brush of magic, as if unseen creatures skitter up my arms, over my back. Across the valley, forest birds take to the air, calling out as they wheel over the lake. I catch the pale white flutter of snow pigeons, the midnight silhouette of ravens, and high up the snow-dusted peaks, the great dark wingspans of a pair of griffon vultures.
Seated cross-legged beside me on the banks of the lake, Brigit Stormwind murmurs, “That was the first ward.”
After casting a powerful fire spell that charred her from the inside out and leaves her fighting for her life, Hitomi is left with only fragmentary memories of her earlier life. Under the care of the mage Stormwind, she is just starting to rebuild her sense of self, and to learn to use her powers in a more predictable manner, when their peaceful valley life is disturbed by the arrival of a rogue hunter.
But he’s not coming for Hitomi. He’s coming to arrest Stormwind on charges of treason.
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.
Born to the skinless, or lost to their families before naming, the unskinned were not claimed by a totem. Their souls were fragmented, unbound to the Singing. If they remained little seen, they were not despised, not usually harmed. The townspeople gave them enough grain, cloaks and work, if they would do it. But they could not live within the town walls because no one could be sure who they were.
Skin was gifted from mother to child by a song.
I had no mother. I had no skin.
But I had been spared. Just.
It is AD 43, and the British tribes of the south west are starting to fear the consolidation of the Roman invasion, begun 100 years earlier. Ailia is a British girl, growing up as an outcast among her people — as a foundling she does not know her family, and so does not belong to a totem, and a crucial part of her identity — her Skin — is missing. Caught between the inevitable Roman domination and the ancient traditions of the land, she must find her spiritual place in her tribe in order to lead them through the uncertain times. But how can she have any authority when she has no Skin?
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.
There was only one map that showed the whole of our island, and it hung in Da’s study. I called it Ma’s map, because it had been passed down through her family for generations, maybe even since Arinta’s time, a thousand years ago. It had always felt like a sign that Ma and Da were meant for each other, that he was a cartographer and her only heirloom was a map.
Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow, Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said it was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.
Isabella lives on the island of Joya with her father, a cartographer. He used to sail around the world, making maps. But then a new Governor of the island arrived, who forbade anyone from ever leaving, or even stepping foot in the sea. He also divided the island in half with an impassable forest, so that Isabella has never even seen the other villages. But one day, Isabella’s classmate is murdered, and her best friend Lupe, who happens to be the Governor’s daughter, goes missing. Isabella must trust her maps and her courage if she is to find her.
Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.
The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. Not all of them were fashionable, but they each served a purpose. There were ones that blended in and ones that stood out, and one that served no purpose but of which he was just particularly fond.
So when Kell passed through the palace wall and into the anteroom, he took a moment to steady himself — it took its toll, moving between worlds — and then shrugged out of his red, high-collared coat and turned it inside out from right to left so that it became a simple black jacket. Well, a simple black jacket elegantly lined with silver thread and adorned with two gleaming columns of silver buttons. Just because he adopted a more modest palette when he was abroad (wishing neither to offend the local royalty nor to draw attention) didn’t mean he had to sacrifice style.
Kell is one of the last remaining Antari, a magician with mismatched eyes and the ability to travel between worlds. He hails from London, but not as we know it — to keep track of the overlapping cities, he has nicknamed the worlds by colours, and his is Red London, after the colour of the Thames. In his world, magic is widely used, and infuses everything from the river waters to the earth and air. By contrast, Lila is a young thief in magicless Grey London. She spends most of her time disguised as a boy for safety, and dreams of forging a new life as a pirate captain. The third city, White London, is a violent place, ruled by twins who obtained the throne by murder and retain it through cruelty. And then there’s Black London, oft discussed about but never visited, where life has been completely obliterated by magic out of control.