In a nondescript alleyway on Pittsburgh's North Side, Nathan Kukulski arrives at a house party carrying two half-empty cases of beer. The place is called Cyberpunk Apocalypse, an experiment in communal living and imagining possible futures through science fiction. Over the last six years, it's hosted 45 writers from across the United States and Canada and produced a zine called, appropriately enough, Cyberpunk Apocalypse. (I edited the second issue.)
When he isn't working at a parking lot in Uptown, Kukulski publishes books under the Six Gallery imprint. A local institution, the press publishes everything from experimental fiction and poetry to essays and memoirs. (And yes, I've worked on a couple projects for the press in the past.) It also published its fair share of speculative fiction and science fiction, literary genres that hold a special place in Kukulski's heart.
Tonight we're talking transhumanism, the nebulous belief — prevalent among Silicon Valley's monied elite, DIY body hackers, and some very well-trod zones of Reddit — that with advancing technology, humanity is inevitably going to take the reins of our own evolution and become something post-human. (Or multiple kinds of post-human.) Strains of it appear in everything from William Gibson's early cyberpunk work to the video game Deus Ex to David Cronenberg's adaptation of The Fly. As a method of extrapolating the present into any number of potential futures, it appeals to a particular breed of cerebral sci-fi fan.
"I have my own answer to this question," I tell Kukulski as the party dies down. "But how do you suppose transhumanism and science fiction relate to each other?"
There's an overlap — "the vesica piscis of the Venn diagram," as he puts it. Science-fiction writers, he says, often take the liberty to imagine transhuman futures that completely revise and reevaluate what it might mean to be human. "And I think that that's useful when it's done well," he says, "and when it's done poorly, it's just more shit propaganda."
It breaks down into two questions, he seems to be saying. How might we overcome our human forms and become something greater? And, perhaps more pressingly in an age of rising sea levels and increasing turmoil: How might we persevere? Science fiction, he says, reminds us that "man might be able to manifest its greatest aspirations, or even just continue to exist on this fucking planet, into the future. And humanity can continue, whether it's in the current physical form of these clumps of cells bunched together, or in a strange mish-mash of the digital and silicon-based whatnot."
It's the old trope, echoed by Philip K. Dick for one, that fiction lets the author (and the reader) slip into new worlds and try them on. And fictional worlds can be the first step to real worlds. Or as futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard once put it: "The future exists first in the imagination, then in the will, then in reality."
Here's what I find interesting about transhumanism as a movement and philosophy. If its global epicenter is in Silicon Valley, among all the well-heeled futurists flush with dot-com cash and high on their own supply of glittering possibilities, maybe it's in places like Pittsburgh — in the rust belt of America's fading industrial past — that transhumanism's real possibilities are being put to the test. Here, the street-level transhumanists — self-styled cyberpunks and "grinders" — are already experimenting on themselves. And while they may share goals or ideals with their mainstream brethren out west, they also have reservations about the transhuman future, should it ever actually happen.
The term transhumanism was coined by Julian Huxley, the biologist, eugenicist, internationalist, and brother of Aldous, in 1957. He believed that it was mankind's "inescapable destiny" to take a proactive stance in controlling its future evolution. "And the sooner he realizes it and starts believing in it," he wrote, "the better for all concerned."
It's an old idea with a new brand. After all, humans have always looked to improve their lot, and for just as long, they have argued over the form that improvement should take. Transhumanists have given it a shiny technological gloss; generally, they believe that once mankind reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, human nature will be transformed. That might happen in a few different ways: Artificial intelligence might elevate us all to godlike geniuses (if it doesn't kill us first). Genetic engineering might help us create future humans who don't need sleep or live for 300 years or survive on less food. Maybe we'll crack the riddle of consciousness, allowing us to upload ourselves into robot bodies or live forever in virtual worlds.
One of the first transhumanist projects was the invention of cryonics by Robert Ettinger, a World War II veteran who taught mathematics and physics in Michigan. He believed you could freeze a human (or animal), preserve it in sub-zero temperatures, and thaw it far in the future, when humanity has found the cure for death. For the frozen subject, it would be a kind of time travel — not unlike the plot of Austin Powers.
His inspiration, as you might have guessed, wasn't cutting-edge science. "The Jameson Satellite," appearing in the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories, featured a visionary academic who had his corpse shot into orbit around Earth, where the cold vacuum of space preserved his body for millions of years. Upon his discovery by a race of cyborgs, he was revived and his brain fitted with a state-of-the-art mechanical body. Ettinger eventually went on to give cryonics a go — not with a space shot, but by establishing the Cryonics Institute in 1976.
Ettinger's dreams presaged the birth of the modern transhumanist movement. Max More, an Oxford graduate and founder of life-extension foundation, Alcor U.K., founded Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought and the Extropy Institute alongside his wife Natasha Vita-More, after moving to Los Angeles in 1987. The extropians personified the idea that it was the professional class, not marginalized science-fiction fans and DIY tech-types, that truly owned visionary futurism.
Theirs is what I would call a "corporate transhumanism." As opposed to the hopeful, aspirational DIY style embodied by the rust belt sci-fi authors and self-styled cyberpunks, a large part of the current scene relies on the patronage of so many big names in the tech world. Peter Thiel, the cofounder and former CEO of PayPal; Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google; Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy; and inventor Ray Kurzweil have all spent a lot of time and money on the transhumanist program over the years.
To the jaded eye, Silicon Valley transhumanism might look like a bunch of seminars and memberships and TED Talks. According to R.U. Sirius, cocreator of Mondo 2000 magazine and coauthor of Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity, the mainstream transhumanist scene is a lot more varied and interesting than it might seem from the outside.
"There are various levels of harmony and disharmony in that world," he told me recently. "The corporate transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and the Googlers play their part, of course. But there are also those that he describes as outsiders: "seemingly crazed anarcho-capitalist-types," the ones who get all the press and seem to define "transhumanist" in the minds of outsiders.
He describes the vast majority as being basically liberal, if mostly apolitical — the kind of people who fall left on the spectrum but don't feel the need to do anything about it.
"They don't want to bother arguing with the libertarians and anarcho-capitalists," he said, "because they're not that political and they know it's a waste of time to argue with the ideologically convinced."