“Make Way for the Superhumans” Review

Reviewed by Oliver Moody for The London Times, July 9, 2016.


The point of science fiction, the late Ray Bradbury once said, is not just to predict the future. It is to prevent it too. Some writers find this task straightforward. You take an issue in the modern world — automation, the creeping empire of social media, the depletion of the planet’s natural resources — and pursue it all the way to apocalypse. Wisdom dispensed. Job done.
Yet all the good novelists in the genre recognise that the greatest and subtlest threats to our future often come not from the fears of their age, but from its highest ideals. That is why Brave New World is a far better book than Nineteen Eighty-Four; nobody would wish to live in Orwell’s Eurasia, but Huxley’s tidy world of gleaming chrome toys, state-sponsored orgies and chemically regulated happiness is easily mistaken for a utopia.
Make Way for the Superhumans is a serious and orderly work of nonfiction about the near future of human “bio-enhancement” — the artificial augmentation of our minds and bodies. Michael Bess, a Vanderbilt University historian who specialises in how new technologies remake society, has spent 11 years drawing up this catalogue of cyborg fantasies, and it shows.
Let’s start with the present day because, to anybody who has not kept abreast of developments in genetics, medicine and neuroscience, it already resembles an alien alternative universe. In 2013 a football-crazy Brazilian scientist called Miguel Nicolelis ran electrodes deep into the motor cortices of pairs of rats. When one pressed a lever, the brain activity was transmitted instantly into the brain of the other so that it carried out the same action several yards away. The next year Rajesh Rao, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Washington, used a different technique to control a colleague’s hand with 100 per cent accuracy as he played a computer game.
By beaming electrical currents and magnetic fields into people’s skulls, other researchers have made human guinea pigs learn skills 50 per cent faster, whipped them up into euphoria and shaken their faith in God. Fiddling around with genes is trickier, but scientists have drastically souped up mouse brains and doubled the lifespans of nematode worms. The new frontier is epigenetics, the muffling and amplification of DNA’s activity in ways that can be tweaked or cancelled before the changes run on into the next generation. Combined with advances in nano-scale engineering, artificial intelligence and a growing understanding of how and why we age, it all begins to look very much like a golden age of mastery over nature.
Bess whisks the reader down a dozen of these rabbit holes to see where they might wind up by the middle of the century. The resulting conjectures are nothing short of extraordinary: pterodactyl-wing soup; crowd orgasms and mind-to-mind sexual intercourse; incest across five generations; suicidal orangutans with an IQ of 90. Most of the chapters open with a little imaginary picture of how the world could look in 2050. Jed and Francesca message each other memories of eating a pastry in Rome and holding their newborn daughter. Juan medicates every subtle change in his mood with insidious milligrams of pharmacology. A nameless Chinese man surveys a race of heartless, semi-robotic Japanese cyborgs with disgust.
Well, you might think, bring it on. There is a small but vociferous movement known as transhumanism that is dedicated to making this future happen as soon as possible. However, Bess is not so sure. He worries — rightly, and like many thinkers who have addressed the question before him — that these changes could leave us diminished, divided and obscurely unhappy. At its heart this book is a series of admonitory thought experiments straight out of the tradition of Bradbury and Huxley.
The Canadian novelist Robert Sawyer has a nice line about the difference between science fiction and futurology: any futurologist worth his salt could have predicted the invention of the automobile, but only a science-fiction writer could have foreseen the traffic jam. This is Bess’s attempt to map out the traffic jam that lies in wait for the human race before it is too late — the teenagers lost forever in virtual reality, the human-dolphin-cobra-eucalyptus splices, the black-market bio-modifications. It is one of the better books on the subject, which tends to be polarised between kneejerk conservatism on the one side and glassy-eyed paeans to the posthuman “singularity” on the other. Bess has read widely, deeply and without prejudice.
Is it enough to prevent the future, though? Probably not. None of the scenarios so minutely wargamed in this book has the literary force or the requisite sense of immediacy to shock the world into taking them seriously. It is far more likely that the human race will simply end up muddling its way through whatever the next few decades bring, just as it always has. If there is one thing our species is uniquely good at, it is making things up as we go along. And it hasn’t let us down yet.
Make Way for the Superhumans by Michael Bess, Icon, 320pp, £14.99