[Themes] Worth Reading: Human? Edition

I read so many shorts and I have nowhere to discuss them. In these segments, I’m going to post my favorite recently-published pieces. At the very least, I’ll enjoy articulating my thoughts and sending them into the aether. Maybe it will lead to more people reading more good stories, which would be kind of a win for me.

Exploring metrics we might use to define what it means to be “human” has been a core aspect of science fiction since the literal beginning. The very first science fiction story featured a man going to great lengths to create life—to build a living “human” from scratch—only to reject his own creation; denying it humanity, denying it a name. As I looked through the best stories I’ve read this spring, I compiled a list that accidentally centered on that same theme. So instead of the winter/spring recap episode I had planned, we have a list of stories that dance around the question:
what does it mean to be human?

Here are some things worth reading:

“Yesterday’s Problems” (by Stanley Schmidt in Analog: Science Fiction & Fact – May/June 2022) is a special feature about evolution, climate change, and the Purported Sanctity of the Human Genome. Schmidt essentially argues that humanity’s best bet at survival might require rethinking our attitude towards our own DNA. If presented with the option to expedite the evolutionary process and adapt ourselves to thrive in Earth’s new climate and on the resources it provides, would we truly choose extinction out of loyalty to our current, ill-fitting evolution?1 Some might argue these new humans would not be human at all; that we’d only be expediting our extinction. I generally try to avoid associating with anyone who vehemently argues for any specific definition of personhood; the desire to place a line between “us” and “them” is rarely admirable. The article is worth checking out; I’ll never see a trip the gym the same way again. 

“Genetic engineering is currently viewed as ‘dirty word’ in many circles, but I suspect history will view that as knee-jerk reaction resulting largely from the newness and unfamiliarity of the concept. I suspect history will decide that it was something people had to do, if they were every to thrive in an ever-changing world—and perhaps an ever-expanding variety of worlds”

Stanley Schmidt – “Yesterday’s Problems

Phoenix Alexander’s “These Brilliant Forms” Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2022) is centered on humanity’s reaction to new—and drastically different—iterations of our own species. I get it. It’s 2022 and the average F&SF reader has likely been exposed to one or two or a thousand stories with the message: “maybe take a second and show kindness to things that aren’t you.” Empathy for the other is a prevailing theme in science fiction; it’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to it. “These Brilliant Forms” captures that theme and more as we are forced to imagine not just how we should treat other humans, other beings, but also what it might be like to live with human DNA in a very different physical form. Without anatomy to consult, how would YOU know you’re human? Alexander takes us inside the mind of a being trying to answer exactly that question; you won’t regret joining Caliphrax’s journey of self-discovery. I’m always a sucker for an imaginative conceit and this story is just really fun, but it is Alexander’s focus on Caliphrax’s sense of self that makes “These Brilliant Forms” so refreshing. 

“Beacon” (by Sean McMullen in Analog May/June 2022) explores the unlikely possibility that humans still exist tens of thousands of years in the future and the forms we might have to take before we actually meet other civilizations. It’s dark and beautiful and satisfying. (Also a bit twisty, so I’ll let you discover the rest on your own.)

Lily, The Immortal” (by Kylie Lee Baker in Uncanny Magazine Issue 44) provides a slightly terrifying glimpse into a near-future world where social media companies decide our online personas are too profitable to die with our physical bodies. (We’d never sign away our rights like that, though! We always read the EULA!) This story raises some very pressing questions about the effects our digital footprint could have on those we leave behind. It is a story about loss and grief and the ways technology might make healing so much harder. (“Nana” by Carl Walmsley in F&SF March/April 2022 also deals with exactly this topic, to devastating effect.)

 “From This Side of the Rock” (by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu in F&SF March/April 2022) provides a truly heartbreaking picture of just how much immigrants sacrifice; about what is lost when nations pursue a facade of homogeneity in lieu of making room for other cultures to thrive. It fits solidly in the “what does it mean to be human” theme by reminding the reader that even among Homo sapiens living on the same planet in the same era, we would struggle to reach a consensus on what is truly important, on what is essential to the experience of being a human. ”From This Side of the Rock” highlights the beauty of those differences and the frivolity of xenophobic nationalism through a chilling portrayal of personal loss. To end with a little present day preaching: a truly Exceptional culture wouldn’t need to diminish others to Manifest its Destiny. 

“A Letter to My Daughter, Emily” (by E.E. King and Richard Lau in Solarpunk Magazine Issue #3) is a perfect bookend for these selections. I’m intrigued by the Solarpunk ethos—by the call to depict the world we want instead of only, ever saying “well, we don’t want this one.” Paired with Stanley’s essay, this epistolary story is another cry to keep a hopeful, open mind about humanity’s future. To welcome beneficial new iterations of ourself in whatever form they take.

1 Obviously, there are nearly endless issues with any real or imagined attempt to alter our own DNA. Schmidt alludes to issues of tyrants and makes it clear that forcing genetic modification is, and will always be, evil. The religious might believe their god built humans specifically this way; they should obviously be allowed to live their own lives, but it’s hard to imagine America’s religious right letting other people do the same. It’s not hard to imagine a population  that so deftly dehumanizes unaltered segments of itself taking bigotry to a new level. Or perhaps a slightly different brand of fascism could try to force their own changes on the populace. Even without hatred, any attempt to address climate change must be accessible to those who will suffer its most brutal effects first and I don’t foresee a climate-proof genome project being accessible to anyone but the wealthy or perhaps the insured, eventually. Billionaires having children that thrive on space-yachts seems the most likely use of the technology, if we ever opt to explore it.


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