“Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty.”
Samuel Johnson: Idler #11 (June 24, 1758)
What does it mean to be human? These are two loaded words that need some unpacking. What is Being? What is Humanity? As we stew on these words and puzzle over their meaning, we will realize that being human comes along with many presumptions. I will examine this question using twelve fictional works that span different genres and media. While Big Questions such as this get treatment in genres like science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy, I won’t limit myself to the realm of speculative fiction. Included in my list are works by French Modernist Samuel Beckett, Austrian Decadent Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson.
The BBC series Being Human deals with issues of assimilation and “passing.” While the premise sounds like the set-up for a joke (a vampire and a werewolf live in a house occupied by the ghost of a dead woman), the series has explored the three protagonists’ attempts at “being human.” It becomes a struggle for normalcy and acceptance. Being a werewolf, vampire, or ghost is far less fun than previously thought.
Each of these works approaches the question of being human from different angles. Is being human purely about the human species? In the UK-based military role-playing game Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man fights off all sorts of intergalactic nasties to preserve the human race. On the other hand, Iain Banks’s “Culture” novels have a multi-species pan-galactic government ruled by super-sentient AIs, called Minds. The government is based on post-scarcity anarchism and is surprisingly egalitarian.
The question of the human species is again questioned in Storm Constantine’s fantasy series Wraeththu. In the series, a hermaphroditic race called the Wraeththu usurps humankind’s dominance. As an ascendant being, are the Wraeththu still technically human…or something more? Is this biological distinction even an important question? The proponents of Prop 8 and “traditional marriage” seem to think so, since they regard non-procreative citizens — the elderly, sterile, or vasectomized excepted — as second-class citizens undeserving of certain inalienable rights.
Is being human purely a biological matter? Battlestar Galactica and Caprica dealt with political, military, cultural, and religious issues arising from the co-existence of humanity with sentient machines. While I’m skeptical about the nearness of the Singularity, these TV series raise some important issues. With technological leaps and advancements in data storage, humanity is dealing with machines that are smarter and smarter. Treating machines as political equals may be a futuristic notion, but how many of you reading this get purchasing advice from Amazon’s algorithms and Netflix’s suggestions? What’s unsettling isn’t that behavior, inasmuch as how accurate some suggestions have been. Both Battlestar and Caprica offer us situations where mankind is forced to negotiate with sentient machines, or as a character stated, “the differently sentient.”
Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin looks at how the concept of being human is tied to the issues of gender and power. Written in the 1930s, it takes place in a future Europe 500 AH (After Hitler). The future Europe seems similar to medieval Europe, except that Christians are persecuted and women are turned into second-class citizens, used as nothing more than a means of reproduction by gay Nazi knights. Burdekin, a feminist science fiction writer from Britain, undercuts the macho ideology of Nazism by exposing its bizarre Nordic homoeroticism and medievalist romanticism.
Hellboy by Mike Mignola also has Nazis. In this case, it has the eponymous demon hero fighting for humanity. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) also employs Abe Sapien, a very old sentient amphibious creature, and Liz Sherman, a human flamethrower.
Similarly, Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch has the narrator Severin sexually humiliated by the dominant female Wanda. However, does sadomasochistic behavior really dehumanize people? Or is this simply a prejudice espoused by those ignorant of such things? Is humiliation the same thing as dehumanization? Like gay fiction written before the Stonewall Riots, Venus in Furs has notoriety because of its sensational topic. Since times have changed radically since its original publication, what does this book reveal about the peculiarities and possibilities of being human?
The Trilogy by Samuel Beckett poses challenges to the question about being human. The three novels — Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable — can be seen as fables of identity. At a superficial level, Beckett can be dubbed a minimalist. In truth, his work is less minimal than barren. Throughout his career in theater and fiction, he has sought to strip traditional narrative of nearly everything: character, plot, setting, etc. But what’s left? If fiction is an exploration of humanity, what’s left of humanity if there is no character? Unlike other people, I think Beckett struggling to answer these questions make him a science fiction writer, albeit one without green men and spaceships. (I would also lump other writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon in this category, since they have works that could be thought of as science fiction or fantasy. The difference is less one of content than marketing.)
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson poses a different situation. In the novel, the narrator, is a small town Texas sheriff. He isn’t a sentient robot, a demon, or an alien. By every account, he is a man, except for his “sickness.” This sickness makes him a killer. The book, published decades before Dexter, challenges us to understand him. His murderous actions is what separates him from other human beings. What makes being a human so hard that one has to kill?
I also look forward to writing about works with which I am less familiar. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh and The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg, are works I have not yet read or watched.
In addition to the above essays, which were published on the CCLaP website, this volume includes additional essays. I have chosen to write about the groundbreaking fantasy film from 1984, The Dark Crystal, which is a masterpiece in modern puppeteering. The film, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, follows Jen, a Gelfling on his quest to find the Crystal Shard. I analyze The Wanting Seed, by Anthony Burgess, a science fiction satire about a history teacher in an overpopulated. Tristram, the protagonist, finds himself in the chaos of overcrowding, cannibalism, and a literal gender war. Finally, there is Man After Man, by Dougal Dixon. This illustrated book has a cult following and traces mankind’s future evolution millions of years into the future.
One of the many pleasures from writing these essays has been their cumulative effect. While the initial arrangement for the online essays was unintentional, I found works building on other works. The question, “What does it mean to be human?” became part of an ongoing critical and pop culture conversation. This book is a continuing conversation, hence the pointed quote from Dr. Johnson. Keep that quote in mind as you read these essays.