Friday, December 19, 2008

Part 1 of 4 - Humanity Series

Are you a human? Am I a human? Is my monkey a human?

A New1 and Improved2 Essay

El Barga

Homo Sapiens is a very well defined phrase. It means “thinking (or wise) human”. Homo Sapiens (humans) are the least endangered species on the third planet from what they know as the Sun. They feature an enlarged brain (held in by a enormous head) and roughly symmetrical body. Two arms, two legs, and ten digits for each pair. The entire Hominid clan, after Habilus, is known for their intensive tool usage, their high caloric intake, and their love of heated meats (except for their idiotic members who seem to think that animals deserve rights; fucking nuts if you ask me3). Humans, unlike any other species, also seem to want to kill themselves off.

If the term 'human' is so well defined, then why would science fiction authors spend countless nights typing away at little clicking machines (that is what Bradbury called them) and waste dimes at a time to type up and define the term4? Well, it seems obvious that science fiction writers are all secretly existentialistic and that they also want to confuse you. They use buildings, dogs, aliens, and even other humans to make you question who is really a human and who is not. Is it your neighbor (for this argument, another Homo Sapien) who hates your ideologies or the alien who agrees with you all the time. Which of those is more human, which of those is more alien?

Different authors have had different takes on what exactly it means to be a human. Clarke, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, contends that humans are given intelligence, thus the only real humans are those who are always seeking more knowledge and the truth. Asimov, with his hundreds of stories on Robots, writes in Robbie! that to be human is simply to feel for another being (be it living or be it simulating life). Heinlein, well, his humans depend on the novel (in Stranger in a Strange land, isn't the human the one who is the leader and the followers are nothing?).

With various authors taking different positions, how is somebody supposed to conclude what is human and what is not? Well, we can assume that they all are circling a common ground, and thus we just need to find that ground. Take Bradbury with his 1950 short story “There Will Come Soft Rains5. In this story, Bradbury creates a story with no actual humans (in the flesh, their shadows do remain, however). How can one find a definition of humanity in such a story, you ask? Well, it seems pretty simple: Bradbury is able to make the house that is the main, and basically the only, character of the story into a human. The house is calm despite the overall calamity. Why? Because the problems don’t

effect it. It maintains its life, it maintains its job, it keeps on truckin’. Only until the moment that the house is itself in danger, does it start to react. At that point it panics, slips into insanity, and then slowly succumbs to its death throws.

With this story, Bradbury is explaining that humans are a cold and calculating species. They can maintain themselves and keep running as they want to no matter what happens, be it a nuclear war or be it simply a person run over by a car6. He is claiming, that unless humans themselves are at risk, they will not act at all; humans are uncaring for each other and that they will just walk right by (keep working) while all the others die. However, once they themselves are in danger, then he feels that they will go insane trying to fix it. In the end, he says, all humans will die as they will only help themselves until it is too late: “Then they came for me, and by that time, nobody was left to stand up”.

Sterling, in his 1982 short story Swarm, takes a different stance of what humanity is. He presents us with a mutually beneficial colony, with creatures full-filling all positions. This is oddly reminiscent to a corporation in this modern age; all parts of the machine like where they are, but they do not know that they are part of it. Only when they get the rare intelligence (a Patton, a Rommel, a Washington, a Barga7) do they use it to help advance their status and thus ensure a safer existence for their own species. He is saying that these creatures are really humans, and that while humans need to work together to survive (the main point of There Will Come Soft Rains), we are already working together in one large clump, governed by a rare power8. Sterling is saying that to be human means to simply be another brick in the wall that is holding up the building

So, you have one author, Bradbury, arguing that humans are cold and calculating creatures, that they are their own seeds of destruction. You have another, Sterling, who is sitting there saying that, regardless of how the individual feels towards all of this, humans are all working together in a symbiotic relationship. These two opinions on humanity actually walk hand-in-hand as they look simply at two different parts of the same puzzle. Much like God and Evolution9, these two theories march together. Bradbury is looking at each individual cog of the machine, saying that it only cares about itself and that it doesn’t matter to it what happens to the other Cogs. Sterling is looking at the machine which all the cogs are a part of, and is saying that the cogs need not see the larger picture, they are part of it anyways. Either way, both are saying that to be human is to require assistance of other humans and to live as one part of the species.

To make matters worse, some authors say ‘fuck it10’ to the implied humanity and instead take it at the literal definition. Terry Bisson, in his short story Bears Discover Fire, is looking at what makes one entity, without its representative society, into a human. Bisson moved more into the traditional scientific definition of what a human is: he was contending that anything which could use tools (Hominid trait sense Habilus) is a human. Bears are almost identical to us hominids save for their teeth, their fur, and their strength11. They are symmetrical, they consume large amounts of calories, and they shop at The Gap12. Bisson took a creature, one that we consider dumb and below us, and showed us that it is really just as human as we are13. Bisson was saying that humans are merely animals that can use tools (in this case, fire) and thus can alter to a large part their environment. Under this logic, my monkey (most monkey use tools) counts as a human too.14

So, Bisson just threw us a curve ball and we have to grab it to throw out the person stealing second.15 He is contending, as have several other greats in science fiction, specifically Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that all that makes a human is our use of technology. That is, the only reason we are above dolphins is due to the fact that we use technology. Other authors, like Adams, quickly contend that dolphins are above us, we just can not under stand what they are saying.16 Anyways, back to my point, technology makes a human is all that Bisson is proposing. Now, this might seem different from the social groups in Bradbury and Sterling but it is a similar thing. All three stories have used technology of some sort, and in all three it seems to be a requirement of being human. The house is technology, the bears use fire, the creatures use an evolutionary advancement (genetic modification). Additionally, in all of the stories, Humans are one part of a giant chain that needs each other to survive (the bears travel en mass). Basically, Science Fiction authors are saying that humans are just one part of a machine, but that part is using technology and somewhat independent. Pretty interesting machine if you ask me.17

So, we are all settled on a definition and then this piss-pot from South Carolina18 decides that he is going to write several amazingly successful stories, both of sci-fi and of fantasy, and challenge the assumption of what a human is. He explains that there are four forms of intelligent life:

Utlanning are strangers of one's own species and one's own world

Framling are members of one's own species but from another world or culture.

Ramen are strangers from another species who are capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with Homo sapiens sapiens, though that does not guarantee they will pursue the latter

Varelse are strangers from another species who are not able to communicate with us. They are true aliens, completely incapable of common ground with humanity.19

Here Card is telling us that humans are simply creatures that are a known species and that can communicate and POTENTIALLY live peacefully with us. He is not saying that just Homo Sapiens are humans, but that any creature that can communicate and be peaceful is a human. Wow, I guess that GW Bush is not a human then.20

This throws a large wrench into the overall argument as to what a human is. We have most authors saying technology and society makes a human, but here is this other author contending that technology and society is not needed, only rational thought and a way to express it. While this can fit into Bears and into Swarm, it fails to fit with Rain. In Rain the house can not communicate what it wants, only what it is supposed to. Plus, it acts quite irrational during the whole thing. However, from common experience, we know that not all humans are rational and that not all humans can communicate.

By looking at just that last sentence we can see how to tie Bradbury into Card’s new position. The house is an outlier, the humans on the side, and the dog, communicated what they were doing/wanted, and they were rational about it. Clearly, the house is simply the person in the mental ward that is deaf and doesn’t know sign language. Provided you consider the house an outlier, and not representative of the society21 then this fits. Card, Bisson, Bradbury, and Sterling all feel that to be human you merely need to be rational and able to communicate. Now, who are you to argue with them?22

And to leave you with an image to remember me by…

By the way, this would be a great cover for Swarm

1 Yet it keeps the same basic premise and has three paragraphs that are fully identical to the previous edition, and many other parts with only a little bit of changes. But if Coke Zero® is new, then by God so it this

2 With a new bit o’ dribble added to make it 7 pages

3 And you did

4 Because they are assholes. Also, they wanted me to have a paper topic for my final.

5 Which I just discovered is referenced in a scene in the Video Game Fallout 3

6 Which seems to be his specialty, see Fahrenheit 451

7 Of course the best brain ever

8 It’s the Zionists, or the New World Order… must get my tin-foil hat

9 He created all, then let it go. Also, it is ev-O-lution, not e-VIL-ution like you Brits say

10 Yeah, stick it to the man

11 Doesn’t that mean that they are not like us at all?

12 In fact, in 1995 it was rumored that there was a large polar bear shopping at The Gap inside Polaris Mall. It turned out simply to be a fat old woman.

13 PETA just had a field day

14 Yay

15 Yes, I just wanted a Baseball reference

16 Those fish were mine. THEY TOOK MY BLOODY FISH

17 See footnote 3

18 Obvious a red-neck hick

19 Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card, no bloody clue what page

20 Bad taste? Well, too bad

21 Which, sadly, is not the case mostly. We have some idiots in this country. Way, way too many idiot.

22 If you were me then you would be able to argue with them (and you would be right), but you are not me; God, it must suck to be you.

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