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Future People

by Robert E. Rogoff

"'In five years, the penis will be obsolete,' said the salesman."

Thus begins John Varley's Steel Beach, one of the first books to portray a future wherein humans regularly change back and forth between being male and female. And I have no doubt that sooner rather than later the technology will exist to modify human bodies to a far greater extent than just changing them from one sex to another.

Putting aside the distinct possibility that biogenetic research will be placed on indefinite hold for political reasons, I suspect that within two generations 'body modification' will apply to far more exotic deformations of the body than tattoos or piercings. And biogenetic body-changing is only one of the ways in which humanity will morph. Consider the possibilities when the ability to revise one's genetic code exists within the context of a world where consciousness uploading is possible, where life expectancy has been increased, where there are ever-more-interconnected communications networks binding humans to myriad other humans--not to mention databases and archives beyond imagination and possibly even artificial brains.

Again, aside from political interference, it appears as if far sooner than a century from now people will no longer look, behave, or even think in a manner comprehensible to a typical human from today.

I'm having a hard time with this, because it eventually all comes down to Vernor Vinge's concept of the Singularity, a point at which the speed of knowledge increase surpasses the ability of any human to comprehend it, and implies the development of artificial intelligences as the dominant lifeform on Earth, or whatever replaces Earth.

When I read some of the best hard science fiction available, such as Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky or Greg Bear's Moving Mars, I'm struck by the problem that unless a writer creates characters who are basically humans as we know them today, the readers will find it difficult to identify with them.

Iain M. Banks's Culture novels are, for all intents and purposes, about futuristic people who are basically the same as we are. C.J. Cherryh's Union/Alliance universe takes interstellar travel as a given, yet the characters are basically contemporary people. This is not going to happen. Within two generations, humans will for the most part be so different from what we are now, they will be more alien than the most alien aliens dreamed up by science fiction writers since the genre began describing alien life forms.

So why am I bothering to even try creating any kind of futuristic world that could possibly be extrapolated from our own? For a long time now, I've been generating ideas based primarily on "rational" futuristic conventions extrapolated from ideas humans are already exploring at some level anyway. The assumptions I've made in my research about brain science and nanotechnology will be completely obsolete before they even have a chance to exist.

Part of my ongoing project of trying to catch up with a representative sampling of some of the more important sf books of recent years was for the purpose of assimilating the trends and directions of the consensus future our sf community has built. Some of the stuff I've encountered lately has been so full of the ever-popular "sense of wonder" that it's amazing how it always comes down to some reasonable explanation, such as being virtual reality or a twist on concepts held by some of the more out-there theoretical physicists.

No wonder high fantasy is so popular these days. People with swords riding around on horses is a lot easier to deal with than, say, distributed-processing personality constructs permeating multiple universes in many-dimensional spacetime.

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Copyright © 1994-2008 Robert E. Rogoff. All rights reserved.