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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Sunday supervillainy - Currently reading The Transhuman Antihero, by Michael Grantham

I'm currently reading Michael Grantham's book The Transhuman Antihero: Paradoxical Protagonists of Speculative Fiction from Mary Shelley to Richard Morgan (McFarland, 2016). Paradoxically, as it were, I am reading this after seeing a very unfavourable review of it published in the latest issue of Science Fiction Studies. Bad reviews are often better than no reviews at all, at least if you want to be read and cited! It became apparent to me that this was a book I needed to read, since it covers much  the same ground as some of my own research.

I can report that Grantham's book is nowhere near as bad as the SFS review suggested. On the contrary, many of the readings of individual texts are detailed and insightful. If you have an interest in this area, the book is worth broaching. It's also written fairly well, despite some overly convoluted sentences, and it's been edited well enough to be pretty free of typos and the like.

At the same time, the editing could have been better - for example, too many odd word choices slip through, as when Grantham claims that one author "is not alone in his advocation for designer evolution." Why not "advocacy"? Again, a particular novel "confronts the reader with a social reality in which advancements in genetic technologies have led to [certain outcomes]." Why not just "advances"? These are not at all the only such glitches, alas, and although all writers make a few mistakes in our fuzzier moments a reputable publishing house should never let through so many as has happened here.

As the SFS reviewer notes, the choice of texts to discuss seems very arbitrary. There is lengthy discussion of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, which is fine in itself, but I can't see much reason for choosing them beyond the author's personal interest. Many of the choices seem more like "stuff that I like" than any careful attempt to identify and examine a literary tradition. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing (as I said, the actual readings of specific texts are generally good), but it would dangerous to draw any novel conclusions from this sample of readings. It's impossible for a scholar in this field to be comprehensive, of course, at least in a relatively short book. But perhaps Grantham should have been more open about that problem and more tentative in offering conclusions (this is something for me to remember, as well!).

More worryingly, I'm not very impressed by the idea of a paradoxical "transhuman" anti-hero. Grantham's grasp of transhumanism is shaky: for a start, transhumanists don't tend to use the word "transhuman" as an adjective in the way he does, even in his title, although any rigour about this has long been lost in popular discussion. Since Grantham wants to rely on formal transhumanist theory, and is not just using words loosely, this should have been sorted out in a more scholarly way. He also shows loose scholarship in citing material from the ongoing debates in fields such as bioethics about the prospect of genetic enhancement. Arguments are put forward very quickly and uncritically, with, again, a sense that the choice of authors cited is rather arbitrary.

Getting down to the main thesis, what I find weakest is the idea that there is anything paradoxical in the idea of characters who have greater-than-human physical and/or cognitive capacities, combined with moral limitations of some sort. These characters may pursue destructive ends because they have not been morally enhanced or because of the way they are treated by societies that (to use a cliché that Grantham avoids) hate and fear them.

Well, fine. Science fiction novel after science fiction novel (and one SF movie, comic book series, graphic novel, TV show, etc., after another) shows how this might play out. Great power might be connected with great social alienation and/or destructiveness - and not so much with great exercise of responsibility for the welfare of others - but that's hardly an original point to make. Again, I'm pleased to see good readings of individual works that bring this out, and it's a theme that I often return to in various ways in my own writing, including in this series of blog posts. But there's no real paradox here. Why would great power necessarily go along with enhanced attitudes of concern for others?

In all, I'd give this book a B-minus. It's worth reading for its individual chapters, and early on it hits some of the correct high spots (though why not H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man and/or Philip Wylie's Gladiator, which are perhaps the key narratives in the early tradition, along with some that Grantham does discuss such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Olaf Stapledon's Odd John?). The later chapters become increasingly arbitrary in what is selected for discussion - perhaps inevitably so, because of the explosion in science fiction since the 1970s, but that problem had to be addressed in some way, and in any event the actual choices made don't seem especially astute.

The book will increase your understanding of how science fiction, as a genre, has handled the idea of more-than-human characters, and how, as a genre, it has mused (or sometimes failed to) upon the morally acceptable uses of technoscientific power. But it does this through useful discussions of some selected texts, and not through much in the way of insight into a developing tradition.

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