Science Fiction and Transcendence
by Neal Stanifer

It pays to read—this article might be what you’re looking for.


     Transcendence is the notion that humanity (or some other entity) can get beyond the limitations of mortal existence and experience. Beyond age, beyond memory, beyond time, what-have-you. Transcendence. Here we go.

     Some critics have remarked on the popularity of transcendence as a recurring theme in SF stories. The novels of Arthur C. Clarke are the most memorable examples, but Greg Bear’s BLOOD MUSIC also comes powerfully to mind, and there are so many others I hesitate to begin listing them lest this should turn into one great big list. Suffice it to say that they’re out there, and we’ve all read them.

     This transcendence takes a number of forms, from the evolutionary leaps into a Clarke-style Overmind, to the fusion of man with immortal machine, to small gestures such as telepathy (transcending the confines of the material brain) or faster-than-light travel (sidestepping the aging process). In every instance, it is a vision of human futurity beyond the limitations of “mere” flesh. Getting away from the “meat”, as Gibson’s Case would say, seems to be a strange attractor in SF.


      Why is a literature ostensibly predicated on scientific method, empiricism, and materiality so often drawn into the playground of the transcendent , even the imminent? Why are there so few monist-materialist SF stories? Is it that we find our own flesh dull and imprisoning? Is it that we still think technology will free us from our skin? Is it that we feel human life is incomplete without spirituality? Or is it just more fun to speculate about godhood and immortality than to face a brief life of momentary joys, enduring hardships, and inevitable termination?

     Take the case of mind-transfers, telepathy, and other movements of intelligence outside the flesh. N. Katherine Hayles, in HOW WE BECAME POSTHUMAN, places part of the blame for this species of transcendence on the Macy Conferences, where Norbert Weiner (ironically enough) lost control of the definition of “kybernos” (“control”, and the root of “cybernetics”), and the notion of self-embodied information was born. Information no longer needed to be instantiated in a material substrate; it cavorted and danced independent of material existence. Rather than representing something going on in copper, flesh or silicon, information became Primary, preceding its temporary home in the material. I was a relatively short leap from forgetting that “information” was an abstract representation of a material process, to daydreaming about downloading analog brains into digital machines. Slippage, error, and fantasy gave us our dreams of the Information Age. Or take the case of SF’s great millenialist exoduses, those outward-bound voyages from a dying homeworld to a possibly edenic future. Thomas Disch ties the transcendence impulse to escapism in a non-literary sense, a real urge to shuck off the flesh and move on.