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The Future of Humanity, The Humanity of the Future
by Norman Spinrad

SHADOWS OF ETERNITY
by Gregory Benford
Simon & Schuster, $7.99 

TENDER IS THE FLESH
by Augustina Bazterrica
Scribner, $11.99 

THE GODEL OPERATION
by James L. Cambias
Bain Books,$13.99 

THE WAR OF MAPS
by Paul McAuley
Hachette, $4.99

What do I mean by humanity?

In more or less scientifically simple terms, I mean Homo sapiens, as defined by the mating of male and female being capable of producing offspring capable of doing likewise and displaying Homo sapiens’ DNA.

Okay, so as we really know now, not so simple. It seems to be that in the past, Homo sapiens mated with Neanderthals, and some of us carry some of their DNA. And we know that there were quite a few other hominids down there below us in the Homo tree who may have been mating with each other before there even was a Homo sapiens or a Homo neanderthalensis. So that in fact the DNA of Homo sapiens, like that of more current mammals, is a mixture of the DNA of species further down the evolutionary tree.

But all the other sapient hominids from which Homo sapiens did or did not evolve are gone now, and Homo sapiens is what remains in current Terran reality. We can all at least agree on that. And that’s whose future, as long as there is one for us, is what I mean by the future of humanity.

However, at least in the English language, there are other meanings to the word “humanity,” and that’s far from simple. “Humanity” may be a convenient synonym for our species, for example avoiding the politically incorrect word “man” for all the sexes and genders. But humanity may also have a moral meaning, as in Nelson Mandela was a man of humanity and Hitler was not. And, indeed, what in the past of our species has been regarded as humanly acceptable moral behavior and belief has varied. Arguably, and hopefully, our concept of moral behavior has evolved to regard slavery, phallocracy, imperialism, and so forth as generally lacking in humanity.

So while “The Future of Humanity” may be regarded as speculative fiction of possible future histories, the “Humanity of the Future” is a question. That is, we don’t know what the morality, personalities, passions, political beliefs, souls, if you will, of the inhabitants thereof might be.

And therein lie many tales of speculative fiction.

Indeed, even if the writer conveniently assumes that the human beings of the story are simply us in sci-fi clothing, that in itself is an unavoidable speculation.

Here, for example, are three novels set in futures of a few centuries or even millennia beyond our present and one that is not. Shadows of Eternity, by Gregory Benford, is set some centuries from our present. The Godel Operation, by James L. Cambias, is set in a few millennia on from our temporality. Paul McAuley’s War of Maps goes all the way to the death of our galaxy or even our universe.

Tender Is the Flesh by Agostina Batzrrica is something else again. It’s set in something like a possible near future but also something like an alternate present—not what you could exactly call science fiction, but all too exactly like our own in terms of its moral reality. There but for fortune could go you and I—we hope not.

Benford is an astronomer of particular and significant interest, notably in regard to the complex and outré astrophysics of the galactic center, and is also a “hard science fiction writer” by his own measure of “not playing science fictional tennis with the rules of mass and energy with the net down.” He wisely places Shadows of Eternity some centuries in the future.

I say wisely, because at the present realtime moment in the short term future any speculative fiction, however faithful to the laws of mass and energy, that does not reckon with what the immediate present of pandemic, lockdown, and social distancing is doing to the current humanity and at least the next few future generations thereof will end up obsolete immediately. Not so much in the tech and science, but in the psychological and social human natures thereof.

But this does not mean you can’t speculate on the nature of the humanities of your future if you assume that what the pandemic has done to the next few centuries will have long since been overcome. You can then jump over to a speculative fiction relative to the future humanity of the people of the story you want to tell.

That is what Benford has done with Shadows of Eternity and that is what James L.Cambias has done with The Godel Operation. I’m doing it myself by deliberately writing a novel in progress, Ad Astra, that is set a century or so in the future. And of course it has always been a necessity for space opera, as well as much literarily speculatively seriously intended science fiction.

What the pandemic has already done to the nature of the humanity of our next generation means you really can’t get too far or even medium-far fictional fiction without jumping over this era if you don’t want to write a bummer.

The central speculative center of Benford’s novel is what the title says it is, at least perhaps until the denouement. As an astrophysicist, he does not violate any known laws of mass and energy in his nonfictional reality. But Gregory Benford is a cutting edge astrophysicist, and in those terms, Shadows of Eternity is exactly what the title says it is.

There have been, and perhaps still are, many civilizations in the galaxy, many of which have come and/or gone before us, particularly closer to the galactic center, where stars are closer to each other, and evolution has been quicker. Many of these civilizations have been millennia older than Homo sapiens, but nevertheless did not achieve eternity even in only galactic terms.

Nor has any civilization been able to break the Einsteinian law of relativity that renders faster than light travel impossible. And neither does Benford, until perhaps arguably in the denouement at the end.

The actual shadows of eternity are messages, stories, histories, whatever, broadcast far and wide at lightspeed, and thousands of them have reached our human solar system. When successfully decoded or translated, some have been scientifically useful, but the majority have not. More messages keep coming in, all of which, decoded or not, are kept in the Library on the Moon, by a sect of monklike Librarians. The top hierarchy being created as totally dedicated sexual neutrals, fully human or not, who regard themselves as superior to those Homo sapiens who are bi-gendered.

The central character, Rachel Cohen, begins as a lowly acolyte, working at the bottom of this totem pole at the scut work of trying to decode these data prodcasts. But she has an advantage because her DNA is Jewish, and importantly Ashkenazi Jewish, not because of religion, which is not any longer anyone’s thing. It’s because some of those who have such a DNA are not merely advantaged at such decoding, but have something more, and that ability is vitally important.

Some of the more sophisticated civilizations, and most of them long gone, have broadcast the shadows of eternity of the title. This is not mere data, not even simple artificial intellegences, but electronic entities, shadows of the civilizations that created them to multiply through the galaxy and carry the shadows of their creators forever.

The ultimate purpose of the Library is not to decode these entities. Indeed, they are not codes than can be decoded—but beings who can only be understood by conversing with them by entering their consciousnesses. Rachel is one of the rare humans who can at least attempt to do that, albeit with great angst and psychic peril.

This is the central story for about half the novel, but then for the first time aliens enter the story, and enter our solar system. This has seemed to be impossible because of the lightspeed limit. Nothing that the Library has discovered even from the most long gone advanced civilization has implied that anyone has done this or even tried to do so.

And moreover, these avian aliens do not seem to come from a civilization more sophisticated than our own. Rachel, who has made her mark by decoding a particularly difficult entity, is ordered, like it or not, which she at first doesn’t, to do likewise with the aliens, the point being to get them to reveal how they have done the seemingly impossible.

To go much further in Gregory Benford’s story would reveal too much, except to say that though he seems to need to make the end of the story dramatically successful he’s going to have to break his own rule of not playing it with the Einsteinian rules of mass and energy net down.

Arguably, he does and he doesn’t. You could say that Benford, the hard science fiction writer, resorts to what I’ve called “rubber science,” depending on whether you count theoretic galactic wormholes rubber science or not.

But whether or not you call Shadows of Eternity a successful epiphany of drama and rubber science or of deep scientific speculation, it certainly works as science fiction, period.

James L. Cambis goes a lot further forward in time, and therefore in both the future of humanity and the humanity of the future, in The Godel Operation. The plot of the story is simple, but the back-story and whether this can be called the future of humanity or not is not so simple, because what/who is “human” certainly is not.

Centuries ago, there was a war, or call it a series of wars, between the electronic AIs, or really electronic entities, of the inner solar system and the flesh and blood human entities who have been chased further out. In the not so distant past this was a war of complete extermination, but there has finally been a truce, not because both sides have come to love or even respect each other, but because the situation had finally resulted in a stalemate.

But in Cambis’s future now both sides have come to believe that something called the Godel Trigger is an ultimate weapon that could allow whichever side gets it first to annihilate the other side and gain total rule of the entire solar system.

That is all they know, or at least think they know, and that is all the reader knows until the end of the novel. Not just about where the Godel Trigger is, but what it is, and who or what gets there first to use it. And that is the exciting plot of the story.

Plots of stories can’t get any simpler, but the actual story of The Godel Operation gets much more complicated than that simple plot. In the future of humanity, the “humanity” of this future is anything but simple.

For one thing, though this is very far in the future and the technology and whatever science is behind it has advanced appropriately, there is no faster than light travel, no violation of the basic rules of mass and energy, so The Godel Operation is hard science fiction by any reasonable measure. It is indeed a tale told of a possible future of humanity.

But the humanity of the future? 

Here is the very opening as told by Daslakh, the central character:

“Here’s how it all happened, or at least how I currently remember it. You might want to keep that in mind.

“At the tag end of the Tenth Millennium I lived in a habitat called Raba, in the Uranus Trailing Trojans. It was an old rock-and-ice asteroid, all honeycombed with tunnels, with a big rotating habitat cylinder stuck on for the meat people. I was living in a cheap little spider mech body at the time, and earned my honest living in the water mines, keeping the big stupid drill bots running despite their energetic efforts to wreck themselves. Nanotech refiners are all very well, but at some point you have to grind stuff up for them, and that means big stupid machines made of iron and graphene. Our three idiots were named Aban, Beka, and Ciadie.

“My partner was a human named Zee, pretty clever for a lump of meat. He never complained about getting the harder physical work while I did the tasks fit for my superior knowledge and precision. I’d go into the guts of our idiot charges to make repairs while Zee pried chunks of hard rock out of the drill heads, or chipped frozen slush out of the tread.”

Humanity?

Is there any word in current English for the totality of these entities of the far future?

Not really. There is not any clear surety of who is wearing what or of which side any transphysical entity is really on, which is a central part of the story. And there is a certain amount of clandestine or even open back and forth between the entities of the inner and outer rings of the solar system.

Which side in which physical body is who on?

In a way, either no one in this future is a “human” or everyone is.

And while, as the opening promises, The Godel Operation is full of smart-ass entities, and the plot is a kind of detective story, as witness the title itself, this is not a sarcastic novel. Given the future of humanity (or whatever you want to call it) that Cambis has chosen to create, the story is serious and even hard science fiction.

War of the Maps, by Paul McAuley, doesn’t really read like hard science fiction, but in a way it both is and isn’t.

In terms of the future of humanity you just can’t go further than this. The novel is set in something like an artificial world at the end of the life of at least our galaxy. The stars in the sky, if that’s what they really are, are all red dwarfs on the way out. The last humans, if that is really what they are, inhabit an enormous globe, or anyway at least two main continents of what may or may not be the only ones in a huge world ocean that seems to cover what turns out to be the shell of an enormous Dyson Sphere built around a still live stellar core.

For those who might not be fully knowledgeable of Freeman Dyson’s speculation, the idea is that a sufficiently advanced civilization could and might completely englobe their star and its entire solar system in order to capture all the energy created by the sun within it.

Possible? Well, it doesn’t have to break any known or even future laws of mass and energy. And since the distance from our own Solar System is not the point,  the speed of light is not a problem.

What might be found in it? You must be kidding. In Belles Lettres Ad Astra, an anthology that commissioned me to write a story set exactly one hundred years in the future, a far distant Dyson Sphere is seen. But this science fiction writer of the future who was commissioned to write stories of what might be inside of the sphere ended up sort of kidding himself and giving up.

When Gregory Benford read the story, he said I should have tried to answer the question of what was really in my fictional Dyson sphere. What I told him was “Over to you, bro.”

But in War of the Maps Paul McAuley goes where I did not.

Without giving away too much too early, this Dyson Sphere was created by human entities long departed to no one knows where or why, who are regarded as gods by the human beings the gods have created for good reason.

They know that the world they live on was created by these “gods,” who may have been the last naturally evolved Homo sapiens, and so were their own original ancestors. And this is not religion or superstition, they know this. They also know that all living things on the planet, many of them monstrous and terrible, were likewise created by these gods for whatever reasons of their own.

Such is McAuley’s future of humanity, at the very end point of its existence, or even in a way beyond. For they know that they are not the naturally evolved Homo sapiens, but a kind of Disney created by the “gods” who created their first generation and stuck around long enough so that they have knowledge of the beginning of their history.

That is the setup of Paul McAuley’s future of humanity or even beyond and it is hard science fiction. The science of the creating gods this far out in what may be the end of the universe is so beyond anything we could imagine that we can’t really judge whether any ultimate laws of mass and energy have been literarily violated.

But what of the humanity of this future?

Politically speaking, at least in this novel, which seems as if it just might be the launch of a series, there are two main nations relatively close to each other on two main continents. One is more or less ruled by powerful family powers and the other is more or less a democracy.

Strangely, this feels not like the advanced or arcane future, but more like Europe and America around the time of the American and French revolutions. And the scientific and technological levels seem to be at about the turn of the twentieth century. Which is not to say that there aren’t differences and also far more advanced things, too, to the point of magic.

And various people have various superpowers, such as reading the “Maps” of the title, which seem to be DNA and/or personal destiny, or various more or less other superpowers—such as the silver voice, the ability to bullshit anyone to do anything—various martial superskills, and the power of total immunity to any other such powers.

One person with such a power is the main third person literary hero, if that is the word, who is referred to only as “the lucidor” (no caps). He’s a cop, or rather an ex-cop. The central villain, or at least the human one, is Remfrey He, a genius with the ultimate silver tongue power who is also a totally egotistical sociopath.

Monstrous creatures of some unknown life form are invading the continents and perhaps in danger of taking over the entire Dyson Sphere. Remfrey He’s ultimate silver tongue has the ability to convince people to follow him no matter what, à la Hitler. This includes himself, because he is utterly convinced that only he has what it takes to defeat and destroy the invading life forms.

And he will do anything, however evil and stomach-turning to achieve his ultimate destiny. For this reason, he had been arrested by the lucidor. But he has bullshitted his way out of it and escaped. The lucidor’s total determination to find him, kill him, or otherwise bring him to justice is the plot of the story. The lucidor’s consciousness and thoughts are given to the reader in third person as he hunts down Remfrey He, whose consciousness is never rendered, and whom the lucidor doesn’t finally meet until the near end of the story.

But of course there is much more than this in War of the Maps. About four hundred pages of more. This is really a rich travelogue of the lucidor’s chase through the “Maps,” as the venues of this immense Dyson Sphere are called by its inhabitants, the peoples and creatures he meets, allies and enemies.

And the major and minor and face-to-face battles on numerous battlefields.

Paul McAuley is a master of physical description, landscape, city streets, people, traveling and hand to hand/weapon to weapon, fighting, major and minor battles. This is both a strength and a literary weakness in the end, because the novel really should have been about a hundred pages shorter. McAuley is enthralled by his powerful descriptions of just about everything, and up to a point so is the reader, but sometime about halfway through, at least for me, all this description begins to slow things down.

And for me, at least, there’s something even more disturbing about this novel. McAuley has done a great job when it comes to creating the milieu of his very far future or even terminal future humanity, but the humanity of his future is not really much different from the same old moral, psychological, political, warfare, derring do and derring bad, that we in the twenty-first century haven’t exactly done such a great job of improving. Paul McAuley’s vision of far future humanity seems no better than the humanity of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries of imperialism, slavery, endless wars, phallocentrism, racism, and abundant personal violence.

That might sound like my political cynicism, but can’t speculative fiction do better when imagining not just the science and tech of the future of humanity, but also the humanity of that future?

On the other hand, here we have Tender Is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica. Is it science fiction, let alone hard science fiction? No. There is no unfamiliar science or technology. Is it fantasy? No. No laws of mass and energy violated. Is it alternate history? No. This is not set in any alternate past. Is it speculative fiction? Yes.

Call it speculative fiction by an Argentine writer who as far as I know has never written any of the above, and for all I know hasn’t even read any of it. And, as far as I know, no one else has written anything like this.

This is somewhere in the immediate sometime possible future. A virus has killed all animals except Homo sapiens. Bazterrica, no science fiction writer, simply presents this as a given.

Logically this means no source of meat.

Except of course humanity.

So cannibalism is the only solution.

Human flesh will solve the problem, but cannibalism is such an off-putting word, not good PR. It’s not good for the farming and butchering industry. So let’s call the product Special Meat. And let’s call the human farm animals Special Meat, too. Let’s render them with less than ordinary human intelligence and make them unable to speak or even understand speech. And since these farm animals are really not like us, we can make them not legally human.

This is not a story of cannibalism like anything else ever written. It is not a horror story. It is a business story. Bazterrica has done her proper homework. Tejo, the central character, may not be the hero of this novel, but he is simpatico, a high foreman in an industrial slaughterhouse. He has risen from the bottom of the biz all the way up. Like any such workman, he may have business problems, but no problem with the business.

Bazterrica takes you on a business tour from the mating of the meat animals to the raising of the result, to their growing to edible maturity, to how they are slaughtered, to the science and art of the butchery of the product, its sale to butchers, to chefs in restaurants, to sophisticated mouth-watering recipes

All in a deadpan literary voice. If the Special Meat in question were beef or pork this would be no more horrible than a tour of car factories or ice cream factories.

But it isn’t. It’s people.

Though they are not legally people. They are special people raised, slaughtered, butchered, cooked, and eaten, exactly like the cattle, pigs, sheep, and so forth, which are no longer available to we human carnivores, who would never stoop to being cannibals.

And of course that is the horror of it, the moral horror of not feeling the horror of the meat on the end of your fork. But this is not a simple piece of vegan propaganda, though of course it could be taken and used as that.

There is more story to this novel.

Tejo, the hero of the tale, has a wife who has left him, not because of anything she has against him, but because their only baby died and she was in such despair that she can’t stand to live with him now. She needs the time to get over her deep despair.

Tejo’s boss gives him a female meat animal as a bonus, beautiful, of high breed, and therefore very valuable. Tejo is legally her owner and has the right papers to sell her for a lot of money. But he’s lonely, he’s depressed, and before he decides to do it, he takes her out of her cage in the backyard and into the house as a kind of temporary pet.

She can’t speak, and she’s not supposed to have any intelligence, but he becomes fond of her, teaches a bit of this and that. She becomes something more than a mere pet, and, to make a long story short, he ends up having sex with her, which is not definitively illegal, but bad economic business

Worse still, much worse, she becomes pregnant.

At this time, his wife is ready to come home. Fortuitously, she is a nurse, and she aids the meat animal to give birth to a healthy baby boy to replace the one who died, and they have a happy ending.

The two of them and the baby, that is.

But that isn’t the end of the story.

What Tejo doesn’t learn is that the meat animal who give them their baby, legally or not, is morally human. What his wife realizes is that she would be able to produce many more offspring of considerable economic value, giving them a good independent business.

I won’t give away what the final ending of the novel is because that is something reviewers are bound not to do.

All I can is that I didn’t expect it at all and it just about knocked me shuddering out of my chair.

Can this be the humanity hiding in the possible future of our humanity?

Copyright © 2022 Norman Spinrad

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