Like the previous issue, I love the art that illustrates each poem and prose piece. Standouts include Mawia Hunter illustrations for the poems “Clarity” by Jason Alford and “Pathetic Fallacy” by Maximilian Heinegg, illustrations in which figures emerges out of colorful and vibrant splatters and drippings of paint. The artists and the writers are from various parts of the world and part of the charm and enjoyment of The Machinery is how writer and artist from different backgrounds are paired together.
I also really enjoy the writing this time. Even poems I found somewhat opaque in meaning were gorgeous in imagery and language. Several made good use of repeating phrases (anaphora), such as “I don’t” in “Reasons to Skip Breakfast” by Larissa Wirstuik, and repeating lines, such as the wishes in “Wish” by Chris Stewart. I particularly love poems that end with a final line or two that takes the poem in a new direction or toward a philosophical moment or a surprise, and several of the poems do so here, such as the surprising use of “penultimate” in the last line of “We Wanted to Write the Poem” by Corey Mesler, the heartbreaking and hopeful possibility at the end of “I Blush for Erza” by Amanda Besserer, and the unexpected recent memory at the end of “Earthbound Words on a Flight of Fancy. ETA Uncertain.” by Sangeetha Balakrishnan. I want my black socks to fly away and return with a gift, too!
My favorite of the short stories is “For Better and Worse” by Yi Han, a wonderful and inventive fairy tale that subverts the cliches of the genre with a magical corner of a room, inclusive characters, and acute longing. This is the second time I’ve read “For Better and Worse” (The Machinery also publishes each piece on their WordPress website and I had read this particular story a few weeks ago) and I think I understood this time how the characters know each other, an understanding that makes the story even better and more poignant.
Some of the stories also have surprises in their last few sentences. The twist at the end of “Gone Riding” by Sue Ann Porter is humorous, but also a little shocking; just why has the character been feeling so intensely throughout the piece!? The funny ending at the end of “The First Plague” by Phil Temples contrasts with the revelation of what is going on.
I think The Machinery improved greatly between the first and second editions, and now I’m really looking forward to the third!
A young group of artists from India has organized a new literary magazine of poetry, prose, and art and photography. I liked the poetry and prose, but none of the pieces really stood out, in my opinion. I was most captivated by the lovely photographs and drawings that illustrate each piece. For example, in “Home Cooking” by John Grey, a soldier home from Iraq reflects on how a domestic setting is different from the war front; the illustration is of an empty egg shell in black and white set against a black background, which helps illustrate the meal preparation and kitchen setting of the poem.
I was a little worried at first about the diversity of writers in the issue: the first several poems all seem to be written by white men from western countries (based on included bio images.) Later in the issue, however, there are a few writers from other backgrounds. The illustrators are all young men and women from India, I think, and I’m eager to see more of their work in future issues. The art really is stunning.
I like this first issue and it was strong enough for me to want to seek out the second issue.
It took me over a year to read this 1988 collection of short stories selected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, but it wasn’t because of any problems I had with the anthology. I’m rating this 5 stars for a very good reason: nearly ever story in the collection are themselves 5-star worthy. Some stories overwhelmed me so much with their greatness that I had to take a break to process them, which led to gaps in my reading this anthology when I fell into reading some other book. Every time I came back to this anthology, though, I immediately encountered another incredible, thought-provoking story.
I mean, the anthology starts with “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin! This is one of my absolute favorite stories and it is one that lingers. So many stories in this anthology are like that. I sometimes didn’t want to move on; I wanted to savor and think about what I had just read. Sometimes I even fell into a jealous gloom, despairing that my own writing will ever come close to the level of craft on display here.
There are other stories that simply shattered my understanding of how short stories in particular fantasy genres should work. Stories like “Haunted” by Joyce Carol Oates and “Halley’s Passing” by Michael McDowell scared me half to death! These are decidedly disturbing, even icky, horror stories that showcase their author’s incredible use of craft. In “Halley’s Passing,” for example, McDowell uses a close third-person narrator that relays real-time violence in matter-of-fact, even bureaucratic detail. That combination elevated my terror from the very beginning, so that when I reached a horrifying further revelation near the end, it wasn’t all that surprising, considering.
Yes, absolutely chilling and disturbing horror, often offset by other genres of fantasy that are more humorous, soaring, and absolutely gorgeous in setting and detail. Mood often shifts story by story, though there are also interesting pairings of stories with similar moods and subject matter throughout the anthology. Stories like “Words of Power” by Jane Yolen and “The Maid on the Shore” by Dalia Sherman offer powerful moments of empowerment and achievement soon after other stories of frightful horror.
I would love to write a review about each and every story, but the last one I’ll focus on has to be Alan Moore’s “A Hypothetical Lizard.” Until this last story, the one criticism I had about the anthology was the lack of diversity in characters. There are (too) few people of color, though it is possible that readers could see diverse characters in stories that don’t really describe the characters in great detail. Until “A Hypothetical Lizard,” there are no LGBT characters; instead, there are jarring uses of “faggot” in a couple stories, though the characters uttering this word are meant to be despicable.
The last story, and Windling’s pick for best fantasy story of the year, is “A Hypothetical Lizard,” and it is a stunning and inclusive story to end on. Not that it has a happy ending, but Moore’s characterization of the transgender character Rawra Chin is very loving, though in keeping with 1988 one would not expect Her story to have a happy ending. I think that Moore’s use of homosexual and transgender characters to tell a universal story of love and betrayal is powerful and very much appreciated in an anthology of stories that otherwise ignores LGBT people.
The other thing I love about “A Hypothetical Lizard” is Moore’s level of craft. In fact, he’s on an entirely different level than any other writer in the anthology, and this story, at least in my opinion, seems the most timeless because of it. The cinematic vividness of his descriptions includes a scene where the character imagines the black stones of the courtyard below her as a pool of water, and what it would be like for her to dive into the water and swim away. I’m going to be studying this and other passages for years as I try to improve my own writing. Another example: a perspective change that is jarring but absolutely perfect for the story. I cannot rave enough about Moore’s level of craft. It’s just stunning.
So, yes, this anthology took me over a year to read, but it is also my most favorite book over that same period of time. It includes some of my favorite short stories ever. What Le Guin, Oates, McDowell, Moore, and everyone else in the anthology accomplish with their tales is so inspiring.
The first came, when I was no more than six, from a hallway in the home of friends of my parents. The cowboy stood tall and blue in the doorway of the bedroom where they had put me down to sleep. He stared at me. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and shuddered in fear. When I chanced another look, he was gone.
The next arrived, when I was no more than eight, from the closet in Grandma Etchemendy’s bedroom. They were wispy white figures that flew around the room at phenomenal speed. They weaved in and out of the folds of the thick curtains that kept the room in complete darkness during daylight. My great-grandmother in her tiny ochre-painted home in southeast Portland, Oregon had never complained of ghosts before. When I screamed and my mom and my Grandma Etchemendy opened the door, they told me there was no such thing as ghosts and I must have been dreaming.
Maybe my great-grandma really did believe in ghosts. She was a lapsed Catholic, she read books and attended conferences about the metaphysical, and I remember she was reading Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. She of the sharp wit until her devastating stroke was curious about a great many things and she embraced her interests with passion.
There were other paranormal experiences.
Out with another grandmother, Grandma Hinkley, I saw a UFO. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that she was Grandma Etchemendy’s daughter. I was no more than ten. We were at a diner for dinner; french fries and a milk shake were likely involved. When we returned to the parking lot, several people looked up and pointed at the sky. What I remember is a slow-moving object with blinking lights around its equator. It drifted overhead and across town until it was too far away to see.
My grandma didn’t remembered the incident when I reminded her of it years later. She found my memory amusing. She guessed I must have seen a blimp. I’ve seen many blimps. What I saw that night wasn’t a blimp. It must have come from the stars.
Mars has ghosts, too.
The “Face on Mars” was the most extraordinary image I had ever seen. I was no more than thirteen. It’s there in an image taken of the Martian surface by the Viking 1 orbiter on July 25, 1976: a kilometer-wide humanoid face in a helmet, carved out of the very ground. The Face is situated in a region of Mars named Cydonia Planitia, where other mysterious and huge stony objects spied by the two Viking orbiters look a lot like the ruins of an ancient city. It was a Face to launch a thousand conspiracy theories, most notably those touted by Richard C. Hoagland. The writer has spent the past several decades promoting his ideas in books, on mail-order VHS tapes, and on websites, and he has been a frequent guest commentator in documentaries and radio shows devoted to the unexplained. He regularly criticizes NASA for their cover-up of evidence of alien civilizations elsewhere in our solar system and for their lack of follow-up on interesting features he and others frequently spot in images of the surface of Mars and other celestial bodies.
I studied the newspaper clipping of the Face in my scrapbook devoted to horses and planets and I wondered why the government was keeping secrets. Why, I whined to myself with perpetual impatience, oh why hadn’t NASA immediately funded, built, and launched a new spacecraft with a better camera, to uncover once and for all the truth of the Face on Mars? This was during the long dry spell between 1980 and 1997 when NASA had no assets on or orbiting Mars to take new images. Hoagland was my hero. Hoagland touted his good fight on TV and radio and I cheered him on and jeered at his critics, most notably that rascal Carl Sagan. Oh, sure, Sagan seemed calm and rational and passionate when I watched or read him respond to extraordinary claims, but I knew he was one of the conspirators. He was, I thought, hardly a real scientist. What with his constant media presence and popular science-themed TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on PBS, he was little more than an actor. The magnitude of the conspiracy against Hoagland and his intrepid kind was, to me, not that frightening but it was incredibly frustrating. The aliens were out there, the public had a right to know, and I just had to get through middle and high school so I could join the fight for the truth.
The paranormal was my favorite subject. It was a shade of science and technology that scientists like Sagan scoffed at and most of the public ridiculed, but it had to be real. The paranormal gives to people like me a glimpse at powers that help connect us to something bigger than ourselves. It was easy for me to believe in ghosts and UFOs and ancient alien sculptors on Mars because of what I had seen, and for a scared and lonely little boy terrified of his abusive father, the paranormal offered me a place in the grand, wonderful scheme of the universe, if only I could survive my childhood. Ghosts and aliens reached out a helping hand when there were monsters like my dad, the bullies at school, and everyone who let these terrible things happen to me. I felt for the paranormal one part terror, two parts wonder, and three parts escape. My imagination leapt beyond the pain of me being beaten and I knew someday I would be an adult, thus free of my dad and finally allowed to pursue my interests. Or I would discover that I had latent psychic powers and would be able to stop my dad and the other bullies from hurting me ever again. Or aliens would abduct me and I would be done with the Earth and its real monsters entirely. Something big was going to happen. I just had to hold on a little longer.
I found in libraries the nonfiction books about ghosts, UFOs, astral projection, ESP, Big Foot, and the Loch Ness Monster. I read at least as many of them as I did science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. At night I practiced: I tried to feel for the universal energies, the psychic links, the astrological signs that would let me know I was special and powerful and better than my tormentors.
The ghosts found me even when I excelled in science and mathematics. I excelled in all of my classes, including PE, straight A’s quarter after quarter, year after year, all through high school, until I received a B my senior year. It was enough, though, to get me a full paid scholarship to attend the University of Rochester in upstate New York. There I would study physics and astronomy. There I would learn what I needed to become a scientist, work in planetary science, and confront the evil conspiracy. There I would be an adult. There I would be free.
My dad was not going to let me go.
This is how you create a ghost: you traumatize the living person and then to death. He is so upset and afraid and enraged that he becomes trapped between existences. Instead of moving on to the next world, he remains behind to haunt the setting of his trauma.
When I graduated from high school, my dad informed me I could only go to college if I worked full-time all summer and saved all my money. He ordered me to convince him during those three months that I was ready to take on the responsibilities of college and adulthood. I had to want to go and he had to see it.
What I did, though, was enjoy myself that summer. During the day I worked at McDonalds and had a great time with my coworkers, many of them my age or a year or two older. My boss, the franchise owner, was proud of me. He had awarded me when I graduated the Ray Kroc award and a small scholarship. Evenings after work, I hung out at Jessica’s house just up the street, with her and Becky and Scott, my best friends from high school. We watched movies, played games, ate fast food, and talked about the future.
I stayed away from home as much as possible. My dad wasn’t hitting me as much as he used to, maybe because I was eighteen, but his angry outbursts were violence enough. My younger brother, Paul, the one dad tortured the most, had run away, again, so when I was home, my dad focused his rage on me. Some days he told me to get out of the house and stay gone until dark. Other days he screamed at me for never being home. Coming home late from Jessica’s house one night, he wouldn’t let me in. He threatened to call the police. He had never set a curfew but that night I had broken curfew. He eventually let me in. He had no idea if he wanted me there or wanted me gone. He didn’t want me gone. He wanted me to stay forever. He didn’t want any of his children to leave him. We thought he hated us. He beat us, screamed at us, made up new rules on the spot, berated our interests, raised us with vile bigotry and hatred, and that’s the only way he knew how to love us.
I was not going to miss him. I kept out of his way as much as possible and spent most of the money I earned at McDonalds that summer having fun with my friends. I was going to miss them.
Then he told me I couldn’t go. “I guess you really didn’t want to go after all,” he said. He said I did not deserve to go: no money saved, wasted months with my friends, and who did I think I was to tell him that it was my decision! He had other reasons, like how he thought astronomy and planetary science were an excuse for NASA to find other places to make into garbage dumps. NASA was a waste of taxpayers’ money. If I really wanted to be an astronomer, then why hadn’t I spent every night outside with a telescope, instead of spending time with my friends? He had made his final decision: I was not allowed to leave.
My mom purchased my Greyhound bus ticket. When it was time to leave, she waited to drive me to the station. My dad stopped me in the kitchen while she waited quietly in the doorway. He disowned me. He said I was going without his permission and without his blessing. But we made it out of the house and we made it to the station. She told me on the way there that dad was going to miss me and the only way he could deal with such strong emotions was through anger and violence and dramatic ultimatums. This is the mom I got for having a dad who routinely beat me up: a mom who loved her children very much, who didn’t want to see her children beaten, but who didn’t know what to do about it, and who hoped and helped her children to escape when it was time for each of them to leave. I made it onto the bus. I watched my mom cry uncontrollably through the window and I cried uncontrollably. I waved at her. I watched her shrink and vanish.
The bus travelled three long days from Portland, Oregon to Rochester, New York, stopping at one station after another along the way. The trip was long enough for me to get sick from the fumes coming from the chemicals in the bathroom in the back of the bus. It was long enough for me to regain my excitement. Long enough to sense my freedom. I felt afraid, but it wasn’t the fear of a fist or belt or shouting. This was fear of the unknown. I arrived in Rochester at the end of summer 1991, about as far away from home as I could realistically get at the time. I had made it to the place where I would become a scientist and where I would figure out the secrets of the paranormal.
This is how you create a ghost: you isolate him, you let him isolate himself. He is so terrified of other people and new experiences that he becomes trapped in one place, forever. He builds a shell around himself and dies within it. Instead of moving on to the next world, he remains behind, alone, haunted, haunting.
College, it turned out, was not what I had imagined. I didn’t make any friends; I was too scared of people and too self-conscious. My roommate in the dorm, George, was nice, but everyone else on the floor thought I was strange. By the second semester, they were calling me “The Ax Murderer” because I was so quiet and kept to myself. Meanwhile, I struggled in my classes. College wasn’t like high school at all. I had no idea how to study. I had no focus. I couldn’t see the chalkboard or projector screen very well from where I sat in the back row by myself, with no idea my eyesight was fading. I couldn’t understand (but really I didn’t try very hard) the English-as-a-second-language of the graduate student who taught my calculus class. In high school, I had skipped over much of what turned out to be prerequisite for calculus, and for the first time in my life math was a complete and utter mystery to me. With near-complete freedom from strict parents, I didn’t study very much, I ate Sprees and Pringles by the pounds and depleted all the money for food that was supposed to last me through the end of the school year in the spring, and I stayed up too late, lying in bed every night until the early morning listening to Coast to Coast AM.
Coast to Coast AM is an early morning radio show broadcast across the United States and Canada. I quickly discovered the show on a local AM station on my transistor radio soon after I arrived at the University of Rochester. The topic changed night to night. Sometimes episodes were devoted to UFOs, with a guest who claimed to have obtained physical evidence from UFO crash sites, uncovered relevant government documents, or snapped the best photograph yet taken. Other nights were devoted to monsters. Every night guests talked about their experiences, talked about conspiracies, and demanded that the government tell them the truth.
The show was another way for me to try to escape my problems instead of confronting them. The show started haunting me. Outside my lonely, failed existence, there were incredible paranormal forces at work and the paranormal was all I could think about. During the day I haunted my dorm room and at night Coast to Coast AM haunted me.
My transcript from the University of Rochester tells a lie. I earned credit for seven classes my freshman year, but none of them are listed with a grade. This was a perk of being a freshman at that university at the time, a chance to learn how to be a college student without having the details on your permanent record. The transcript is missing the poor grades I earned and the classes I dropped or flunked that school year. The transcript tells the truth, however, about what came next: semesters of no credits, of failing grades, of classes repeated, of classes selected seemingly at random, of being kicked out of school and being let back in, and struggling all over again. I did best in English and creative writing classes, worse in everything else, especially physics and mathematics. By the time I left Rochester for good in the spring of 1996, I had made little progress toward any undergraduate degree.
I moved back in with my parents. My dad’s emotional abuse began again just a couple weeks later. After two months of hell, I moved out and into an apartment and that’s when I discovered transhumanism.
But there’s more to the ghost story. While researching this essay, I discovered an anomaly in my memory. It begins with the Shadow People.
I heard about the Shadow People for the first time on Coast to Coast AM. These beings look like shadows and live in shadows, which are the gateways between dimensions. The Shadow People are unpleasant and dangerous.
What I wanted to write about in this essay was how I came to dismiss the paranormal as pseudoscience. How I came to realize that the ghosts and UFO I thought I had seen had never been real. How in the second semester of my freshman year, spring 1992, I listened to a woman talk about the Shadow People on Coast to Coast AM and it finally dawned on me, after hundreds of hours of the show, that everything I had heard was bullshit. I remember it like it was yesterday: lying in my dorm room bed, frustrated at the lack of evidence, and that silver moment of early morning insight: the show was about claims, not evidence. What I wanted was evidence, and what no one could provide was any evidence at all. What they had were their stories and their belief in conpiracies, but, I thought in surprise, they were shirking their responsibility. Instead of working against the conspiracy, collecting evidence, running experiments, building up their case, and having published their rigorous and peer-reviewed work in reputable science journals, they were instead seeking 15 minutes of fame on the radio. It didn’t matter if they believed what they said or if they were outright lying. It didn’t matter if they had mental issues or were as sane as the paranormal allowed anyone to be. They were simply not doing their job. Conspiracy or not, it was up to them to overcome such obstacles. Instead, all they had to show for it were Coast to Coast AM appearances. Coast to Coast AM, the show of claims, not evidence.
I had had enough of the show and its guests, and I had had enough of pseudoscience. I quit cold turkey. I had found the ghosts: the fraud of them, the way they haunt, how they waste time and lead to incorrect and harmful ways of thinking. I had wasted my own time, and I was dead inside. I was a college idiot, unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Even after confronting my delusions, I continued to stumble and when I failed out of the University of Rochester the first time, so began the pattern that would repeat for twenty more years: a successful return to school for a semester or two, followed by a desperate year or two of skipping and flunking classes before being kicked out again, followed by a year of remorse and rebuilding and eagerness to try again. I came to haunt various halls of higher learning from one side of the country to the other, and though I learned a lot and earned a ridiculous number of credits, it was a desperate kind of learning, a lazy kind, a kind that wanted for academic skills I should have honed in high school instead of seeking out the paranormal.
That was going to be the sad ending to this essay, how having had enough, it wasn’t enough and I didn’t do any better in school. I would move on in later essays to how I eventually put that chapter of my life behind me and only decades later did I finally manage to finish an undergraduate degree.
But I want to get my facts straight in this essay. So I looked up the Shadow People. I remember what happened, but who might have been the guest that night when I abandoned pseudoscience forever in 1992? Wikipedia lists her as Harley “SwiftDeer” Reagan, and, oh, RIGHT, I remember her! I remember how her story was just one story too many for me.
The thing is, Wikipedia lists the date of her first appearance on Coast to Coast AM as April 12, 2001. Either Wikipedia is wrong, or my memories are faulty. And in trying to tell the rest of this story, I find myself back in 2001, remembering the night I had truly had enough. This is a much stronger memory, a much better one, and one that I find documented in my own journal entries from that time.
And so the ghosts have found me again. This is how you create a ghost: you make him remember. You make him remember falsely. He’s so certain of his memory that he constructs a narrative that traps him in this one story, forever. He dies by narrative. Instead of moving on to the next world, he remains stuck between pages.
Memory so faulty, what evidence do I have of my own brushes with the paranormal? Nothing except anecdote. Had I really witnessed a cowboy ghost or had an adult come in the dark to check on me? Had I really seen ghosts in Grandma Etchemendy’s bedroom, or had I been a little boy with an overactive imagination, a headache, and bad dreams that woke me up screaming? Had I seen a UFO or was it really a blimp, reasonable and likely, of terrestrial and explainable origin? How spectacular could it have been if my relatives didn’t even remember seeing it? The Face on Mars? I know now how tricks of shadow and light can, like the Man in the Moon or recognizable shapes in clouds or toast or tree knots, suggest things to our brains that weren’t really there. And by now there have been several new images of this feature, an eroded mesa, taken by later orbiters with much better cameras than those on board the Viking vessels, including this image taken in 2007 by the HiRISE Camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter:
Memory so faulty that I find in writing this essay two pasts, the one I thought was real, and the real one, the one which evidence I have at my fingertips tells me is the truth. The first one might have a kernel of truth to it, though. That would be a slightly different story to tell: At the end of the first semester, fall 1991, or the beginning of the second semester, spring 1992, of my freshman year of college, it finally dawned on me, after hundreds of hours of the show, that everything I heard on Coast to Coast AM was bullshit. I remember it vaguely: lying in my dorm room bed, frustrated at the lack of evidence, and an early morning insight: the show was about claims, not evidence.
But it couldn’t have been the Shadow People that finally got to me that night. There was another guest that night and they were making claims about something else, something I have now forgotten. And the truth is, I didn’t stop listening to Coast to Coast AM that night. No, I kept listening on and off for a decade more, leading up to another night in 2001 when I was 28 and had the most profound religious experience of my life.
Fantastic list from the Nitrate Diva and now I want nothing more than to dive into these movies. I have been wanting to watch The Heiress for years.
This is the age of Olivia de Havilland. We’re just lucky to be living in it. Today, on July 1, 2016, she turns 100. To celebrate her talent, her courage, and her breathtakingly diverse legacy of screen performances, I embarked on an “Oliviathon” and vowed to watch or rewatch all of her films by the end […]
Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper covers beginning writing with a focus on paranormal genres. There are sections I particularly enjoyed and found helpful, including advice about how to conduct research, interview experts, etc (Chapters 4 and 10). There are sections that served as good review about elements of craft (the chapters in Part III) and getting published (Part IV.) It’s always nice to be reminded that “writers write” and Harper provides lots of this kind of inspiration, with a healthy dash of humor. He uses several good examples from the works of other writers of the paranormal.
I think the book was a little long for this basic material, and at times repetitive. It also relies on platitudes and generalizations, a style that put me off a little. There isn’t a lot of depth, but for beginners and those in need of a review, I think this book may be handy, and it will suggest to you topics you’ll want to explore further elsewhere.
Transhumanism is a philosophy and social movement that has been defined and redefined in the following ways:
Julian Huxley in Religion Without Revelation (1927): “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.”
Max More (1990): “Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values.”
Wikipedia on “Transhumanism”: “Transhumanism (abbreviated as H+ or h+) is an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”
Transhumanism is a composite of “trans-” and “human” and “-ism” and it’s been unpopular even within the transhumanist community. For some, the word “transhumanism” too closely resemble the philosophy of humanism, one obvious influence. For some, the word reminds them of “transgender”, itself a concept of purposeful change, and this makes them feel uncomfortable. For some, the weight of the word is too much on the prefix for change and crossing a threshold; for others, not enough. For some, the word is too human-centric. It’s too limiting. Too easy to ridicule. Doesn’t directly evoke the technology and science at the center of the philosophy. Evokes evil eugenics of the past. Sounds like science fiction. Sounds elitist. Exclusionary. Complicated. Crazy.
But people began to call themselves “transhumanists” in the 1980s while they worked on defining the modern philosophical tenets and social movement of transhumanism. For a few years a group of transhumanists began calling themselves “extropians” while touting the philosophy of extropianism and their “Proactionary Principles.” Other labels arrived as the transhumanist movement matured. I participated in a rebranding of the World Transhumanist Association in 2009 as “H+”, “Humanity+”, “HumanityPlus”, based in part on the work my h+ Tucson peers and I had done with marketing our transhumanist club to students at the University of Arizona. But we did not call ourselves “hplusers”. Transhumanism is a word that no one has been able to replace successfully and “transhumanist” is still the quickest way to describe us like-minded technology enthusiasts.
In 2006 when I helped start the h+ Tucson transhumanist club, transhumanism seemed to emphasize academic discourse. Academics and ethicists like Nick Bostrom and James Hughes led transhumanist thought by writing papers, lecturing, and participating in discussions. Their primary concerns for transhumanism was strong philosophical underpinnings and an articulated ethics.
The emphasis has shifted since then. If you search for “transhumanism” and look for recent articles that include the word, you will find a great many, especially widely shared and syndicated essays about transhumanism by writers like Zoltan Istvan (who has also written a popular science fiction novel titled The Transhumanist Wager) that appear on news websites like The Huffington Post. In Istvan’s March 10, 2014 essay “A New Generation of Transhumanists Is Emerging” he critiques existing definitions of transhumanism while making prominent use of the word. He states, for example, that the Wikipedia entry “is protected by a vigilant posse, deleting additions or changes that don’t support a bland academic view of transhumanism.” According to Istvan, the transhumanist movement is growing, but “its potential is being challenged by some older transhumanists who snub the younger generation and their ideas. These old-school futurists dismiss activist philosophies and radicalism, and even prefer some younger writers and speakers not have their voices heard.” Istvan provides in his essay a sense of modern transhumanism: “Today, transhumanism is increasingly being influenced by actual science and technological innovation [instead of science fiction], much of it being created by people under the age of 40.” Transhumanism is more diverse, more hands-on, and more urgent than ever before. Regarding an emerging sense of activism, Istvan states that “a primary goal of many transhumanists is to convince the public that embracing radical technology and science is in the species’ best interest” because “the more people that support transhumanism, the more private and government resources will end up in the hands of organizations and companies that aim to improve human lives and bring mortality to an end.”
My own sense of transhumanism today is that it emphasizes the hands-on work required to invent the technologies that will transform us and improve the human condition. Many of the transhumanists I know from our h+ Tucson club and elsewhere have since relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, finding there a region sympathetic to their transhumanist goals. They launched their own companies and research and development. Companies like Halcyon Molecular, now defunct but the founders already moving on to their next cutting-edge idea. Velorum Capital. 3Scan. Gene and Cell Technologies. Arigos Biomedical. Infinome.
Like Istvan points out in his essay, transhumanism is resurgent, but more importantly its tenets have become the core values of various technologists, technology efforts, companies, and industries. The same goals and emerging technologies that transhumanists have long touted, like radical life extension, the quantified self through wearables and the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Metaverse, and space exploration and colonization of other celestial objects, are the stated public ambitions of many technologists and companies today. Do all of these people consider themselves transhumanists? Do they use the word “transhumanism”? Some of them do, some of them don’t, but I don’t think it matters. The founders of Google, for example, have never referred to themselves publicly as transhumanists, but Larry Page announced on September 18, 2013 that Google was forming a new company named Calico “that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Facebook announced on March 25, 2014 that it had agreed to acquire Oculus VR, the company that created the cutting-edge virtual reality headset Rift that launched for consumers in 2016. Oculus VR is a company whose founders routinely use the word “Metaverse,” coined in the science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson to refer to an immersive virtual reality technology platform. Elon Musk has publicly disclosed his goal of creating a massive permanent human colony on Mars. These technologists rarely use the word “transhumanism”, but they do use words and phrases that evoke transformation and improvement of the human condition, and they publicly express ambitions that are transhumanist in nature. They are, in my opinion, transhumanist in action if not by label.
For better or worse, “transhumanism” remains the best word to express this particular confluence of ideas, this emphasis on technology to improve the human condition. It is neither necessary to use this word nor coin another. We already live in a world that is transhumanist in ambition and in nature, where people already work hard on the technologies that will transform our species and our condition. The problem with the word “transhumanism” is not that it hasn’t caught on. The problem is that it can be used by people to dismiss an entire package of ideas. The problem is that many people still think the word means something futuristic, intellectual and academic, even though it’s in fact current and active. We’re already transforming! The problem is that it allows people to cling to old debates, academic musing, and political lines that fracture any mature social movement. The problem is that the word “transhumanism” has long since been eclipsed by the impact of transhumanism, as it plays out in the real world, led by a generation of transhumanists who spend much more of their time getting their hands dirty building the future than trying to figure out what word best describes their philosophy, their ambitions, their work, their everyday, their reality.