The End of Privilege: Postmodern Paradigms in Transhuman Worlds


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date28 Jun 2019


This thesis examines transhumanist science fiction at a point in history where transhumanism is moving from fictional speculation to near reality. The primary works analysed in this thesis represent five distinct transhumanist ‘pathways’ to a posthuman future: genetic engineering (Seveneves), synthetic beings (Ex Machina), disembodied consciousness (Mindscan), cloning (Cloud Atlas) and cybernetics (Neuromancer). Each is set in a possible future world which is either very close to the present or, at least, not so far removed as to be fantastical. They were produced between 1984 and 2015, a time period which runs from the cyberpunk era often associated with peak postmodernism to the contemporary. Although some critics have rightly pointed out that postmodernism is a concept linked with a particular historical moment in the second half of the twentieth century, the underlying issues and problems of postmodernism remain highly relevant and in the context of transhumanist literature are, more than ever, an essential tool for depicting and understanding the posthuman. Geopolitically, the works are set in times spanning the early years of the consumer technology era or digital/information age and the later stages of the Cold War to the globalised contemporary and extrapolated near-future and more futuristic dystopian/post-apocalyptic. These variations in political, cultural, social and scientific settings provide a confirmatory basis for the conclusions drawn.

This thesis will show that regardless of fictional setting and regardless of cultural, social and historical context each work engages readers or viewers through the use of postmodern elements, including realism, hyperrealism and the utopian or dystopian, to confront anxieties about our relationships with technology that are as enduring as they are contemporary. Further, all five primary works make use of older genres and texts and engage intertextually with familiar tropes and ideas providing historical context for their depictions of the posthuman. As they mix high and the low cultural elements they reveal that the distinction between science fiction and science fact is not always a clear one. In doing so they provocatively suggest how our existing understandings and definitions of the human, as both a biological product of environmentally driven evolution and as a cultural construct, is increasingly challenged by the seemingly inevitable arrival of the technologically enhanced posthuman. More specifically, through the use of postmodern aesthetics and philosophical concepts along with more conventional literary modes and genres such as realism, the Gothic, historical fiction and utopianism, readers and viewers are challenged to more fully consider how potential transhumanist outcomes are framed within narratives, change historically (or are resistant to change), are embodied in specific personal, psychological and affective terms and how our responses to the posthuman are shaped by personal subjectivities. In showing that all the primary works demonstrate an affinity with the literary past this thesis will demonstrate that that affinity provides critical perspectives on the ways in which diverse views of a posthuman future – one driven by technological rather than environmental evolution – are constantly informed by, and mediated through, confrontations with difficult questions about cultural constructs and ethical divides.