Humanity exists in a curious place right now, suspended between past sci-fi dreams of human-oriented space exploration and the threshold of technological singularity and virtual worlds. How will flesh-and-blood human space travel fit into the grand picture?
Interestingly enough, I keep coming back to the 1960 paper "Cyborgs and Space" by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline — a pivotal work of futurism that coined the word "cyborg" and explored the necessary transformation of Homo sapiens for life beyond Earth. While space agencies have largely bypassed the paper's vision of space-ready, augmented humans, the concept continues to resonate through our culture.
From our smartphones to cutting-edge biotechnology, the human experience grows increasingly interwoven with technology. In keeping with Donna J. Haraway's 1985 essay "A Cyborg Manifesto," more and more of us express an openness to ideological cyborg identity: the realization that personal identity can itself be an intentional, hybrid status unbound by the didactic expectations of the past.
On the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast, we've been exploring some of these themes in episodes from "When We Think About Cyborgs" to "The Forbidden Void: Cases Against Space." But let's take things a step further.
Come with me as we engage in a thought experiment — a creative simulation of what an interplanetary human race might evolve to be.
Silba Dreams of Earth
Silba gazes up at the stars from the ice plains of Jupiter's moon Europa.
She limits her ocular vision to a near-human spectrum. As if entering deep meditation, she dims her awareness until everything beyond her physical body is but a whisper: patrol drones sailing over the frost plains, submarines within the darkness of the moon's ice-locked oceans. Even the perfect spirals of orbiting satellites fade to ghostly tingles along some distant, second skin.
Silba becomes a single mind within a single body, a practice she has rehearsed in anticipation of the inbound guest.
She tenses her gazelle-like spike appendages on the ice. She stands within a 100-meter clearing of her own making — this in turn surrounded by a vast forest of naturally occurring ice monoliths. It was easy work for this robotic body, designed as it was for excavation and modular assembly.
Yet even with her senses dulled, she can't help but sense the incoming spacecraft's trajectory. She peeks at the manifest data: four cybernetic humans and, most amazingly, a pure-flesh human. The first to ever venture beyond Mars.
Europa's occupation is typical. Mere probes arrived in the early days, with more enlightened robotic avatars arriving thereafter. Distant human minds and artificial intelligences empowered the first such colonists, but cybernetic mind states like her own came to dominate the work: a graceful fusion of the organic and the artificial.
She gazes East to where Jupiter swells on the horizon, a most impossible world when she contemplates it. Substantiated by storms and orbited by dozens upon dozens of hostile moons, this region of the solar system offered only desolation and cataclysm to early humans. For all the might of their technology, they were a fragile species. The poles and mountains of their own planet were death realms; the void even less forgiving. So they deployed mechanical myrmidons and programmed minds. They embraced a cybernetic existence.
Silba feels the impending arrival, as if by the phantom limb sensations of her satellites. She refuses to focus those perceptions, yet she cannot completely ignore them. Excitement mounts within her mind state.
Such a strange journey to this point.
Over the course of centuries, humans became unfixed from the physical — unmoored from the limits of physical existence, cultural expectations, sex and gender. Religion and nationality melted from the underlying form. They broke free, too, from chain-link servitude of genetic expectation. There was a cost, of course — one paid in blood and misery. The inevitable seismic horrors of vast cultural transformation shook the species, risked everything it had accomplished, until the wars finally withered and social unrest assumed its resting decay state.
The survivors became something beyond human, yet irrecoverably tied to the origin of their accession. An interplanetary civilization grown from the seedpod of a planetary species.
Silba has processed all the literature on the topic. She holds one of her silvery, lance-like appendages up to the lights of Jupiter and the sun. She splits the spike into five separate digits and bends them to mimic, albeit imperfectly, a human hand.
This too is life: a self-organizing principle emergent from the data that came before.
"I am the primate and the crab. I am the bacterium and the circuit."
Before this mission, the necropolis of Mars stood as testament to the lost dream of human space exploration and colonization, pyramids for another dead cosmology. Even as probes reached the Ran system and beyond, un-augmented humans remained confined to their home world. The most influential mind states campaigned intensely for a beyond-Earth human presence. Every moon or planet in human space must know the touch of its unmodified origin.
Silba knows there is a vanity in such aspirations, but also a nostalgic pride. This is what we arose from. The least we can do is bring life to the old dreams, no matter how symbolic the gesture.
And so Silba gazes up from the frigid ice. The landing module appears, at last, visible against the stars. It takes all of her resolve to contain her consciousness to this single body, to will herself into a shape individual, female and humanoid.
But as the capsule grows closer, she can't help but expand her awareness. She reaches out to touch the onboard life-support systems. She ignores the four augmented mind-bodies aboard, each hardened and engineered to thrive beyond Earth. She focuses instead on the module's core: a single human, hermaphroditic and ambi-racial and all-encompassing of the human experience. A perfect ambassador.
She feels the pulsations of its heartbeat and glimpses the florid patterns of its shifting brain waves. She could read them if she wanted, but this is sacred. The great, pear-shaped module descends through Europa's thin atmosphere in a swirling birth caul of molecular oxygen.
The heartbeat quickens.
The landing invokes a vicious storm of ice, but Silba stands against the blast. The crystals shred away some of her body's more delicate sensors, but these she can repair later. Certain probe sensations flicker and die, but all she needs is the here and now.
When the modules' doors finally open, five figures stand at the threshold in identical space suits, but the middle figure alone radiates an importance she can scarcely define.
The visitor is both ancestor spirit and contemporary heart.
She raises her shining, metal hand in greeting.
"Your name, too, is Silba," she says, "for we have both traveled this vast distance to find our self."