This would have been a much better lead-in had I actually won this game. I came close. So close. Fourteen hours and I was there. On the cusp. But someone of a different stripe — one of the countries who lambasted me for seeking a harmony ending (specifically Transcendence) beat me instead to their own, human purity-driven ending.
Which is as good a lead-in as I’m going to get to all three space stories I just finished around the same time: Sid Meier’s Beyond Earth, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, and Mass Effect 3. All three of which question the primacy of humanity in fictional worlds where we are understood not to be the only — to use the terms in Leckie’s books — not sentient, but significant species out there.
All three stories come to question the tired old deification of humanity as the good old boys of space by questioning whether it is acceptable to change humanity. In the Imperial Radch books and Mass Effect, this comes up through the blending of AI and human elements; in Beyond Earth it’s a question of the gradual merging of two organic lifeforms, human and the alien species found on the planet you land on. But in all three stories there is a strong, pronounced faction screaming “this is human and that over there, that isn’t human, so I don’t have to care about its welfare like I do my own.”
I thought the flavor text in the Beyond Earth screenshot above was a bit overkill, traipsing as it does right down the road that so angers people in fantasy game character creation screens that dub differences in species differences in races. But given the end of the Leckie books, its obliqueness isn’t without relevance. If we are going to point to the brutalities we commit upon other humans and call them just what they are — brutalities — is it any less brutal when we act that way toward non-humans? Organic, synthetic or entirely alien? At what point is that atrocity okay, because oh well, they’re not human so, you know. “They don’t feel it the way we do?”
Again, I’d be really curious to see who makes room for that kind of compassion, as alternative life forms arise or are discovered. Because so very much of the progressive narrative of human advancement extols the virtues of the human race, the human condition, etc. etc. It is easy to think that this was only done to try and bring everyone together and place everyone’s experience on equal footing; that it’s just a turn of phrase that could be tweaked to embrace other sentient lifeforms should they come into our realm of awareness. But…I’m not entirely certain we are compassionate enough as a species to make that leap. We don’t have the market cornered on empathy, surely — the AI Breq’s lone voice speaking for the downtrodden peoples of the galaxy as the decaying empire sweeps whole murdered swathes of them thoughtlessly under a rug comments baldly upon that. We have shown ourselves to be eminently capable of a dearth of empathy, not just in the ages of catapults and battering rams but up to and including today. Asserting, as large percentages of humankind does in every space story, that we are the ultimate heroes, the number-one species deserving to keep on keeping on, solely because we are human and we can do great things (when we aren’t killing each other, that is) is a terribly myopic mentality.
But if we could change the entirety of humanity at the drop of a hat, merging them with organic or inorganic elements to become something else, it becomes problematic, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t put the entire population on heavy doses of lithium to end conflict, right? Putting an implant in everyone’s brain to discourage the more sinister side of human nature doesn’t sound good, either. But if changing the genetic fabric of every human everywhere (itself, let us be honest, a much more magical proposition than scifi is willing to admit, that mass flip of a switch) were both possible and advisable, in order to ensure the continuation of every other species everywhere, wouldn’t it…make sense? Wouldn’t the definition of what is human simply have to change?
If I had been able to choose the merge option — if I’d spent the time to earn the points to get it (I was so close!) — I would have done it. Because Joker and EDI. Because Legion. Because anchoring our definition of self in our physical bodies seems woefully inadequate. I am pro-cremation, am I not? Because my selfhood isn’t bound up in these bones and tissues and the sinews that hold them together. If some of those sinews were synthetic, or introduced from some other species, it is popular, I know, to then claim that I wouldn’t be me anymore.
But I’ve seen people not themselves anymore — people ravaged by chemicals or by disease (so, chemicals, on a micro-level) into no longer knowing who you are. Would the ability to breathe in a carbon dioxide-only atmosphere, or to fly, or to send text messages merely by thinking of them, be damage to the self on the same level as that which occurs in the throes of dementia, or addiction, or psychosis?
I don’t think so. We’d still be us. Maybe better, maybe worse, but still us. For whatever we’re worth.