[ExI] What's in a transhumanist name? (was: YES! to Transhumanism)

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Mon Jan 5 15:38:58 UTC 2009

At 10:10 PM 1/5/2009 +1100, Stathis wrote:

> > ... I don't myself see why the name is so
> > outrageous except it the immediacy of our all too human current ineptitude
> > for so grand an implied task.  But that is part of the point.  There is no
> > limit on what human intelligence may transform into itself, or more likely
> > to some, what the intelligences we create will be able to do.
>I think Damien's point was that the name will sound outrageous to

Yes, but (sorry, Cosmic Engineers) not so much 
"outrageous" as "puerile", "laughable", "instantly dismissable".

>which is a problem if you care about PR, but not a problem
>if you don't.

Pretty much what I meant, yes.

The subcultures of science fiction and militant 
atheism provide some hints on how this works in 
the real world. For decades, sf fans, sometimes 
wearing propeller beanies or Spock ears, have 
gathered at conventions with pleasantly silly 
names like Bubonicon, Rustycon, Nullus Anxietus, 
LeakyCon, PulpFest, Gaylaxicon, Windycon, etc. 
This is lighthearted and enjoyable, in-group 
joshing, faintly self-mocking, slightly Épater la 
bourgeoisie. They've published fanzines with 
equally silly titles and cartoons. This is private fun-at-home. Good on 'em.

By contrast, when some atheists pompously (or was 
it also, cough, lightheartedly?) dubbed 
themselves Brights, they were immediately pelted 
with dung, and no wonder. This was a PR disaster 
of an absolutely predictable kind. However, when 
some wit invented the Flying Spaghetti Monster, 
it was funny and confronting, and grew in 
folklore into a real challenge to the magical 
thinking and pompous self-importance of the 
"faith communities"--but notice that this gag was 
directed *against* the people with funny hats, 
the everyday loonies with their invisible friends 
who were suddenly caught off guard.

So is "The Order of Cosmic Engineers" a private, 
insiderly merriment, a piss-take as Aussies would 
put it? Or an attempt to offset what some see as 
a drift toward prim, watering-down normalization 
by the World Transhumanist Association? Or, 
indeed, a frank appeal to the inner eight-year 
old or WoW player, a PR feature not a bug?

Since the group's intention appears to be 
genuinely and indeed cosmically serious--an 
attempt to build a sort of god-free and rational 
equivalent to a religion (as the Prospectus makes 
clear)--I suggest it's worth thinking this through as carefully as possible.

Names and titles are loaded with baggage, not 
always packed by the namer. Ayn Rand took a 
calculated gamble with "the virtue of 
selfishness" and in my view fumbled it, although 
it was eye-catching. I rather doubt the 
Objectivists would have done as (marginally) well 
as they did if she'd named her movement The Order 
of Selfish Greedy Egoists, or The Justice League of Capitalist Heroes.

Still, if anyone is persuaded by what I'm saying, 
it's probably too late to change the title, so 
such comments will just look snarky, pointless 
and bad-spirited. But for a hint of where I'm 
coming from, consider these quotes from David 
Langford's witty sf-insiderly monthly sf fanzine 
ANSIBLE, where he regularly displays almost 
without comment HOW OTHERS SEE US; some typical examples:

`Sci-fi fans are strange animals. Their natural habitat is their parents'
basement and their traditional pastime is watching their favourite shows
on DVD. But on December 1 all this changed. Now we can watch our
favourite shows on Foxtel too. That's right, my pasty-faced friends _[...
etc, etc, "sci-fi geek", etc ...]_ So grab your Klingon costume, put up
an "I believe" poster in your parents' basement and veg out. The truth
is out there.' (Alice Clarke, _The Age_, 7 December)

Patrick Ness hopes that Tricia Sullivan will yet rise
from the gutter: `How frustrating to be a great writer who happens to
work in sci-fi. For every Jeff Noon or Neal Stephenson who breaks out to
wider arenas, there's a Tricia Sullivan or a Jeff Vandermeer stuck on the
shelves in that bit of the bookstore where most of you never wander.
Hearteningly, Sullivan may be nearing escape velocity, and about time,
too.' (_Guardian_, 20 Jan) Ness's review concludes: `Be brave. Step
into the sci-fi section. You can wear a floppy hat.'

Film director Paul Verhoeven bewails his exile to
the ghetto as a side-effect of the critically execrated _Showgirls_
(1996): `After that they would only let me direct science fiction, not
normal films ...' (_Guardian_ interview, 12 January)

Wendy Smith on a new Jonathan Raban novel set in
2010: `Yet _Surveillance_ is not an exercise in dystopian fiction -- or
at least the kind that sends stick figures wandering through a post-
apocalypse landscape.' (_Washington Post_, 1 March)

At least sf isn't as bad as fantasy, muses Caitlin
Moran of _The Times_ while investigating _World of Warcraft_: `By and
large, my theory runs, people who are into goblins and wizards are people
within the autistic spectrum of behaviour, for whom the utopian sexual
and racial equality offered by, say, sci-fi, is alarming. All those black
chicks in Lycra jumpsuits philosophising about the fallible nature of
humanity, and able to vote? Brrrr!' (_Times_, 26 March)

JOYCE CAROL OATES makes the traditional discovery that sf is OK if only
it's written by _the right kind of people_: `Long the province of genre
entertainments -- science fiction, dystopian fantasy, post-apocalyptic
movies -- the future has been boldly explored in recent years by such
writers as P.D. James ("The Children of Men"), John Updike ("Toward the
End of Time"), Margaret Atwood ("The Handmaid's Tale," "Oryx and Crake"),
Doris Lessing ("Mara and Dann"), and Cormac McCarthy ("The Road"). Now
comes a grim prophetic fable by the much admired British writer Jim Crace
... (_New Yorker_ review, 30 April)

Interview with Geek Comedy Tour 3000, `a seven-member stand-up
troupe that works conventions dedicated to anime, sci-fi, video games,
and other nerdy avocations. [...] The troupe's members cite a few
downsides to working conventions: overenthusiastic fans, bad homoerotic
anime, and hygiene-impaired attendees. "That's one of the hazards of
doing geek comedy," says member Jake Young. "A lot of B.O."' (Josh
Eiserike, _Washington City Paper_, 27 April)

...Starting to get the picture? The best that The 
Order of Cosmic Engineers might hope for, I suspect. is this sample:

PHILIP REEVE was asked his reaction to the horror of _Mortal Engines_
being `put in the sci fi section. How do you feel about the label, do you
think it's a derogatory term?' His reply: `Well, for a long time I
avoided it, but I've started to embrace it because I'm quite proud to be
considered a sci fi author as it's so unfashionable. It's strange that
people worry about boys not reading, even though the one genre that boys
are likely to be interested in is dismissed as garbage, often by the same
people. I think it's time to stand out and be counted. I also think sci
fi should be aware of its own absurdity.' (_Literary Review_, April)

Damien Broderick

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