Erotica at its best invites readers to open their minds, to explore the rich quantum multi-verse of the human condition, correlating our most basic instincts with our most complex emotions, finding the wormhole-like connections between the subtlest physical stimuli and the deepest wellsprings of thought. Science fiction, too, at its finest, tells a richly human story from a uniquely informed point of view. Whether we call it sf, sci-fi, futurism, or speculative fiction, the genre is ultimately “about” illuminating uniquely human truths, exploring the limits of human potential, ethics, and the nature of imagination itself.
The science in sci-fi must be good science—the sounder the better—though it does not necessarily have to be “hard science”; the fictional dimension allows for speculation and even visionary flights of fancy. If we can imagine it, it’s ultimately possible after all. Yet no amount of fancy “tech” can ever substitute for the story itself, the narrative, the plot, though it be old as legend itself, wrapped in whatever dazzling new guise the author may choose, must always, in the end, illuminate, enrich and enliven our present human condition. (At a certain point in my young adulthood, I came to see Star Trek less as an idealized vision of the future, than as a kind of sanitized cautionary tale about the dark side of technology. The show (especially from The Next Generation onward) seemed to offer weekly visions of humans frustrated and victimized by the very technologies designed to serve them. Especially in the case of Star Trek and its various spinoffs, contemporary futurism tells us more about the time in which it was envisioned than it ever does about the unfolding of the future. Sci-fi is more often than not a metaphor for the present, an elaborate projection of its creator’s most immediate fears and prejudices. In retrospect, we think more about the sexist Mad Men-era attitudes of Captain Kirk than about the quaint retro portrayals of Twenty-third century computers and communicators, all outstripped and rendered obsolete by reality within a few short decades.)
There’s nothing new about sci-fi-inflected erotica or the exploration of erotic themes in mainstream sf. One need only reach for a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love or, his glorious valedictory novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset to discover an engaging, literary speculative fiction that positively teems with sex. What is particularly refreshing about Heinlein is his unapologetically sex-positive attitude, though sometimes it seems, his portrayals of communal free-love, open marriage, polyamorie, pan-sexuality, and guiltless incest were included more for their shock value at the time than for their contribution to serious intellectual discourse or the expansion of human consciousness, a good sharp poke at the reactionary fringe, rather than a “how-to” manual for the hippie generation. That these books did help expand the consciousness of an age, provide inspiration and impetus for broader visions of love and community, was certainly all to the good, though undoubtedly not the author’s primary objective.
The seven stories in this stimulating, sometimes disquieting collection of erotic speculative fiction portray diverse futures for humanity, some Bladerunner-ishly bleak and gritty, others stark and sterile as the gleaming civilization portrayed in Huxley’s Brave New World, though all of them conceive realms in which technology has either enhanced or fundamentally altered the physical and psychological boundaries of the sexual experience. Transhumanism, as editor Gabrielle Harbowy explains in her introduction, is the “belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology. . .
Our minds and bodies are machines, and like machines they wear down. Things break and need replacing. Or new innovations can inspire upgrades that significantly enhance capacity or potential. But what good is living longer, stronger and harder if we’re not playing longer, stronger and harder, too? . . . (these stories) explore what we might become when the ability to augment our bodies is equally a means to augment our pleasure-seeking experience.
In each story, the reader is invited to imagine and explore the fascinating erotic potential of these technological enhancements. Telepathy and shared sensations become a simple matter of neural interface, as in J. Pape’s Sweet Memories, and A Trap Self-Sprung by Nalu Kalani, offering a macabre twist on the conventional D/s narrative, with a bit of tentacle titillation thrown in for good measure. Sex and virtual reality (and yet more tentacles!) drive Nobilis Reed’s Cheese, though the writing is a bit too tech-heavy to sustain erotic interest. Sasha Payne’s pulsing, punkish A Sweeter Science is reminiscent of some of the great post-apocalyptic epics like Bladerunner and Akira—especially the former in its portrayal of forbidden human-robot love. Docking Maneuvers by Cynthia Hamilton may be the most purely entertaining story of the bunch, relating a steamy f/f encounter with some extremely imaginative writing about sex toys of the future.
Peter Tupper’s Upgrade is a beautiful, melancholy, elegiac but ultimately uplifting tale of one man’s final memories of physical sensation before transitioning to a new form, leaving behind and transcending the body in order to become a being of pure intellect. But not abandoning human curiosity. “When there is no possibility of loss,” Tupper tells us, “action becomes trivial. Even if we can’t die, We can feel fear, and feel even more ashamed because of that fear. We need to try new things. We need to find something that scares Us.”
Here, readers are at last invited to ponder some of the ethical dilemmas posed by Transhumanist (H+) philosophy. What does it mean to sense, but not to feel? Has rapid technological advance ultimately doomed humanity in outpacing the natural course of our evolution? Can even the most sophisticated enhancements ever truly displace the sublime, simple pleasure of human touch?
“Yes.” She reached across the table and laid her hand across mine. I inhaled and willed my hand not to jerk away. Her fingers curled around the back of my hand. “That will be lost when we’re giant interstellar squid Buddha demigods or whatever. I don’t know if I want to say goodbye to that.”
That has cost her, I realized. Being so forward was a huge effort for her, just as it would have been for me. Apparently neither of us were early adapters. Never really comfortable with our current job, relationship, family. Endlessly thinking about alternatives, but rarely if ever acting on them.
Harbowy has perhaps saved the best for last with Peggy Barnett’s marvelous, lyrical, horrifying Teneo, Tenere, Tenue. Pygmalion meets grunge in this vision of a world in which have-nots are forced to scrounge and scavenge while the privileged classes cast off their corpses, preserving their heads to await a brighter, even more heavily enhanced future. Here, a young, lonely artist forages medical-waste dumps, seeking body parts for a new, daringly macabre sculpture, the face like the image of the Madonna in an ancient icon, the body that of a many-armed goddess with the discarded hands of dead women.
Hands are the most human part of us, the part that reaches and gives and takes. They are the parts that made us what we are, homo sapiens, the dominant species: the opposable thumb, the ability to hold a paintbrush and make marks on the side of a cave, to strike flint, to lay fire, to gather wheat and pound flower, to sew warmer clothing and lash together thresh roofs, to build spears and point out wounded animals, to skin and flay them. Hands built tools which built brain capacity which built speech, which built communication, which built laws, which built civilizations, which created kings and emperors, the poor and the rich, which created the disenfranchised, the discontent, the disagreeable, which created revolution and war, and weapons to tear down walls, and regimes, and lives. Hands strike strings, drums; hands craft horns and flutes; hands notch pans and dance along keys. Hands can wrap a bristle, grind ink, plane a handle, smooth out paper, cut a nib, write a poem. Hands can weave and cut and sew. Hands create and creation becomes culture, becomes meaning, becomes mutual understanding and compassion. Hands have made us. And in the end, hands unmake us.
Science writer Ronald Bailey has called H+ “the movement that epitomizes the most daring, creative, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity.” He might well have been describing the stories in Jacked In as well. Recommended.