Jack Dann &
Gardner Dozios, editors,
Beyond Flesh
(Ace, 2002)

Ace has been devoting a series of books to collections of short stories on specific fantasy and SF themes. Previous volumes include, for example, Unicorns!, Demons!, Hackers and Nanotech. The fascinating theme of the 10 stories in Beyond Flesh is the use of technology to extend human mental and physical capabilities.

Many of the stories deal with the relatively straightforward use of robots as human proxies in hostile environments. Remotely controlled devices feed sensory data back to human controllers as other planets, asteroids, stars and even black holes are explored. Imagine, as Geoffrey A. Landis does in "Approaching Perimelasma," seeing the universe change and finally disappear as your surrogate descends beyond the event horizon of a black hole. Descriptions of conditions on Jupiter are equally spectacular in "Call Me Joe" by Poul Anderson as one of his characters links to a biological proxy living with the planet's crushing gravity and storm-swept atmosphere.

The best story here is "Learning to Be Me" by Australian writer Greg Egan. While holding plot interest with an O'Henry type twist, he manages to provide a primer on the possibilities and problems associated with transferring a human personality to an electronic base. He and several other authors raise the important question of what constitutes self-identity. As Egan's hero points out, few of the atoms in our body remain with us throughout our lives. So what is it that experiences continuity? At what point is a person no longer the same being? Replacing a leg with a prosthesis doesn't matter. Most would say no replacement short of the brain itself would result in a different person. OK. How about the replacement of some axons and neurons with electronic components. Still OK. How about 3/4ths of the squishy gray components. Hmm. And yet some authors and an increasing number of scientists envision immortality through the transfer of the contents of a person's mind to the memory of a computer. As Woody Allen once said, "I want to achieve [immortality] by not dying."

A definitive solution to the problem of identity at minimum requires a fuller understanding of how individual consciousness arises and is extinguished. You won't find the answer in Beyond Flesh, nor for that matter at your local university.

As always with an anthology of this sort, story quality varies widely. In addition to those mentioned above, the McAuley and Macleod reprints are above average. MacLeod takes virtual reality to an extreme in "Nevermore," which describes the relationship between an artist and his lover after she has migrated to a computer-based version because her natural brain and body will no longer support life. Is it live or is it Memorex? If you're interested in that question, you'll enjoy Beyond Flesh.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 1 February 2003

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