Chris Moriarty,
Spin State
(Bantam Spectra, 2003)

Chris Moriarty,
Spin Control
(Bantam Spectra, 2006)

In the 1980s the fictional milieu of the cybernetic human-machine interface was cross-bred with that of the mean, crime-infested streets of the city to produce the science fiction sub-genre termed cyberpunk. Since that time and the early works of such writers as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, cyberpunk has evolved into "the posthuman."

In his introduction to the short-story collection Superman, Tales of the Posthuman Future (2002) the science fiction writer, editor and anthologist Gardner Dozois wrote: "I strongly suspect that examination of the ideas of posthumanity, with all its complex and sometimes contradictory implications for both good and ill, is going to be (in fact is) one of the major thematic concerns of science fiction in the first part of the twenty-first century." Both of the novels here reviewed, Spin State, the debut novel of Chris Moriarty, and its sequel Spin Control, are tales of the posthuman.

In Spin State we meet the two main protagonists of both novels. Catherine Li is a UN soldier with "military-grade wetware that threaded through every synapse and made half her thoughts -- half her self -- silicon," and, for enhanced physical strength, "ceramsteel filaments spidered down her spine and out to every muscle, tendon and fingertip." The second protagonist is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) called Hyacinthe Cohen. Interconnecting all is the quantum spin-encrypted interplanetary web of "streamspace."

Although the first novel opens at the blistering pace of a covert military strike led by Li along with Cohen who is "shunted" into one of her team for the purpose (whereby he "occupies" someone else's body), neither novels' main focus is on military action. Initially Li is sent on a mission to a planet to investigate the death in an apparent accident of a famous scientist who was working there. Thus she acts throughout more as a detective than a soldier, although situations do arise that require her skills as a soldier -- such episodes are thrillingly described. Cohen is just about as far from the stereotypical calculating, emotionless AI as could be imagined. His ability to "shunt" into brain-augmented humans allows Li not only to work and interact with the AI but also to form and develop an emotional and physical relationship with him, something made more interesting by Cohen's sometimes preference for shunting into (well-paid volunteer) female as well as male bodies.

However, in the second novel the idea of AI as something calculating, emotionless, unsleeping and vampiric is explored. Indeed one of the most memorable episodes is when Cohen (shunted into his long-time body Roland) accompanies a party of humans through a war zone patrolled by soldiers shunted by another AI. These soldiers are no longer individuals but, while under the shunt form, part of an AI superorganism. The party of humans travel alongside the well-armed soldiers but are invisible to them because Cohen, by hacking into the AI, has made them appear so. This journey and other lesser episodes involving shunted soldiers are wonderfully surreal.

The posthuman view is that humans are information-processing mechanisms. Traditionally this is seen to manifests itself in tool-making. The amazingly complex human hand with the unique ability of the human thumb to oppose each of the individual fingertips without conscious thought is often used to symbolise the human as artificer. For example within science fiction, Theodore Sturgeon's 1947 story "Thunder & Roses" concerned itself with the human species:

"He looked down through the darkness for his hands. ... These hands were the hands of all history, and like the hands of all men, they could by their small acts make history, and like the hands of all men, they could by their small acts make history or end it. Whether this power of hands was that of a billion hands, or whether it came of a focus in these two -- this was suddenly unimportant to the eternities which now enfolded him."

In order to become posthuman this basic biological information-processing/tool-making mechanism is combined or merged with an artificial mechanism -- an elaborate computing machine -- built by the original biological "wetware." Thus humankind, the supreme tool makers, now makes an artefact that becomes, either alone or in partnership, an artificer in its own right.

Moriarty subtly echoes Sturgeon when she uses the hand as metonym for the human as artificer. For example, two events in human history are told in some details in the second novel: in one Li has a nightmare about the famous chess-playing automaton (dubbed "the Turk" because it wore a cloak and turban) constructed by the Hungarian baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. The history of this automaton is related so it is clear Li appreciates that the greatest feat of engineering in this machine was the proto-cybernetic arm whose hand could manipulate pieces on the board (the "intelligent" chess playing aspect was a hoax); the nightmare aspect of the dream relates to Li relationship with the AI Cohen. Another event in the novel foreground Captain Jean Danjou (1828-1863) of the French Foreign Legion, whose wooden hand today plays an important part in the celebrations of the famous Battle of Camaron in Mexico. Again, in the plot itself a kidnap victim is beaten and tortured and a severed hand is eventually sent as proof of the victim's identity and the deadly seriousness of the kidnappers; at one point the story features a replacement prosthetic hand.

Another string to the posthuman bow, another self-altering mechanism, is the use of technology to guide human evolution by manipulation of the human genome. In the world of these novels humankind employs both this genetic method as well as that of the machine/mind interface. However, the type of human resultant from each method ends up in cultural, political and eventually military opposition to each other. This fact forms the main narrative drive of the novels.

On one level the world depicted in the novels could be termed "post-catastrophe" because it is one in which the Earth has been evacuated due to planet-wide ecological breakdown. However, humanity's pace seems not to have been faltered at all by this event in that it simply moved itself "Ringside" -- to orbiting space stations that ring the planet and on which 18 million people reside. This event necessitated and facilitated the step to becoming posthuman.

The Earth however is not completely abandoned, a dynamic is established between those who stay (mainly to squabble over places held to be "sacred") and the inhabitants of Ringside. This dynamic is driven by the latter's need for Earth's last precious commodity -- water. The Israel/Palestine dispute features largely in Spin Control. The elaborate plot follows the machinations of spy masters on each side of the many divides -- genetic, technological, cultural and political. Consequently, the novel's resolution would do that master of the Cold War spy novel, John Le Carrie, proud.

Each of these novels can be read independently but to appreciate the author's superb vision and grasp of a possible human future I would recommend reading them in sequence. Any such reading will reveal a narrative peopled by well-drawn characters and incorporating interesting scientific, sociological and philosophical ideas -- in short some great science fiction.

review by
Conor O'Connor

24 November 2007

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