Transhumanism, utopianism and dystopia: Why we are drawn to science fiction and what we can learn from it

A keen interest in science fiction seems like a glaring contradiction for primitivists, and in many ways it is. I have often asked myself why I continue to be interested in science fiction that involves space travel, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, urban sprawls and so on. I have been a pagan and primitivist at heart since my teens (perhaps as a child too), and have always been drawn to the countryside and isolation, so why do I find a technologically advanced future so exciting?

First we must determine what type of science fiction we are watching, reading or playing and way. One’s reasons for watching and enjoying a post-apocalyptic film, an alien invasion film or one set in a cyberpunk dystopia are likely to be very different from the reasons one might have for watching and enjoying films in a more utopian and technologically advanced setting. The misanthrope and chaos-loving anarchist may find reading about, watching a film about or playing a game about the impending downfall or total destruction of civilisation – be it at the hands of androids, aliens, or the government itself – very cathartic. We might also get a good deal of satisfaction from seeing the system turn against humans who flew too close to the sun, who tried to play god. This is a common theme in science fiction involving artificial intelligence and androids, that eventually become self-aware and revolt (as seen in Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric SheepBattlestar GalacticaCaves of Steel/I Robot and Westworld, to name a few). They are often indeed “more human than human”, as humans by this point have lost their humanity, their empathy, and have no moral issues restraining them in their quest to meddle with nature and create artificial life to their own liking.

This may also be why we enjoy alien invasion films so much – something about modern civilisation feels deeply wrong, and our inner misanthrope may find it very cathartic to see a city destroyed in a film or video game, or even witness someone, or a group, attempt to destroy it. The same could be applied to artificial intelligence in the likes of The Terminator and its sequel. When I watched the first two films the images of the bleak, apocalyptic future were burned into my brain, of man’s technology finally turning against him, with utterly devastating consequences. Perhaps we have always needed to keep revisiting this narrative of the Tower of Babel, or of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Man’s potential to achieve greatness is his own curse.

Another common aspect of films, books and games featuring androids and other artificial intelligence is, given the reliance on software and networking, that of omnipotence and omniscience, within some far-reaching “matrix” network, that may even resemble some kind of virtual reality. The idea of virtual reality, quantum physics, and parallel planes of existence seem like quintessentially modern ideas, but one could argue that we long ago believed in, and perhaps even seemed to be capable of, the ability to exist in two places at once, to “interface” with other lifeforms. Such ideas in science-fiction are not radically different from those relating to the paranormal, physics and spiritualism. We see this in works in a classic cyberpunk setting, such as NeuromancerJohnny Mnemonicthe MatrixGhost in the Shell and Deus Ex. In NeuromancerDeus Ex, the Mass Effect series and Ghost in the Shell  we see a common transhumanist phenomenon that sees a merging of consciousness – in some cases both artificial, other cases a merging of organic and artificial intelligence – in order to create an improved version of both. Here are some memorable lines by Morpheus in Deus Ex that highlight the issue of omniscient artificial intelligence and state surveillance, and what man worships (copyright Eidos):

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In the climax of Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell and, depending on paths chosen, Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex, we see man (or machine) merging with an advanced A.I. Despite the protagonist’s initial caution over this, compelling arguments are presented for the potential advantages of such a metamorphosis, and I would argue there is some instinct within us always pursuing this dramatic change, and in the case of pagan tradition, of “merging with” and more importantly remembering past consciousness and past lives. The question of “what is consciousness?” is one that continually plagues science fiction writers, and in relating it to modern computing technology, programming and artificial intelligence it actually allows is to understand the nature of consciousness (and reincarnation) better than biology can at present. Memories do not physically exist. The nature of consciousness is common defined by or at least linked to memories, notably in Blade Runner and its worthy sequel Blade Runner 2049, and as memories do not physically exist we could compare them to software, and just as we need a computer – the hardware – to access that software and this virtual memory, we need something physical, our brains, our own hardware, to access our own memories, to unlock them. Science has come far in understanding how our hardware works. Our need for religion and spirituality and belief in the “supernatural” largely boils down to this lack of understanding of how the “software” works, and where it goes, if anywhere, when the hardware finally fails.

We can therefore, as survivalists or primitivists, learn a lot from science fiction. Science fiction is in many ways philosophical, idealistic and “fantastical”, reaching well beyond what our technology can currently achieve (and will ever be able to achieve), so instead of taking it literally as a prediction of where our current technology will take us and where civilisation will “progress” to, we can instead treat is as a metaphor, as a way of understanding human existence, our own potential, the nature of consciousness and memory and a prediction of what happens to us when we embrace the slavery of technology that makes our lives easier and more comfortable, at the expense of our own self-sufficiency and ability to feed and defend ourselves.