Skip to main content

Make Way for the Super Humans - Michael Bess ****

There have been plenty of books about human enhancement - the pros, cons and possibilities - so Make Way for the Super Humans (Our Grandchildren Redesigned in the US) needed to do something quite different, and I am pleased to say that it does.

The opening section is fairly standard fare, describing the basic possibilities for pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics and genetics/epigenetics to change the nature of humans and human life, plus a bonus chapter on what Michael Bess refers to as 'wild cards': nanotechnology, AI, robotics and synthetic biology. The most original part of this section is that Bess attempts to give some structure to the concept of futurology, splitting predictions into long structural processes, short structural processes and conjectural processes. He rightly points out the difficulties of getting it right with technology prediction. Look, for instance, at how far out the movie 2001 was, despite every effort being made to get it right. For that matter, I remember being at the launch of Windows 95: when I asked Microsoft why there was nothing about the internet in their presentation, they said 'that isn't going to be commercially significant.'

Despite making it clear just how difficult futurology is to get right, Bess does fall into the trap of assuming that when someone did get it right, there was a reason for it, where in reality it was far more likely they just got lucky. It's like trying to understand why some people choose the right numbers to win the lottery. So even with this clever analysis, I can say fairly confidently that a lot we read here will simply not happen - it will be different in a way that we can't currently predict. Another slight issue with this opening section is that it's written in a rather stiff academic style, counting off arguments and generally coming across as stuffy reading. However, it's worth persevering, as when Bess reaches the next sections his writing takes off.

In sections labelled 'Justice' and 'Identity', Bess examines key issues that could arise from human enhancement and how we might deal with them. He does this by opening each chapter with a short piece of fiction, a vignette that shows the technology in action. I cringed when I read that this was going to happen, as fiction used this way is often clumsy and badly written, but in fact the vignettes are delightful - very readable and packed with useful insights. Bess then expands on what might be possible and what we need to think about in terms of implications. These two sections really make the book, giving the reader a chance to think through the nature of some potential enhancements.

The final section, 'Choices' drops back a little to the academic style, but by now we are more carried along and it's less of an obstacle. Here Bess examines whether and how much we can hold back on enhancement, what happens to human values in a world of moderate enhancements and what we as individuals can do.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that builds on the existing literature to help us think more about future scenarios, however unlikely some of them will be. Bess makes some genuinely interesting points - for example, how there is very little science fiction handling the implications for society of enhancement, and contrasting the impact of nuclear technology which came from a weapons direction, making us naturally wary, with the more insidious move towards enhancement, which comes from a medical direction and so is treated with less suspicion. It was also interesting reading the book at a time there is so much fuss about the Russian doping scandal leading up to the Olympic Games - Bess takes in competitive sport and whether we will eventually end up with two versions for enhanced and unenhanced athletes. 

It's a shame that the whole book hasn't got the readability of those middle two sections, but it's worth making your way through the whole to push to the forefront some thinking we are all going to have to do in a relatively short timescale.


Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…