The fictional motif or construct called uplift is pretty well-known, I think. Members of a nonhuman species undergo a technological treatment and are brought to cognitive functions similar to humans. This is typically called “sapience” in a meaning specific to science fiction, meaning not only that they now talk and generally think like humans, but they have attained some ineffable quality, usually tagged consciousness or awareness. They often retain some nonhuman features for purposes of thematic contrasts (see my post I’m a little seahorse for some thoughts on those purposes).
Uplift is widespread throughout science fiction; it’s the whole point to 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance. It is thoroughly committed to human exceptionalism, making no bones about a quantum improvement between “animal” vs. “truly human,” and includes a very Cartesian/Kantian notion of free will and morality. I’ve written about its role in science fiction before in Fuzzyology, but it underwent a certain concretizing during the 1980s, so I want to look at some of it there. It’s easy to think of uplift science fiction as a repeat or extension of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but it’s also flatly wrong, and the eighties works, for some reason, are good case studies to show why.
Brin’s second “uplift saga” book, and I think pretty much the only one to discuss, was Startide Rising, first published in 1983. It posits a many-instances, ancient interstellar history of species being uplifted into “sapience,” to join a complex and highly volatile community of worlds, resources, politics, and wars. Uplift has some odd features:
- Apparently evolution does not produce “sapience” – it’s an uplift thing, period (but see below).
- Uplifting another species makes your species its “patron,” typically expressed in socially subordinating them
- Species’ cultural and political status in the galactic civilization is a direct function of the time since uplift, implying some assumed further development, or perhaps simply grabbiness.
- Uplifted species are prone to “devolution,” a loss of the “sapient” faculty; it occurs in individuals under stress as a psychological condition, and is variously regarded as shameful, a guilty pleasure, or a desired goal (for some of the bad guys).
Sherryl Vint (2007) critiques David Brin’s version as relying upon and reinforcing human exceptionalism rather than challenging it, and I think she’s absolutely right about that. I’m highlighting her contribution because this insight is painfully rare in academics, criticism, and pop culture. As she puts it:
Although the relations among species are more equitable in the world that Brin imagines than in the one presented by Wells, the two authors’ quite different relationships to the discourse of speciesism demonstrates that Brin’s vision is far more conservative and damaging. The anxiety about devolution in both novels demonstrates, to paraphrase de Beauvoir, that one is not born a human but becomes one. Although the characters in Wells’s novel appear to believe in the certainty of the human/animal boundary as an ontological category, we have already seen how moments in the novel’s narrative, such as Prendick’s need to perform the chant to be recognized as human, suggest instead a more nuanced understanding of the categories of human and animal. Brin, in contrast, appears on one level to be suggesting more directly the idea of a continuum through the motif of uplift. At the same time, however, the fact that only the non-human animals appear to devolve in stressful circumstances implies that, despite this continuum, on some level the world Brin imagines retains a sharp and ontological division between ‘real’ humans, who are able to maintain their sentience no matter the circumstances, and ‘almost’ human animals, who can easily lose their human status. As I have already argued, the status of ‘human’ is something that many Homo sapiens risk losing in specific configurations, which is why the question of the human/animal boundary is of ethical import not merely for the sake of the welfare of animals and not only in the context of animal experimentation and human/animal chimeras. Rather, this boundary is foundational for ethics in total.
She discusses how in the Brin novels, humans are profoundly special, possessing an essential and categorical status which all the SF history and uplift tech validate rather than challenge.
- Humans are one of the few species that weren’t uplifted by another, but did it their own selves, by their bootstraps. The term for this is “wolfling.” (mild snark: which makes no sense considering wolves are, you know, just wolves even in this setting … but OK, OK)
- They’re the only “wolfling” species that uplifts others, thus challenging the prejudices of the older uplifts because doing this is also a sign of “sapience” and hence status.
- They disdain learning about star-traveling technology from the traditional Library and build their own instead.
- Unlike nearly all the uplift species, they are enlightened and humanitarian toward the species they’ve uplifted, dolphins and chimps.
- It is mpossible for them to devolve – explicitly, they cannot recapture innocence and are meant for the stars.
Bluntly, Brin’s uplift isn’t “becoming human” or in the pop culture vocabulary, “sapient”/”sentient” at all. Only humans are really these things; for everyone else, it’s a parlor trick. The uplift novels are much more like how Wells’ fictional character Moreau views humans and nonhumans than what the novel depicts as the case via action and events.
A quick mention for the others. S. Andrew Swann’s “Moreau” novels posit human-nonhuman genetic engineering for dramatically animorphic characters, slang-named “Moreaus” in the setting (and unsurprisingly, android characters are called “Franks”).
In this case, uplift is not particularly profound or even interesting. The impact is … nothing, literally. The story is essentially a tightly-plotted action film, and the uplifted animals are pretty much just superheroes with animal powers, with some emotional or psychological features that merely enhance that role in familiar forms. The tiger guy burns with inner rage, et cetera. This is fine as symbolism, but it’s only a device to play with human socializing; nothing about actual carnivores indicates that they roam about in the grip of uncontrollable aggression.
It’s a tricky point, but my take is that these stories reinforce human exceptionalism not because they show how superior “real” humans are (as Brin does), but because the results of the uplift are so flat and objectified. Granted, very much in the way that many protagonists conceived as human in SF are, during this period especially, but the “animalism” is thoroughly employed toward precisely that end.
The third case study,and one of the rare few to swim vs. the tide, is Justifiers, a not-very-famous role-playing game published in 1989, which is surprisingly solid in terms of humanity, animality, and social status. Uplift is a matter of individual intervention rather than a “species” one, and the results are animorphic people who must pay back the cost of their production via indentured servitude. The supplements for the game are particularly biting and thoughtful concerning the possible nuances, and the fictional society is as ripe for social upheaval as its human inhabitants are in denial about it.
It’s clear that there isn’t any “gee are they really human” question at all; in fact, the whole point relies on their functional properties being those of people. Nor do they have any “magical minority” properties such as special empathy or moral views from which the humans would do well to learn. Despite the talons and animal heads, they’re just people, such that the tensions and conflicts arise strictly from discrimination, as their origins are used as an excuse to define them socially as subordinates and property. Of the three, in this, it’s most like The Island of Doctor Moreau – despite the many differences – because the creations are flawed, but specifically in all the ways that actual people are flawed. The “flaws” aren’t failures in being human, they’re the opposite, matching the human profile.
What really matters about uplift is that it’s no more than the techno gussied-up version of the “magic moment” model for human evolution, which is of course made explicit and not even a matter for debate by 2001: A Space Odyssey. This model is alive and kicking even today in academia, that humans did go through one special bit of evolution which catapulted them into “consciousness” – which as I’ve said before is nothing but talk of “the soul” all over again, especially since it’s equated with moral “awareness” – and which no other earthly creature has been privileged to experience (or cursed, to put the Victorian melodramatic spin on it). Its roots really lie in Herbert Spencer’s Great Chain of Being and not in biology at all.
Links: Animals and animality from the Island of Moreau to the Uplift Universe (requires registration), Sherryl Vint’s faculty page at Riverside U
Next: Filthy lucre