Bodies? We don't need no stinkin' bodies.
August 30, 2010 6:25 PM   Subscribe

What sci-fi or dystopian (or even utopian) stories of the future involve a form of humanity that has outgrown the need for any corporeal manifestation in favor a completely cerebral existence?

For instance, there's a character in Snow Crash (I only skimmed the first 50 pages and don't remember his name or purpose) that has essentially wired his consciousness into, I guess, which was itself like some kind of supercomputer. If I remember correctly, he was horribly disfigured or completely handicapped yada yada - the point being that his body was completely useless and extraneous. It existed only to house the brain. It seems like I've come across stories in which the whole of humanity has evolved in this manner, out of the need of their bodies, becoming able to control material objects by way of conscious thought, making the use of actual motor skills obsolete. But I don't remember specifically any titles or plots or authors. I really don't read much in this vein. Still, I need to know. Didn't Neuromancer have something equivalent to this?
posted by mediocritease to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix novel (and attendant short stories) deals with humanity splitting into separate factions of post-humanism, Shapers, who use genetics to improve their bodies, versus Mechanists, who use machines and technology. It's not completely post corporeality, but it gets pretty close, and is definitely worth a read.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:31 PM on August 30, 2010

I feel like there may be a few Asimov stories with this plot element -- of the top of my head, The Last Question is one.
posted by JohnMarston at 6:32 PM on August 30, 2010

This is a pretty common scifi trope.

How about Asimov's classic The Last Question, which all of humanity eventually joins a group/machine conciousness.

More recently, in (mefi's own) Charles Stross' novel Accelerando, several characters spend time as purely digital constructs in digital environments, in part to faciliate space travel (no life support, living quarters...etc. required, no aging over long trips).
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:38 PM on August 30, 2010

Are you asking only about books? Because in Stargate SG1 and Stargate Atlantis (both of which I emphatically do not recommend), there's a race known as the Ancients who achieve "ascension," which is basically exactly what you are describing -- they separate from their bodies and live forever as pure energy on another plane of existence. When they poke their heads into this plane of existence, they are able to manifest a little bit, affect objects somewhat, and talk to alive people. At least two of the main characters and many many secondary characters on both shows achieve this or come close over the course of the shows' runs.
posted by shamash at 6:46 PM on August 30, 2010

Iain Banks has civilizations that have "Sublimed"
posted by the noob at 6:51 PM on August 30, 2010

Babylon 5 has the same sort of thing--the more advanced races (Vorlons, humans eventually) do the so-evolved-we-don't-care-about-corporeality thing.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:56 PM on August 30, 2010

In the Stargate television show they have that concept of "ascension" in which humans become non-corporeal, right? I missed a bunch of episodes around that so I'm not sure... on preview shamash mentions it.

In Alistair Reynolds' "Revelation Space" series there was something where extremely wealthy people were able to duplicate their minds in a computer. There was also a way that people who came into telepathic contact with these giant planet-sized organisms could be copied and remain as a sort of ghost within the mind of the organism.

In the "Galactic Center" series by Gregory Benford when a person dies their mind can be copied into a sort of computer chip which is then connected with a living person's nervous system so that the deceased exists as a voice in the living person's mind and can be called upon for information or advice. They aren't normally able to interact with the physical world but when their host is unusually stressed or otherwise mentally vulnerable they can possess the host, experiencing the world through the senses and controlling the body of the host.
posted by XMLicious at 7:07 PM on August 30, 2010

In iam M. Banks "Look to Windward", there is a character that only exists in digital form on a device carried in the brain of another character. All he can do is talk to the guy whose head he lives in.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:11 PM on August 30, 2010

Sorry, that should be 'Ian' M. Banks. Apparently my thoughts are also stupid and distracted.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:12 PM on August 30, 2010

Neuromancer has the Dixie Flatline, a cyberspace cowboy whose consciousness was encoded into hardware.
Wait a sec," Case said. "Are you sentient, or not?

Well, it feels like I am, kid, but I'm really just a bunch of ROM. It's one of them, ah, philosophical questions, I guess...." The ugly laughter sensation rattled down Case's spine. "But I ain't likely to write you no poem, if you follow me. Your AI, it just might. But it ain't no way human.
You can also look at different ways to be posthuman by looking at Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist stories.
posted by artlung at 7:12 PM on August 30, 2010

There's also the old classic, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.
posted by chengjih at 7:15 PM on August 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Whaddaya know, mind transfer in fiction.
posted by artlung at 7:17 PM on August 30, 2010

Yeah, some sort of upload/upgrade is a pretty common trope.

Some different stripes:

(1) People who upload themselves into a computer somehow and live in a virtual space mostly ignoring the real world. I don't think this appears in Neuromancer, but it does in either Count Zero or Mona Lisa Overdrive. See also Greg Egan's Permutation City. Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution books. Wil McCarthy's Bloom. Parts of Stross's stuff get close. Frederik Pohl's Gateway series is sort of like this, sort of like (3). Greg Bear's Eon, in places.

(2) AIs that are in some way based on people or otherwise recognizably "human." Greg Egan's Diaspora -- they're basically people, but created from scratch in a computer instead of being directly based on flesh-people.

(3) Uploaded people who mostly interact with the real world instead of living in a VR fantasyland... this would be telling, so ROT13d, but Wbua Fpnymv'f Gur Naqebvq'f Qernz srngher'f na hcybnq be erperngvba gung yvirf va gur pbzchgre ohg vf fgebatyl bevragrq gbjneqf gur erny jbeyq. Gateway, like I said before. Eon, in other places. The Edenists in Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn series.

(4) People who upload into robots... can't think of any big stuff here. Parts of Diaspora.

(5) People who upload completely out of any base in matter. Harder, and these sorts are usually portrayed as being more or less aloof from the physical world. Parts of Banks' Consider Phlebas, Look to Windward, but in neither case were they human.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:19 PM on August 30, 2010

Yay, I get to link Blindsight again! It's a minor part of the story, but there is a large part of humanity that has put their bodies into storage to inhabit a pure realm of the mind.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:20 PM on August 30, 2010

Diaspora by Greg Egan
posted by RobotHero at 7:21 PM on August 30, 2010

The Heinlein short story Methuselah's Children

Entoverse by James P. Hogan (warning: bad!)

Possibly Heaven's Reach by David Brin, I'm not really sure, perhaps in some other book by him.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (outstanding!!)

The Long Run by Daniel Keys Moran.

The Android's Dream by John Scalzi.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:34 PM on August 30, 2010

My favorite such tale is probably "Singletons in Love" by Paul Melko. Without giving too much away, it's about the interaction between a human left behind when most of humanity ascends to a transhuman state, and a group of clone siblings. It's available in his collection Ten Sigmas and Other Unlikelihoods as well as the anthology Year's Best Science Fiction: 21st Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. Paul Melko has written other stories, and a novel called Singularity's Ring, set in the same universe. I've heard quite good things about them, but I've just never gotten around to reading them.
posted by Kattullus at 7:53 PM on August 30, 2010

Permutation City has already been recommended so I'll just second it.

The B-story is about impoverished uploads and how they live outside of the "normal" realm of human upload existence. It's brilliant. Somewhere (different computer) I have an etext of just the B-story extracted from the novel. Love it.
posted by codswallop at 8:02 PM on August 30, 2010

Greg Egan's "Border Guards' available online for free! Not quite non-corporeal, but 'post-mortral' and 'post-being-stuck-in-one-body'.
posted by GilloD at 8:12 PM on August 30, 2010

The Heechee Saga by Pohl, especially in the later novels? There are preserved alien minds (grandfathers?), most who have gone mad. Humanity has improved simulating the human mind once the brain deteriorates and one of the conceits is that the stored personalities think much faster than normal humans necessitating having "copies" of yourself who hangs out with living humans and you liase every so often. Either that, or have extremely slow conversations.

Perhaps Reynold's Revelation Space series. Supposition is that there are differing levels of "simulations" for humans, up to "alpha level" turing complete copies. Two main alien races are just stored memories out of necessity, one copies/stores/manipulates other sentients' minds, and one machine race that makes physical avatars when necessary.

Over the last 80 years or so, there are mountains of short stories that address this theme. It'd take me some time to skim all my old anthologies... Childhoods End, which I was going to bring up but already mentioned above, is probably a more "pure" treatment of the theme but doesn't really address what the discorporealed feel/perceive (iirc) but I think Clarke also wrote a short(er) story treatment of this theme, too.
posted by porpoise at 8:15 PM on August 30, 2010

The anime Serial Experiments Lain deals a lot with this, and Satoshi Kon's Paranoia Agent touches on it.

The first time I ever experienced it though was a Kurt Vonnegut short story "Ready to Wear", readable in part here.
posted by lhall at 8:23 PM on August 30, 2010

Would Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon and its sequels qualify? Consciousness uploading features in a couple of different ways in those books.
posted by Janta at 9:07 PM on August 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

22 comments, and not a single mention of Futurama's heads in jars? Robo-Nixon frowns at you!
posted by schmod at 9:10 PM on August 30, 2010

A different Peter Hamilton series I'm reading right now, the Void Trilogy, also involves a post-corporeal human collective entity.
posted by slide at 9:24 PM on August 30, 2010

I'm not sure if it counts since it's only an oblique reference, but the final story in Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days short collection makes reference to uploaded personas; two of the narrator character's family members have chosen this lifestyle. I haven't read the next book in that series, so there may be more on that trope in there.
posted by Alterscape at 10:00 PM on August 30, 2010

In Vernor Vingers A Fire Upon the Deep and its sequel fits the broader idea (a technological singularity is achieved and whole races transcend into the "next step".

As for the one person idea, on top of the ones mentioned above W. T. Quick's Dreams of Flesh and Sand fits the bill (no wiki link, just the amazon).
posted by cftarnas at 10:40 PM on August 30, 2010

and on preview - doh, I second Confess, Fletch - for "A Fre Upon the Deep," a very good read.
posted by cftarnas at 10:42 PM on August 30, 2010

Demon with a Glass Hand and Darwinia. The latter really is amazing, and veers off in a strange direction halfway through the book.
posted by iamck at 12:42 AM on August 31, 2010

Short story: Wang's Carpets by Greg Egan.

Novels: Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake. Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence and Manifold sequence.

Agree with Morgan's Altered Carbon; Reynolds' Revelation Space and MacLeod's Fall Revolution books.

[Not necessarily true for all characters or all parts of the book, but the element of a technological singularity is present in some way]
posted by Infinite Jest at 3:02 AM on August 31, 2010

"Unready to Wear" by Kurt Vonnegut.
posted by Daily Alice at 3:22 AM on August 31, 2010

'New Hope For The Dead' - Dave Langford
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:57 AM on August 31, 2010

In Julian May's Galactic Milieu series, Jack the bodiless has essentially discorporated, IIRC.
posted by wilful at 5:24 AM on August 31, 2010

Robert J. Sawyer explores it in the-book-that-inspired-the-show Flashforward (having read this book, I couldn't watch more than the first episode before seeing how wildly the show was going to diverge). He also touches on it briefly in Calculating God.
posted by Hildegarde at 5:31 AM on August 31, 2010

Oh my, no love for Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s "Unready to Wear"?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:35 AM on August 31, 2010

D'oh! But there's a link for you, anyway!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:36 AM on August 31, 2010

Everyone In Silico by Jim Munroe.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 5:54 AM on August 31, 2010

Another one from TV -- the Prophets/wormhole aliens on Star Trek: DS9 are non-corporeal.
posted by spinto at 7:27 AM on August 31, 2010

Lots of Sci-fi has made use of this, but the TV show Stargate SG1 really hammered home the idea that people will one day ascend to a non-corporeal state and exist as beings of pure energy.
posted by quin at 12:50 PM on August 31, 2010

Julian May's character Jack the Bodiless is mentioned above, but he's not the only one - the wiki link contains the spoiler, but without going into too many details - when the Earth is approached by the federation of aliens (Galactic Milieu, whatever), the entire Lylmik race is incorporeal. It wasn't Saint Jack who helped them get there.

Going back to a more 'brain in a jar' concept, there are always Anne McCaffrey's 'Brain & Brawn' spaceship books, with their somewhat creepy treatment of physically disabled children.
posted by Lebannen at 1:02 PM on August 31, 2010

This seems to be Greg Egan's favourite trope... He touches upon it in several of his books, including Sheilds Ladder, Diaspora and the weird one about video games and arabic nations.
posted by Quadlex at 5:39 PM on September 1, 2010

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