Call sign Raven. Alias Hound, Tourist, Buddy, Freelancer. Epithet Liberator, Wallclimber, Wormkiller. Augmented human C4-621.
Rubicon’s version of melange is coral: an energy source as revolutionary to industrialization as electricity, more volatile than gasoline, and almost as valuable as the spice of Dune’s Arrakis. But among its associated cyberpunk themes, coral is a scarlet twist on the disembodied artificial intelligence that finally realizes transhumanist dreams. It is not a technology that tows a blurred line of sentience, but an alien life form with language, relationships, a home. And while a living, sentient thing may prove more straightforward to recognize as such than artificially created sentience that prods at established boundaries of life, coral defies such classification. Much like AI tech is in our world, the body is obfuscated.
In 1909, zoologist Jakob von Uexküll first described the limited perceptual world of all living things. From the German for environment, umwelt would describe the unique sum of each species’ sensory experience. Reality, the summation of all stimuli, he described as a garden which we all look upon from uniquely positioned windows of the home that is our body. Existing beyond an imaginative leap, umwelten resist the categorization of five or six senses that are merely more attuned than our own in other bodies; We do not know how vertebrate with vomeronasal organs “smell,” how rattlesnakes “see” heat, or how platypuses “feel” electricity. Videogames have played with umwelten, taking to the seas in In Other Waters and Iron Lung, but these are limited to mostly-visual representations of non-visible stimuli. In his book An Immense World, Ed Yong considers the limits of human imagination as biases of our umwelten: “Language, for us, is both a blessing and a curse. It gives us the tools for describing another animal’s Umwelt even as it insinuates our own sensory world into those descriptions.”
The problem of recognizing the life around us as living poses a much more contemporary problem than that of artificial life’s sentience. It is a matter of history. As we have so totally shaped the world in the era we named for ourselves—the Anthropocene— creating hyperobjects while destroying whole ecologies, we have favored life that is familiar. On the Tequesta land that I was raised, on the Lenape land I write, settlers groomed the surfaces of the Earth, reconstructing the places they left in name and in flora and fauna. Following Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano’s observation that “America was conquered, but not discovered,” Rebecca Solnit writes that European-American settlers have remained as lost as the first conquistadors that founded a world on such antique violences. “Lost not in practical terms but in the more profound sense of apprehending where they truly were, of caring what the history of the place was and its nature+.”
Maybe it is anthropocentrism such that humans would sooner perceive inorganic mechs as living and corporations recognize the sovereignty of weaponized AI than the red waveform of other bodies. But, of course. We could have made them look like anything. Consider Uexküll’s garden. Sara Ahmed writes, “‘Orientations’ depend on taking points of view as given.”Anthropocentrism++, then, is one such orientation to the world, an orientation that shapes “not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance.” It’s a window to a garden built on colonized land, in a gentrifying neighborhood, that sees weeds and progress. The fantasy of a mech is that we can get closer to feeling the thing itself, an inherent contradiction in that our other bodies may feel the thing we cannot. But it is in the mechs we made to look like us—and the ones that look a little less—that the body is pellucid.
Bodymind: ECHO (Ephemera), Apache Mystic (gender identity), String of Pearls (Ship-Self), Phrygian (Branched Man).
Of such fictions, James Cameron explores similar themes of indigenous genocide in his cyberpunk real-kei+++ anime, Avatar: an augmented pilot, a biomech of a body, and posthuman life (this in the form of indigenous ecology discovered through the colonizer-turned-savior). Despite the boring, Western, anthropocentric assumptions++++ of Cameron’s expensive, expansive sci-fi setting, Avatar does consider how the perceptual world is tied to bodies and how the body is overdetermined in our relationship to the planet. Its protagonist, already mediated through his avatar, experiences the world through other bodies—equine, wyvern, ray-fin, cetacean, and tree—as he unlearns the assumptions of colonialism that had minimized his disabled human bodymind and brought him to conquer this world. In Armored Core VI, it’s coral as posthuman life that actually mediates human relationships with machine, bringing the two closer, and coral augmentation that led to the development of new pilots who could interface with ACs as artificial, Spartan-like Newtypes. “Building your own war machine can be a liberatory experience,” writes Dia Lacina. And cyberpunk, to me, is about the appropriation of liberatory transhumanism by the state (though some fictions aren’t so self-aware). In Armored Core as in “Helicopter Story,” mechanized war machines are the realization of transhumanist imagination under corporation, under empire, under capitalist realism. You could forget there’s a body in there. You could forget there was ever a body at all. The pilot becomes a combat umwelt. Fisher: “Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions.V”
Calamine lotion, tiny blue tablets,
k-tape, razors, and matte nail polish.
Know that when I speak of the body
I speak too of the mind.
Sight, sonar, electrotouch,
hearing, heat, and proprioception.
“As production and distribution are restructured,
so are nervous systems.”
In our world, it is more often technology facilitating our connection with non-human life than the other way around. Such is the work of marine biologist David Gruber, who has studied what fluorescent sharks look like to other fluorescent sharks using bespoke optics and who has observed the gene expression of comb jellies to help engineers develop better equipment for handling the fragile creatures. Gruber describes his work as building empathy (with non-human animals) through bringing together people and technology. Profiling Gruber, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the culmination of this pursuit, the Cetacean Translation Initiative—Project, as “the most ambitious, the most technologically sophisticated, and the most well-funded effort ever made to communicate with another species.” With an array of underwater microphones and submersible drones to attach recorders to sperm whales, the project is compiling a massive database of the species’ language, a series of clicks (dubbed “codas”) that are used to communicate between one another. First identified half a century ago, cetologists have identified rudimentary outlines of the language by rhythm. Codas are now known to be learned, with regional variations. But cetologists on the project plan to go beyond the limits of human senses to attempt to actually learn the nuances of the language. And lacking any Rosetta Stone, the project rests on identifying patterns well enough from data alone. So, they’re using machine learning. Sharing its foundation with ChatGPT, the same pattern recognition of large language models that has let computers evince plausible English, Chinese, and Spanish without actually knowing any rules of grammar nor syntax or possessing any knowledge of fact, cetologists believe they’ll be able to create a similar program that can speak to sperm whales and then find the meaning later. CETI thinks of the project as something that could save the world by proving non-human animals have intelligence, perhaps halting our destructive, genocidal streak; Assuming then that we’ll revere that intelligence the way so many speak of the artificial kind.
Maybe this is a better ending than the complete destruction of the planet. But it's still an alienated connection, one that’s never stopped human conquest before. And that, ultimately, neglects empathy. It’s comprehension over compassion, humanity over nature, mind over body. So long as we can make them look like us, a collection of palimpsests.
The name comes first.
+ A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
++ Queer Phenomenology.
+++ Defined by Stefan Riekeles as “a form of science fiction anime involving realistic construction of possible worldviews and convincing visions of future cities and landscapes” in his introduction to Proto Anime Cut.
++++ Such as incorporating the Western gender binary into his pan-Indigenous cultures whose non-conforming people were, in our world, systematically killed by colonizers.
V Capitalist Realism.