Academic journal article MELUS

Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson's and Linda Nagata's Science Fiction

Academic journal article MELUS

Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson's and Linda Nagata's Science Fiction

Article excerpt

Asian subjects figured prominently in the reinvigoration of mass-market North American science fiction (SF) because among the variety of genres published by the industry, one of the most heavily marketed has been cyberpunk, where all things Asian proliferate. (1) Owing much to the genre of cyberpunk, nanopunk followed by investigating the next revolutionary technology to gain widespread business and government funding--nanotechnology, named after nano, a billionth of a meter or six carbon atoms in width. Writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson earned a great deal of acclaim and financial remuneration in the 1980s and 1990s through their use of Asia as a marker for advanced technology in cyberpunk, which relies on computer-based technologies. (2) Following widespread acclaim for Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992), his The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (1995) moved attention from cybertechnology to nanotechnology. (3) Bypassing cyberpunk, Hawai'ian-based writer Linda Nagata's 1990s texts incorporate and query nanotechnology concepts or products, particularly bionanotechnology, which relies more on molecules than binary digital code. Although Nagata's The Bohr Maker (1995) interrogates topics similar to Gibson's and Stephenson's and shares the same publisher, her novel has not been accorded equal attention. (4) Full of ethnically diverse characters who actively seek or unwillingly endure bodily modifications, the nanopunk texts are ripe for investigations of ethnicity, gender, class, and other markers of difference.

To avoid constructing cybercultural studies as a rigid field, this article begins by interrogating its genealogy. I first examine techno-Orientalism in the cyborg figure and in cyberspace before proceeding to an analysis of the posthuman, looking primarily at the disembodiment imagined through digitization technologies, and the post-posthuman constructed by nanotechnology. Whether the technologies are cyber- and digital-based or nano-and molecular-based, instances of techno-Orientalism abound. Just as the cyborg, cyberspace, digital-based technology, and the Internet form an enabling network, so too does the confluence of the rise of the posthuman and nanotechnology/nanoscience, with strong overlaps between the cyborg and the posthuman, at least in the realm of SF. (5) It is nearly impossible to reclaim the "human," given the prevalence of viewing the posthuman as its "evolutionary heir," to use N. Katherine Hayles's phrase ("Life Cycle" 321). Instead of championing disembodiment, the concept of the post-posthuman recognizes cyborg bodies as integrated and integral with, rather than split from, self, mind, or consciousness: The last two sections examine techno-Orientalism in Stephenson's The Diamond Age and the post-posthuman in Nagata's The Bohr Maker. These texts shift focus from cyborgs and cyberspace--with digital data accessed through computers--to posthuman cyborgs, post-posthumans, and nanospace--working on the molecular level experienced as tactile space. John Johnston argues the use of nanotechnology by Stephenson and Nagata means "the ageold distinction between mechanical entities and biological organisms will begin to break down, with far-reaching implications for both our definition of life and the kind of human culture that will then emerge" (243). The Bohr Maker and The Diamond Age share a similar plot involving the theft of a crucial and fetishized nanotechnological object that mistakenly falls into the hands of an impoverished female character, having been initially stolen by a privileged male character, but the texts' faith in bionanotechnology differs radically. In The Diamond Age, the bionanotechnology called the Seed is outlawed for all, and the New Atlantans (mostly Anglo-Americans) are especially afraid of allowing the Chinese to use it. In contrast, The Bohr Maker concludes with an Indonesian character deliberately sharing an unsanctioned bionanotechnology called the Bohr Maker with impoverished people. …

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