Uplift

Tagged: Theme

This term, both noun and verb, has entered the sf vocabulary to denote an assisted leap of Evolution – specifically, the raising of nonsentient or otherwise handicapped beings to a level of Intelligence or technological capability comparable to or exceeding humanity's. Thus in Eric Frank Russell's "Mana" (December 1937 Astounding), Earth's Last Man passes on the torch by uplifting ants; L Sprague de Camp's Johnny Black series about an uplifted bear – beginning with "The Command" (October 1938 Astounding) – sees the human inventor of the process transformed by his own treatment into a comically Invention-obsessed Mad Scientist in "The Exhalted" (November 1940 Astounding). An experimental spacegoing mouse is uplifted to intelligence by friendly Aliens in Fredric Brown's "The Star Mouse" (Spring 1942 Planet Stories), and a chimpanzee by a combination of surgery and Computer-interfacing in Vernor Vinge's "Bookworm, Run!" (March 1966 Analog).

The present sf sense of the word was popularized by David Brin's Uplift series, in whose galactic arena it is the received wisdom that all intelligent species except the enigmatic "Original Progenitors" (see Forerunners) were uplifted by "Patrons" to whom they thus owe a debt of servitude. Here, humanity has independently uplifted chimpanzees and dolphins. The latter are notorious in sf, almost to the point of Cliché, for being credited with hidden intelligence. The eponymous dolphin of William C Anderson's Penelope (1963) needs a human-built sound converter to communicate, and others in Larry Niven's "The Handicapped" (December 1967 Galaxy) are glad to acquire mechanical manipulators, but no IQ enhancement is felt to be required in either case; dolphins in Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy sequence effortlessly evade the farcical destruction of Earth and later, capriciously, restore the planet.

Such relatively cheerful stories contrast with the tradition of failed, doomed or actively blasphemous uplift which stems from H G Wells's dark and bloody vision of animal vivisection in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896); Brian Aldiss responded to Wells in Moreau's Other Island (1980). The uplifted dog of Alexander Crawford's "The Experiment" (December 1913 Short Stories) is tormented by sentience; the titular dog of Olaf Stapledon's Sirius (1944) is a lonely outsider amid unsympathetic humanity. Uplifted animals in J T McIntosh's The Fittest (1955; vt The Rule of the Pagbeasts 1956) prove relentlessly hostile and wage war on humanity, whose remnants retreat to armed Keeps. For both the experimental mouse and the retarded narrator in Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) by Daniel Keyes, the arc of uplifted intelligence rises high above the species norm into similarly lonely realms, only to fall again. The poet Franz Wright (1953-    ) puts it neatly in "Walking to Martha's Vineyard" (18 February 2002 The New Yorker): "Bad things happen when you get hands, dolphin". Rather more melodramatically bad things happen when sharks get increased Intelligence in Deep Blue Sea (1999).

Uplift, most usually through Genetic Engineering, is a useful sf lens through which to re-examine human exploitation of animals. Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man" (October 1941 Thrilling Wonder) ultimately asserts the right of an only moderately intelligent "neo-chimp" to be treated as human, not disposed of as a chattel. Jerry's successors include numerous uplifted primates who are Spaceship crew members, such as the speaking "utility monkey" of Theodore Sturgeon's "The Pod and the Barrier" (September 1957 Galaxy as "The Pod in the Barrier"; vt in A Touch of Strange, coll 1958), the "superchimps" of Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973) – each of which "could replace 2.75 men for housekeeping, elementary cooking, tool-carrying and dozens of other routine jobs." – and further engaging chimps in David Brin's The Uplift War (1987) and Justin Leiber's Beyond Humanity (1987).

The underpeople of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind sequence have been modified from animal stock into more or less humaniform slaves: never openly rebelling, they are comforted by possession of powers, virtues and an "Old Strong Religion" almost forgotten by Decadent humanity. Uplifted laboratory rats in Robert C O'Brien's Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971; vt The Secret of NIMH 1982) opt for independent existence rather than be treated as pets or curiosities. Engineered intelligent squid in Stephen Baxter's Time (1999) are developed as throwaway pilots for cheap Space Flight but end up conquering space on their own account. Less cynically, the dogs of Clifford Simak's City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981) are uplifted – initially by surgery to give them speech – in human hope of better companionship, of finding an alternative viewpoint on the universe. The mingling of human and lion genes in John Crowley's subtler Beasts (1976) casts an idiosyncratic light on both original species. Uplifted pigs take over the reins of a human Galactic Empire in Barrington J Bayley's The Zen Gun (1983), and also feature on the galactic stage in Alastair Reynolds's Inhibitors sequence – notably Absolution Gap (2003). Yet another modified pig is the series hero of Neal Barrett Jr's Aldair sequence, beginning with Aldair in Albion (1976). The Identity Transfer of a young girl into a chimpanzee body in Peter Dickinson's Eva (1988) ultimately promises a gentle uplift of the chimp community as she teaches new concepts like knots. Monkeys or monkey-like creatures in The Animal Garden (2003) by William Mayne have been surgically given the gift of speech. John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades (2006) and The Last Colony (2007) feature an imperfectly uplifted alien species which has been granted intelligence but not self-awareness (see Identity). Cows and other animals gifted with speech by injected Computer chips in Adam Roberts's Bête (2014) may be genuinely uplifted or merely mimicking sentience: there is a kind of Turing-test Thought Experiment here.

Ultimately, uplift suggests the route whereby intelligence can bootstrap itself into the Singularity, a process perhaps to be followed by unfathomable Transcendence. We see the beginning of this path in Cinema's best known depiction of uplift, as the black monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) transforms the thinking of early proto-humans; it is mentioned in passing in Frederik Pohl's Heechee Rendezvous (1984) that his Forerunner species the Heechee carried out some uplift work for non-altruistic reasons on early humanity. Greg Bear's Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) begins with uplift of individual human blood cells to modest, mouse-like intelligence, rapidly escalating to a Hive Mind with the power to radically change first Earth's biosphere and – eventually – the ground rules of physics. [DRL]

see also: Arrested Development; Pariah Elite; Fred Hoyle; Panspermia.

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