Thursday, June 4, 2020

Of Identity And Society

     I was leafing through my archives recently, mostly just to pass the time, when I stumbled upon an old science fiction story. I first encountered it in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967. The author is known for his scientific / technological orientation. It’s often been asserted that those elements were the ones that really excited him, and that he found the more personal aspects of storytelling less interesting. Much of his oeuvre would appear to support that contention, but not the story I have in mind at the moment.

     Rather than reproduce the whole thing here, which might expose me to a claim of copyright infringement, I’m going to give you the backstory and present only the conclusion. The backstory is about a heart-transplant candidate in an era when alloplasty — the use of artificially crafted replacements for failing organs – has eliminated the need for organ donors. The candidate has been posed a choice: between a metal replacement-heart and a fibrous, polymeric heart closer in form and nature to the human heart. The candidate and his surgeon-to-be have just clashed over the merits of the two...

     “Well, I can’t tell what happened just by looking at you. What was his decision?”
     The surgeon bent over his desk, punching out the final items for his records. “What you predicted. He insists on the metallic cyber-heart.”
     “After all, they are better.”
     “Not significantly. They’ve been around longer; no more than that. It’s this mania that’s been plaguing humanity ever since Metallos have become citizens. Men have this odd desire to make Metallos out of themselves. They yearn for the physical strength and endurance one associates with them.”
     “It isn’t one-sided, doc. You don’t work with Metallos but I do; so I know. The last two who came in for repairs have asked for fibrous elements.”
     “Did they get them?”
     “In one case, it was just a matter of supplying tendons; it didn’t make much difference there, metal or fibre. The other wanted a blood system or its equivalent. I told him I couldn’t; not without a complete rebuilding of the structure of his body in fibrous material....I suppose it will come to that some day. Metallos that aren’t really Metallos at all, but a kind of flesh and blood.”
     “You don’t mind that thought?”
     “Why not? And metallized human beings, too. We have two varieties of intelligence on Earth now and why bother with two. Let them approach each other and eventually we won’t be able to tell the difference. Why should we want to? We’d have the best of both worlds; the advantages of man combined with those of robot.”
     “You’d get a hybrid,” said the surgeon, with something that approached fierceness. “You’d get something that is not both, but neither. Isn’t it logical to suppose an individual would be too proud of his structure and identity to want to dilute it with something alien? Would he want mongrelization?”
     “That’s segregationist talk.”
     “Then let it be that.” The surgeon said with calm emphasis, “I believe in being what one is. I wouldn’t change a bit of my own structure for any reason. If some of it absolutely required replacement, I would have that replacement as close to the original in nature as could possibly be managed. I am myself; well pleased to be myself; and would not be anything else.”
     He had finished now and had to prepare for the operation. He placed his strong hands into the heating oven and let them reach the dull red-hot glow that would sterilize them completely. For all his impassioned words, his voice had never risen, and on his burnished metal face there was (as always) no sign of expression.

     My question is: Does the surgeon’s advocacy for maintaining one’s own original structure have application to the structure of a society?

     (And just in case you couldn’t guess, the title of the story is “Segregationist,” and the author is the late, great Dr. Isaac Asimov.)

1 comment:

SSG Mac said...

I have pondered that very question. The answer lies in the freedom of association; for it is the freedom to associate OR NOT. The thought first occurred to me back in the 70s when the feminists and anti-tobacco jihadists closed down any possibility of a Men's Smoking Club. Private property, private club (with defined membership), no business or political activities to be denied non-members ...none of that mattered.
A whole society is nothing more than a voluntary association writ large. Ergo, there is nothing inherently evil in it being exclusive to some degree. No one is picketing the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands for instance.
So, are we free to associate with whom we choose? It is an exercise of political power to require association between those who wish not to.
Once again we see the crux of a political question lies with the little thought of political principle of Individual Liberty.