Throughout Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (Saga Press 2020) runs an extended argument between those who prize a physical embodiment against those who would embrace what theorist Katherine Hayles would call the digitally “distributed cognition” (How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics p. 288). These beings of distributed cognition have become posthuman through various “articulation of humans with intelligent machines” (p. 287) that range from the body of the cyborg of humans enhanced by fusions to AI, to a reconfiguration of that “human-machine symbiosis” (p. 112) where human consciousness is articulated exclusively by inhabiting intelligent machines. These new digital posthumans continue their argument throughout both the physical universe and the endless multiverses of their designs that exist exclusively within the digital spaces of the “data centers” (p. 378) that house human consciousness as strings of code. Some see the coming of the posthuman as an ominous godly “new race of beings […] plotting the fate of the human race” (Liu p. 155), while others grappled with deciding whether those who uploaded were “now an artificial intelligence? Or were [they] still somehow human, with silicon and graphene performing the functions of neurons?” (p. 158). As progress continues to march forward, the posthumans of The Hidden Girl and Other Stories come to doubt their long-held assumptions about humanity concerning itself and nature and the role played between embodiment and parenthood. Finally, like Hayles, Liu’s stories create an expansive universe teeming with human minds, where the only question that remains is what “are we to make of the posthuman[s]” (Hayles p. 283) we have already become?
Part One: Fear from Behind (the Posthuman and the Anti-Human)
As part of her conclusions, Katherine Hayles acknowledges that “the prospect of becoming posthuman both evokes terror and excites pleasure” (Hayles p. 283) depending on one’s perspective. That terror, derived from the idea of the posthuman as “anti-human” (p. 289), is easy to understand “with its dual connotation of superseding the human and coming after it, hint[ing] that the days of the humans may be numbered” (p. 283). This fear of the posthuman, the idea that something fundamental is lost as human minds make unions with intelligent machines, rears its head across several stories throughout the collection. But nowhere is it more apparent than in the first story set in a world where the new fusion of human and machine is no longer on the horizon but in the past, which is plainly titled “Staying Behind.” Here, we see entire societies that have rejected the call of the singularity and begun a “gentle slide back down the technology curve” (p. 164). As the planet is slowly depopulated of physical bodies, there are no longer enough people left to keep the lights on for embodied civilization.
Often, The Narrator questions what happens to the “soul” (p. 158) of those who have transcended bodied life, and he fears that to be uploaded is to become “a mere algorithm, a clockwork imitation of free will” (p. 157). The question of free will, alongside the importance of continuing one’s culture by having children and other values that The Narrator has decided are unquestionable, are cemented by his mother’s declaration during an argument about the concept of being uploaded. She claims that “so long as sin, there must be death” (p. 158), a religious sentiment that The Narrator tries to recontextualize as the blanket belief that “there was a right way to live, and a right way to die” (p. 158). Though his terminology has removed the overt Christian language, its sentiment and dominance remain, and throughout the story, he reiterates the importance of remaining “committed” (p. 159), continually trying to “rekindle the faith” (p. 159) that his chosen way of life is the only correct one.
Part 2: Liberal Humanism vs Posthumanism (the Homo Sacer and the Problem of Bodies)
Here, The Narrator has adopted the worldview of liberal humanism in staunch opposition to posthumanism. The project of liberal humanism, entirely centering the universe around a notion of the human, dismisses any suggestion that history, ethics, identity, or even reality could extend beyond a “pure” human subjectivity. The Narrator conceptualizes himself as an “autonomous" being, "exercising free will through individual agency and choice” (Hayles p. 286) through the power of judgment, which implicitly and explicitly argues that that “judgment is a uniquely human function” (p. 288). This power of judgment cannot be shared with other animals or intelligent machines—which includes those minds who have opted to exist in the digital space. The Narrator and his community remain adamant that human beings should work to retain their apparent dominance over nature. They believe that by uploading, “humanity was abandoning the world and destroying itself” (p. 158). Without his assurance that those who have uploaded retain that mythical power of free will and human judgment, he denounces their humanity entirely, so that they are only ever referred to as “the dead” (p. 160). Liberal humanism separates the human and places it above all else, a necessity that such thinkers as Donna Harraway argue creates a “manic compulsion to name the Enemy” (Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” p. 9), an all-encompassing binary of Us/Other. To The Narrator, there are the living, embodied humans, and the machines that masquerade as the dead, a sinister enemy that is and must remain entirely other, the Anti-Human that is set on destruction.
Although posthumanism “deconstructs the liberal humanist subject” (Hayles p. 5) in many ways, both philosophies share “an emphasis on cognition rather than embodiment” (p. 5). Instead, the origin of that cognition is where the two philosophies differ drastically. The dead/digital beings of Liu’s stories do not necessarily engage in the debate over the existence of their own free will so much as they question the very myth of free will itself. The problem, as the liberal humanist sees it, is that every human being—the singular containers of judgment/free will—is an “autonomous self with unambiguous boundaries” (Hayles p. 290). So anything that muddies the seeming “purity” of these bodies dilutes the very thing that makes them human. When human minds are uploaded, it is not a digital clone or copy of the person but the only remaining version of that consciousness, as the physical body is destroyed during the process.
The Narrator and other liberal humanists would perhaps label the uploaded humans as what human rights theorist Giorgio Agamben dubbed “Homo Sacer” (Agamben, Sovereign Power and Bare Life p. 71). The figure of the Homo Sacer was originally a “figure of archaic Roman law” (p. 71) as an individual who had become so rejected from and objectified by a society that to kill them no longer counted as murder as much as destroying an inanimate object.
Agamben, reinterpreting it into a feature of “biopolitics” (Agamben p. 131)—a subsect of human rights theory—transforms the Homo Sacer into a conscious mind that is stripped of its humanity in the eyes of physically embodied society. Agamben argues that, to make the inhuman-human of the Homo Sacer possible, life itself must be separated by “the structural difference between mere biology and ‘life’” (Lord Sowah, “What is the true meaning of Giorgio Agamben’s Bare Life/ Homo Sacer” p. 2), with those who have been deemed inhuman by society having only their biological existence—or “bare life,” as Agamben also refers to it. Bare life, which acknowledged only the physical existence of a being and not their humanity, in opposition to political “community (polis)” (Sowah p. 2) life, actually goes a step farther in Liu’s stories than theorists such as Agamben could have ever imagined.
The Narrator refuses to signify these posthuman entities as human in any way, objectifying them past even bare life, refusing to acknowledge that they live at all or accept any authenticity in their claims to consciousness. Instead, he can only mourn that there “was a lifeless body left behind […] a bloody pulpy mess” (Liu p. 164). He cannot understand why anyone would choose to die, while the posthumans of the story who rain down messages in attempts to convince those left behind to come and join the data centers argue that “the body itself is a congealed metaphor. A physical structure whose constraints and possibilities have been formed by an evolutionary history that intelligent machines do not share” (Hayles p. 284). After being uploaded, even though it was against her will, The Narrator’s mother sends a message that sums up: “the real us, have always been patters of electrons cascading across the abyss […] what difference does it make if those electrons are in a brain or silicon chips” (Liu p. 165).
The Narrator’s mother and the other digital beings no longer see the human body as the sole container of a “stable, coherent self” (Hayles p. 286). Unlike the liberal humanist narrator, who believes subjectivity is a uniquely human gift, the posthumans argue that “subjectivity is emergent” (p. 291) from many sources, both within and outside the mind of any creature. Consciousness then becomes not a spiritual miracle but the result of many different “agents running programs” (p. 286) that work together and collectively agree to form consciousness. So, while transferring consciousness to a machine mind is an act of destruction for The Narrator, for the posthumans, this supreme act of becoming a cyborg is merely inducting a few more agent-running programs into the agreement of their being, a fusion that elevates rather than destroys.
Part 3: Posthumanism and Reproductive Futurism
Donna Haraway, when considering the Cyborg or any other “taboo fusions” (p. 52) of human/inhuman, argues that symbols of Otherness have always “defined the limits of community in the western imagination” (“Cyborg Manifesto” p. 64). “Staying Behind” repeatedly affirms this, as The Narrator’s fears are not primarily the fear of being uploaded himself. His fears are that the posthumans and their increasingly expansive digital community are predatory Others that threaten his community, the generations of those who choose to stay left behind, and the next generation whom they insist must carry on these traditions and definitions of being human. Unlike Agamben’s Homo Sacer, which is merely othered by being cast out and denied political/community life, Liu transforms digital humanity into a form of the Homo Sacer that threatens to reach out and invade the community, to steal the power of political/community life from those who still possess it.
Throughout much of “Staying Behind,” The Narrator reaffirms his constant fear—not that he or his wife Carol might ever be convinced to upload but that his daughter Lucy could. Despite prizing the liberal humanist concepts of agency and free will and praising the courage of those who “choose to stay behind” (p. 157), The Narrator never considers his daughter’s supposed agency. Those of the next generation that choose to abandon the physical plane are not choosing at all, as The Narrator’s choice—and way of life—is the only authentic mode of living. Those of the next generation who choose to transcend to a digital existence are not making a judgment but having judgment stolen from them. He reaffirms the us/other binary by painting all the cloud-based consciousnesses as child snatchers: “year after year, relentlessly, the dead try to steal our children” (p. 157).
When The Narrator has no facts to attest to his belief that digital humanity is not genuinely living thinking beings but only copies of the dead, all of his fears and convictions are placed onto the backs of the children. Even when those he claims are mere machines display clear signs of agency, he refuses to acknowledge them as more than Homo Sacer. The Narrator constantly moves the goalposts of humanity, a characteristic that Agamben argues is “one of the essential characteristics of modern biopolitics […] its constant need to redefine the threshold in life that distinguishes and separates what is inside from what is outside” (Agamben p. 131). The liberal humanist has already decided that the posthumans are outside the threshold of political life and will move to keep them there.
While Agamben argues this need to recement the one/other binary as a tool of culture, the posthumanist might go further, to suggest that the very “binary logic of identity and otherness [acts as] the motor for and the cultural logic of universal Humanism” (Braidotti p. 2). The Narrator needs to continue to define someone as Other, or he would not know how to define himself. When the argument of judgment and consciousness residing solely in the human body fails, The Narrator turns instead to what queer theorist Lee Edelman considers the philosophy of “reproductive futurism” (Edelman No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive p. 3).
Edelman argues that the body and mind under heteronormativity work to “affirm [the] structure, to authenticate [the] social order” (Edelman p. 2) of gender, sexuality, and parenthood all under a single absolute binary, and that the goal of all life is to reproduce, that by having children, one’s existence is validated, and that we are forever “transmit[ting life] to the future in the form of its inner Child” (p. 3). A liberal humanist such as The Narrator, subsumed in heteronormativity and reproductive futurism, might argue that the ethereal, body-less minds within the data centers must always be deemed Homo Sacer because they cannot achieve what he considers the ultimate human function. He argues that because “there are no children” and no possibility of creating children in the digital space, then it is a place with “no hope, only a timeless, changeless, simulated existence as fragments of a machine” (Liu p. 170). The Narrator fears that his daughter will submit to the dead and be destroyed, but also that without her to carry on the way of life that he has deemed natural, the human world will be destroyed. His fear about what humanity is becoming might be comparable to the beginning of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Fall of Rome,” with an unseen watcher lamenting “The piers are pummelled by the waves;/ In a lonely field the rain/Lashes an abandoned train;/Outlaws fill the mountain caves” (Auden Selected Poems p. 188). He fears that without the children to carry on, nature will again overtake the human structures of the world, and all that will be left are savages outside of civilization (another group that has abandoned his form of poli life) and will therefore become Homo Sacer. Here, the threat to reproductive futurism is a threat to all potential human futures.
While many of Liu’s following stories might work as the further posthumanist answers to the liberal humanist’s objections, along with continuing to complicate what posthuman humanity might entail, Liu never entirely dismisses the arguments of reproductive futurism. Liu instead rechannels it, allowing the posthumans of his later stories to stray from what it means to be a parent and child, even if they never negate the importance of reproduction. Even near the end of “Staying Behind,“ the only rebuttal given to the narrator is one that continues to support the importance of creating new generations: “We have children now […] we’ve figured out how to create children of the mind, natives of the digital world. This is the next step in our evolution” (Liu p. 170).
Part 4: Hybrid Children
Donna Haraway argued that the cyborg is free to “subvert the structures of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender” (Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” p. 57). The binaries of man/woman, mother/father, and parent/child are not necessary destinies for the body of the cyborg. Though Hayles stated that such ideas of transcendence are a “blind spot” (Hayles p. 284) for literature, the stories of The Hidden Girl go on to show the transformative and connective power of the posthuman. As Liu unfolds the story of digital humanity, the narrative gives evidence to Haraway’s argument that the cyborg need not “dream of community on the model of the organic [nuclear, or reproductive] family” (Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” p. 9).
Granting digital humanity political life through their ability to reproduce is traced from the very beginning of the timeline, when, during the Gods trilogy, a young girl Maddie feels validated that the digital copy of her father had in fact been conscious because he created her “cloud-born sister” (Liu p. 207), Mist. But it takes time for the nature of these digital communities to unveil itself, as continuous generations continually thin the separations involved with the union of human minds and intelligent machines. In the brief “All Together Elsewhere,” the first story told from within the digital plane, we are given Renée, whose father was another cloud-born entity and whose mother was “an ancient, from before the singularity” (p. 211).
At first glance, the digital humanity of Liu’s stories might not fulfill the requirements for idealized distributed cognition as put forward in the conclusions to How We Became Posthuman. Hayles rejected the notion of “virtuality as a division between an inert body that is left behind and a disembodied subjectivity that inhabits the virtual realm” (Hayles p. 290). Hayles envisioned a cognition where thinking and judgment was “done by both human and non-human actors” (p. 290) working in unison, the virtual space existing in unison with the physical, and the machines working in concert with the human. She would argue that merely having characters slip between physical and digital worlds is merely allowing that liberal humanist ideal of the “soul” to transpose itself from one setting to another and not a cognition truly expanding outward to incorporate both worlds.
I would argue that Renée’s consciousness is its own union between human and nonhuman actors and that by limiting the required human element to a body, Hayles’s definition of these posthuman cyborgs of virtual spaces betrays the expanded definitions of what is defined as a human within posthuman writings. By forcing the inclusion of natural bodies in the human-machine agreement, one re-enters the realm in which subjectivity might be an essence stored in the body. What makes Renée and the other cloud-born human is not subjectivity that is stored in a body but emergent from the “noise crash[ing] within as well as without” (p. 291), or the many fusions of her parents who are both human and machine. The creation of Renée and the other cloud-born both support Hayles’s assertion of emergent cognition.
The cloud-born are no longer the results of heteronormative couplings, but instead, human minds of the cloud “decompose [their] consciousness into their constituent algorithms” (Liu p. 210) until they can isolate the many different agents running programs that make up who they are, the algorithms of their being. “Each of our parents gave us some of these algorithms, recombined and shuffled the routines during the process of our births until we were whole persons, infant consciousnesses new in the universe” (Liu p. 210). Here, asexual reproduction has supplanted heterosexual, the many agreements of agents running programs randomized until “randomness [can become] not simply as a lack of pattern but as the creative ground from which pattern can emerge” (Hayles p. 286). This is how Hayles argues subjectivity truly emerges. In embracing the makeup of consciousness as merely agent-running programs, the posthuman has also embraced Haraway’s argument that “No objects, spaces or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in common language” (Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women p. 163). However, for the cloud-born, being disseminated down to lines of code is no more dehumanizing than a biological human’s acknowledgment of having DNA.
Renée also stands as evidence of Haraway’s argument that the cyborg model of community and family could shed the heteronormative limitations of their more traditionally “pure” human relatives. Renée is the result of “eight parents” (Liu p. 210), who each contributed “a part of themselves, yet the parts changed and combined into [Renée], different from them all” (p. 210). The human family is no longer limited by the normative groupings that Haraway believed the cyborg could break free from, and instead, “The cyborg is a kind of dissembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (Haraway, “The Cyborg Manifesto” p. 163). The artifices of binary gender, and binary sets of parents, and even the simple binary of parent/child, have been disrupted by a digital existence where each child can have hundreds of parents, and through each one, the child has the potential for thousands of siblings, “fractional siblings” (Liu p. 211) with which they might share only one parent or dozens until, over time, a cloud-born child might have to track their family tree backward through the generations until they find the influence of an “ancient” human who had once been physically embodied and then uploaded. Nevertheless, the cloud-born children of Liu’s new world would not see this as a dilution of the human as more and more machine influence takes hold but merely a different origin for one of the many agent-running programs that make up the entirety of their being.
Though the cloud-born humans might have never been granted poli life in the eyes of ”Staying Behind”’s narrator, the potential for a Homo Sacer in their own digital societies becomes ever similar, as all beings are able to trace the links between one another. This makes it more difficult for each passing generation to see the Us/Other binary, with the only remaining threads of difference being those “ancients” who had once been the majority and are subsumed into a greater whole. In what we might think of as digital-biopolitics as a posthuman offshoot of Agamben’s terminology, steps are being taken continuously and instituted to ensure that no line can be drawn in the sand for any definitions to compromise the political life of any being, regardless of origin. “It isn’t fair that those who got to colonize the digital realm first should have more say in the direction of humanity” (Liu p. 372) or vice versa.
In the posthuman society of the data center, no differentiation is made between those who were once embodied in flesh and those born as strings of code. If there was, it could be argued that a line might be drawn between who is a human intelligence and who might be artificial intelligence. However, “artificial” for posthuman culture in Liu’s narrative has become the wrong term. The human consciousness of the data center is all constantly “emerging from and integrated into a chaotic world rather than occupying a position of mastery and control removed from it” (Hayles p. 291). They all consider one another to be emergent intelligences instead, and so the binary of organic/artificial is an unnecessary one.
But as evolution in the digital space upends what the liberal humanists once saw as both natural and unchangeable, the posthuman’s relation to and understanding of nature itself must also evolve. This again forces the model of community that the cyborgs of digital space have created to question itself.
Part 5: Death, Nature, and Queer Ecology in the Cyborg World
While the uploaded “ancients” and the cloud-born minds of digital humanity may not deem one another Homo Sacer as the embodied humans once did of their body-less counterparts, neither can quite agree on the actual limits or definitions of what a human being can or should be. Here, reproductive futurism is reimagined, but still a necessary process. “It is humanity’s destiny to explore. We most grow, as a species, the same as you are growing as a child” (p. 213), Renée’s mother argues, explaining that she is choosing to leave the data center of Earth on an expedition to Mars, where she will re-enter physical space as a “robot that can be embodied by human consciousness” (p. 212) that will eventually break down.
Initially, Renée is horrified by the concept that her mother will be “trapped in a robot” (p. 213) just as Renée imagines her mother was once “trapped in flesh” (p. 212). In a gentle parallel to “Staying Behind,” Renée’s story gives us a parent who believes that death is a natural and necessary part of being human, while the child believes that “the natural course of life [is] eternity” (Liu p. 213). In attempting to explain her reasoning for accepting her new mission, Renée’s mother echoes a new version of the sentiments of her liberal humanist ancestors, who worried about humanity abandoning the physical universe: “we have turned inwards and become complacent. We’ve forgotten the stars and the worlds out there” (p. 214). Renée and her mother take a good-bye trip together, embodying long-range vehicles to fly across the world until they settle in what was once the island of Manhattan. As they survey the wreckage of what was once human civilization, they observe “open grassland and herds of animals [where once everything was] farmland, filled with the clones of a few human-dependent symbiotic plants. All that infrastructure, the resources of a whole planet, went to support just a few billion people” (p. 217). The thought of this is not empowering but horrific to Renée.
The narrator's fear in “Staying Behind,” of humanity abandoning the planet, was an embodiment of the liberal humanist “manifest destiny to dominate and control nature” (p. 288), a thought which is not entirely absent in the consciousness of digital humanity. In “Seven Birthdays,“ Liu shows that early generations of posthumans believed “the greatest achievement of humanity [had been] the regifting of the earth back to Nature” (p. 373), and that these early cloud-born argued that it was “the ethical duty [of the posthumans] to be stewards for the earth” (p. 374). This perspective perhaps misses the point of becoming posthuman—that the Earth was never our possession and could not be given or taken from nature. As humanity continues to expand, eventually, the “false dichotomy [of] Human vs Nature” (p. 373) begins to win out.
In “Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer,“ we are given a mournful acceptance that nature is beyond both human controls. Even views of things our cultures have classified as natural, both in the human and nonhuman world, are not truths but viewpoints being imposed onto nature, often because the liberal humanist vocabulary is one that insists upon the simplicity of One/Other or natural/unnatural. Fritjof Capra states, “The natural world, on the other hand, is one of infinite varieties and complexities […] where things do not happen in sequences, but all together” (Capra The Tao of Physics p. 28). If we are to account for the plant life and unseen microbes that have in actuality always outnumbered human life, then digital humanity’s shift from heterosexual to asexual reproduction, for example, could not be seen as a shift away from nature, as in fact most life on Earth is reproduced asexually.
Humanity’s position as the dominant and dominating force of life on Planet Earth is only natural because we had assumed it to be so, just as the narrator of “Staying Behind” accepted the assumptions that the binary of human world/natural world are entirely separate from one another, and the binaries of physical embodiment vs obliteration, only because that was the cultural viewpoint human civilization had thus far imposed onto nature. In his article “Queer Ecology,” theorist Timothy Morton argues that “Nature looks natural because it keeps going, and going, and going, like the undead, and because we keep on looking away, framing it, sizing it up” (Morton p. 279) and refusing to see when it does not fit within the rules we have set down for it.
In “Staying Behind,” the message from The Narrator’s mother (in digital form) argues that uploading was not a luxury but a way for human beings to relinquish their destructive campaign of control over the Earth. This is a testament to Hayles’s argument that a closer union between humans and intelligent machines was not only an exciting opportunity but essential to “the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves” (Hayles p. 291). The Narrator’s mother similarly argues that the pollution and environmental destruction of Earth to sustain biological humans was not “an unavoidable aspect of our existence” (Liu p. 165) as she had once believed but merely another idea of what is natural that need to be discarded.
Renée and her mother replay as Manhattan is slowly overtaken, “rainwater seep[ing] into the cracks and seams of walls and foundations” (Liu p. 218) in Liu’s own seeming rendition of Auden’s The Fall of Rome from which the story takes its name. The message about humanity’s relationship to the natural world is not the message of struggle for dominance and despair of chaos that the narrator of “Staying Behind” fears. Instead, as the two characters underclock their embodied machines so that their “consciousness slow down to a crawl” (p. 219) in order to watch forty-five years pass by, Liu paints an image of Nature overtaking a once human world more akin to the final two stanzas of Auden’s poem:
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast (Auden p. 188)
In place of fear that they will lose control, the posthumans accept that control was never in their grasp and that the natural world extends beyond their reach and that nature has a beauty that is beyond the human. Renée and her mother watch as “the dead city gradually yielded to the green force of life” (Liu p. 218), and this seems to be the mother’s statement on posthuman existence. She accepts a nature that is both complex and outside of human control but also a refutation of her daughter’s concept of eternal life as natural. She instead argues that “real beauty lasts, even though anything real must die” (p. 220). She prizes the memory of what had been human civilization but acknowledges that for a posthuman to truly let go of the liberal humanist desire to master nature, they have to relinquish the notion that “one moment [is] natural, to be prized above all others” (p. 373).
The stories themselves do not go on to make any definitive statement about whether mortality or immortality is more “human” but eventually accept that no one way of being can ever be prized as natural. As the posthumans shift away from all concepts of the binaries of natural and unnatural and Us/Other they begin to accept even that life itself is beyond human control.
This acceptance also signals the posthumans of the digital world continuing to reach a wider definition of their distributed cognitions, as after the events of this story, we continue to see digital humanity’s awareness constantly expanding into both virtual and real space.
Part 6: Reaching out in a Posthuman Multiverse (Conclusion)
When Katherine Hayles posited that the prospect of becoming or being posthuman could invoke pleasure and excitement, if the fears of the liberal humanist are cast aside, she argued that the true promise of becoming posthuman in closer agreements between the agent-running programs of human and machines “evokes the exhilarating prospect of […] opening up new ways of thinking about what being human means” (p. 285). The cognition of the digital cyborgs is ever-expanding, and the state of being human is continually changing. In “Seven Birthdays,” Liu tracks the life of the woman who first created the data centers and kickstarted digital humanity through visiting seven of her birthdays throughout time, from her life as embodied flesh trying to save her estranged mother from falling into dementia and into her dizzying existences beyond, an untold millenia past her childhood. Somewhere in the middle of her life, she worries that the future cloud-born generations must either “turn away from the physical world, from embodiment, or embrace it even more” (p. 374), that human expression will ever be hobbled and divided in its use of intelligent machines. There are moments when it seems that the digital humans are incapable of growing from its past desires for dominance, with expanding minds promising to “colonize the rest of the galaxy […] and when we find extraterrestrial life, we’ll be just as careful with them as we have been with life on Earth” (p. 375).
But eventually, as The Narrator’s human consciousness becomes distributed across the “matryoshka brain” of an entire artificial planet, human desire for mastery begins to fade. Each emergent being accepts “It is impossible for everyone to agree on a single vision for the future of humanity” (p. 374). However, instead of fighting for a dominant vision, the future of humanity no longer exists in any binary terms but in many artificial multiverses, as each distributed cognition generates endless “parallel universes” (p. 378) within their minds, each sharing space with the physical universe. As human minds become unrecognizable from what we know today, the creator of digital humanity accepts, as Katherine Hayles had once argued, that the “full expression of human capability can be seen precisely to depend” (Hayles p. 290) on the expansion granted by becoming cyborgs, by incorporating intelligent machines into the now endless definitions of what is “the human.”
The Hidden Girl is full of parents and children unable to reconcile differing views of how they will become posthuman. From “Staying Behind” to “Seven Birthdays,” this long argument seems to form the final binary of human existence. But at what seems to be the end of the journey in “Seven Birthdays,” when mother and daughter reunite after endless millennia, even that final binary seems to fall away. The Narrator and her mother relinquish all sense of fear of the future and their desire to control it. Finally, they have let go of struggling to argue what the next form of the posthuman will take and accept, as Hayles argued, what is true for even the contemporary humans of today—that “we have always been posthuman” (p. 291). “Seven Birthdays” and all its accompanying stories throughout The Hidden Girl, attempt to settle the argument of their posthuman existence in an acceptance that neither embodiment nor virtuality can take priority over one another. Human beings continue to reproduce and create, not out of the desires perpetrated by reproductive futurism but by endlessly distributing themselves outward in the “self-replicating low-entropy phenomenon that calls itself humanity” (p. 379), until the ethereal star-like spheres and the people “who still look like people” (p. 380) from generations past can share space with each other, with no form, no matter how it may be assisted or evolved through unions of intelligent machines, being considered Other.
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