Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture by Elaine L. Graham

Review by Tammy Powley

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002, c.288p. ISBN 0-8135-3058-X. $60 hard cover; ISBN 0-8135-3059-8. $23 paper back

[1] In her latest book, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture, Elaine L. Graham explores the question of what it means to be human by examining the role of the "other" in narrative, myth, and pop culture. This "other" may be Mary Shelly's monster from Frankenstein, Star Trek's android, Data, or a cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator. Though these are fictitious characters, they are representative of human identity in the digital and biotechnical world of the twenty-first century. Graham provides these fictional backdrops to allow us to compare current myth to what might become reality, and by examining the connections between technology and these representations of humanity from Western culture, her intent is to help us understand its ultimate impact on who we are and what we might become.

[2] Graham begins her analysis with science fiction because it "demonstrates both the fragility of our own assumptions and the promise of alternatives" (55). Fact and fiction represent as well as create the world rather than replicate it. This is particularly true of techno-narratives, according to the author, who moves from Michel Foucault's theories about the construction of human nature to illustrations of half-human half-animal characters from Greek mythology. These creatures do not conform to nature's expectations, so their differences make them difficult to classify. The result is a demonic label of "monster," but Graham points out that these monsters help us define the limitations of humanism. Frankenstein and the Golem legend are two models used extensively throughout the text to provide examples of exclusion, and the consequence of this is the marginalization of those who are different. Fictional non-humans help us understand what it is to be human because "of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle" (37). It doesn't matter so much that the portrayal is accurate, but it is important to understand how these non-humans developed and to realize they are inventions of humans, and this ultimately helps to shape humanity.

[3] The technology portrayed in science fiction is paralleled with current efforts of bio-technology when Graham compares the movie GATTACA and the Human Genome Project, led in the United States by the Department of Energy and the National Human Genome Research Institute. Political issues of power, which she refers to as "bio-power" (115), begin to significantly overshadow notions of humanity in both these fictional and factual narratives. With the April 2003 completion of the project, which identified the genes comprising human DNA, a multitude of reproductive choices may soon become available. The possible results of these new choices are demonstrated in GATTACA's plot as the protagonist, Vincent, who is "ambitious but biologically flawed" (109), takes on the identity of someone biologically perfect in order to achieve his dream of traveling through space. Those in power have defined what is considered normal, and those who do not fit into this category are socially excluded and limited. Disturbing questions are raised in Graham's comparison: Will the Human Genome Project redefine humanism? If so, who will create this new definition and who will be included in it?

[4] Moving from political concerns, Graham also addresses feminine and even spiritual issues by commenting on the technophobia and technophilia themes pervasive in science fiction, and she continues to refer to these in her analysis through reflections on popular fiction from novels, short stories, and movies. The result is an extremely comprehensive study addressing views from a wide range of theorists: Nietzche, Derrida, Descartes, Heidegger, Bacon. The list continues. Graham seems to successfully tackle her selected topic, one understandably diverse and perhaps a little elusive. Her audience must be able to move from deep theory to contemporary entertainment icons. For a scholarly work, I found this switching back and forth refreshing, though at times a little difficult to follow, but my only real issues with the text are probably more subjective and admittedly based on my own preferences when it comes to the fiction she selected to discuss. For example, while I enjoyed the section on Star Trek's character Data, I felt a little disappointed that she did not give the same attention to Seven of Nine, the epitome of the conflict between technology and humanity. She also devoted an overly large section to the analysis of Frankenstein. I agree that this novel is central to much of her argument, yet I also felt as if it was an reiteration of information that her audience (myself included) would already know.

[5] The casual reader will most likely feel overwhelmed with the breadth of information covered in Elaine L. Graham's book. However, academics interested in subjects of human identity and the impact of technology on society's narrative will find a great deal to consider. The use of science fiction and mythology provide sometimes entertaining and often startling support for her analysis. Graham does not provide answers to the question of "what is human," but she does develop and examine important questions that we should all consider, academics and science fiction fans alike, about the direction of technology in our world and how this will influence our own definition of what is human.