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Author: Sherryl Vint
Title: Theorising the Global: The Limits of Posthuman Subjectivity and Collective Agency in Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
Fall 2005

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Source: Theorising the Global: The Limits of Posthuman Subjectivity and Collective Agency in Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague
Sherryl Vint

vol. 4, no. 2, Fall 2005
Article Type: Essay

Theorizing the Global: The Limits of Posthuman Subjectivity and Collective Agency in Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague

Sherry Vint


This essay argues that Joan Slonczewski's novel Brain Plague offers a model of posthuman as social collective. It suggests self is strengthened through connections to the world rather than dissipated. Through the metaphor of body for body politic, the novel also attempts to argue that our social collective is strengthened through shared agency. However, the novel falters when it attempts to theorize how such shared agency might function beyond a local context.

Narratives of human transformation are staples of science fiction writing. Recently, these narratives have attracted attention from cultural scholars such as Donna Haraway, Anne Balsamo, Katherine Hayles, Andrew Ross, and Heather Schell, who see these texts as sites that explore popular conceptions of what it means to be human and what we envision as the interaction between human individuals and the cultures that produce and are produced by them. The term posthuman has now become the standard both within and beyond the discourse of science fiction (sf) to refer to the transformed subjectivities that will come after our current conception of the human. Like other transformed subjectivities in sf, the posthuman is imagined with both fear and longing, as potentially monstrous or sublime. What is new about the concept of the posthuman is that this discussion is increasingly taking place beyond the discourse of sf as well as within it. As Scott Bukatman argued a decade ago, "There is simply no overstating the importance of science fiction to the present cultural moment, a moment that sees itself as science fiction" (6). His observation has become even truer in the intervening years, as the current discourse on posthumanism demonstrates quite clearly.

Joan Slonczewski's work is aptly positioned on this border between science "real" and science fiction. She is both a microbiologist at Kenyon College and a science fiction writer in the hard sf tradition. In both, she is concerned with the mutual cooperation among species, our lives as parts of collectives rather than as isolated individuals. "Political theory," Slonczewski suggests, is best viewed as "as a subfield of animal behavior [given that] moral codes of behavior that aspire to altruism are entirely compatible with human biology." [1] In her research she explores the relationship between humans and E. coli, asking how and why some strains enhance human digestion while other can cause illness and death. In her fiction, Slonczewski similarly considers how communities can be formed among different subjects with competing interests and needs, how the relationship between the environment and various subjects can be conceived in terms beyond the metaphor of parasitism. Within sf circles, Slonczewski is probably best known for her two sharer novels—A Door into Ocean (1986) and Daughter of Elysium (1993)—and for her two Valen novels—The Children's Star (1998) and Brain Plague (2000).

The Sharer novels explore questions of colonization and the struggle among species to share the resources of a planet. A Door into Ocean contrasts the feminist utopian Sharers with invading, imperial traders in their struggle for control of the world and its resources. The Sharers are able to engineer themselves and their environment through symbiotic bacteria and "lifeshaping," an advanced and organic sort of genetic engineering. This relationship of mutual cooperation and respect with the rest of their world is contrasted in the novel to the imperialist view of the planet as inert resource. As the two groups struggle for control of the planet, we see the conflation of biological and political themes that is characteristic of Slonczewski's work. The Sharer way of life is entirely rooted in their refusal of the self/other boundary; they literally cannot conceive of the possibility of doing harm to another without also harming self, a political and philosophical stance that emerges from how they have chosen to organize their communal relationship with other species on the planet. Thus, this novel establishes Slonczewski's concern with how the ways we conceive of identity constrains and enables various sorts of politics.

The Children Star raises questions about colonization on the biological as well as political level. What are the consequences of trying to colonize a planet whose biology poisons our own? Should we alter the planet to suit us or ourselves to suit the environment? Slonczewski's vision of the ethics of symbiosis, parasitism, and colonization is always nuanced and ambiguous. Both the home planet and the colonized world are heterogeneous culture, sharply divided along power, wealth, and class lines. This novel also emphasizes Slonczewski's concern with the inevitable mutual exchange among coexisting species; as the colonists try to change the planet so that they might survive its alien biology, they find that they are also changed by the native species of Prokaryon. The solution this novel proposes to the question about how the politics of saving an endangered planet provides the basis for Brain Plague. The intelligent but microscopic sentient life whose environment is being destroyed by terraforming is given a new world to colonize: select human bodies, both on and off the planet.

Thus, in Brain Plague, Slonczewski addresses her questions about symbiosis and colonialism to the literal body of a person rather than to the body of the world or the body politic of society. In doing so, she creates posthuman protagonists for this novel, humans whose identity is now both that of an isolated individual within a human community yet also that of collective, symbiotic self/world to the micro population that both lives in yet also is the posthuman subject. As I will argue in more detail below, this shift from building community on a world to building community within the self allows Slonczewski's novel to foreground the degree to which our political possibilities for collectivity were always shaped by the way in which we conceived of self/identity. However, before examining the novel in more detail, I want first to provide some context about how both the posthuman and the collective have functioned as sites of desire and fear within the sf tradition.

The Posthumanism Context

Science fiction has always seen the potential of narratives of human transformation to offer new visions of how human society and community might be formed. In the present age, when the possibilities for genetically-engineered children, enhanced cyber bodies, or direct integration of humans with computers seem just around the corner, mainstream culture has begun to explore these narratives as well. When the posthuman is imagined as a transformation that destroys what it is that "makes us human," producing a monstrous otherness in place of the self, these representations point to an anxiety about purity and about maintaining certain morphological or behavioral limits around human identity. Such an anxiety is revealed, for example, in Octavia Butler's Clay's Ark or Xenogenesis trilogy, where characters display fear and anxiety about the changes in their bodies caused by, respectively, viral transformation and hybrid DNA. Such a fear lies at the core of many popular representations of posthuman transformation: the most famous example is perhaps the Borg of Star Trek. In these visions of the posthuman, the new subjectivity is presented as less than human and as an erasure of self.

However, as Heather Schell argues, narratives of posthuman transformation can often create space for new ways to imagine human subjectivity in a positive light, ways that do not rely on narrow conceptions of human identity that often have racist, homophobic, and sexist premises. As Schell argues in "Outburst! A Chilling True Story about Emerging Virus Narratives and Pandemic Social Change," narratives of transformation are often used by their authors to suggest new models for human identity that are more inclusive. In such narratives, the "infection" or "contamination" that transforms the human into the posthuman becomes an agent of progressive social change in which "The pandemics [reverse] the status quo: viruses transform the disenfranchised into the superhuman, and the empowered into victims of their own former strengths. Weaknesses deemed socially distasteful become assets, while previous standards become disabilities" (126). In "The Sexist Gene: Science Fiction and the Germ Theory of History," Schell further argues that seeing viral diseases as generators of a diversity that makes the community more robust (a metaphor that implicitly values multiculturalism and experimental social forms) might be more useful than thinking of human biology as a site of purity surrounded by defended boundaries.

Representations of the posthuman, then, raise three important questions about how we conceive of human identity and society. First, they ask us to consider the relationship between self and non-self in the formation of identity. The degree to which self is perceived to become non-self through the process of transformation seems to me to open up interesting questions about how identity can be founded on repudiation. If the self is being transformed by or merging with something else to become posthuman, is this relationship figured as an erasure of self, an invasion? Or is it seen as an expansion of self, a possibility that being human might be figured in terms of connection to the world rather than in terms of boundaries between self and non-self? Second, can the vision of posthumanism help us to understand new ways of organizing society? Narratives of transformed identity raise questions about the relationship between humans and posthumans and about new ways of imagining human society in a posthuman context. As Schell argues, it possible to see agents of posthuman transformation as agents of utopian possibility, at least for those subjects excluded or repudiated by current configurations of human identity. Third, the concept of the posthuman raises new questions about collectivity. As boundaries between self and other are erased or compromised in the production of the posthuman, our images of posthuman identity might help us to imagine new ways of thinking of ourselves in terms of collectivities instead of isolated individuals. The utopian possibilities of posthumanism exist because of the presumption that changed subjectivities will produce a changed society. Posthuman discourse is ultimately about the relationship between self and world, not only providing a new model for the self, but also allowing us to imagine "our own interaction with the world in ways that accommodate multiplicity, situated knowledges, and multivocal communication" (Schell "Outburst," 96).

Joan Slonczewski's Brain Plague is an example of posthuman identity that explores all three of these questions and offers a model that makes use of the utopian possibilities inherent in imagining the posthuman. The image of the posthuman that emerges from Slonczewski's novel suggests a model for self that is more, instead of less, than the autonomous liberal humanist subject, and the novel implies that this posthuman agency is an appropriate model for the relationship of self to world. However, the novel fails to theorize a way to integrate its model of collective agency into a global context. Slonczewski's vision of transformative posthumanism remains trapped at the level of individual transformation. The novel implicitly recognizes that what we need is a transformation that allows us to connect local collective agency with a global vision, but it also suggests that theorizing such a connection is extremely complicated, perhaps impossible.

The model of posthumanism in Brain Plague bears remarkable similarities to that proposed by Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman. Hayles argues that we are all already posthuman subjects. Drawing a parallel between the fragmented and split subject of postmodern thought and the posthuman body, Hayles argues that we must abandon the vision of the body as a coherent, single self. This concept of the body as consistent and autonomous simply reintroduces the liberal humanist subject into our ideas about human identity. Instead, Hayles argues, we need a vision of the body as multiple agents with competing desires and plans. The body acts only because of negotiations and power shifts among these agents. There is no central control system that dominates all, but a continuing flux of desires and decisions. Hayles argues that this concept of the posthuman is threatening only to those who believe in an agent that autonomously masters itself and its environment, including the body. If we recognize the relation among "the desire for mastery, an objectivist account of science, and the imperialist project of subduing nature" (Hayles 288), we will see the value offered by a different account of the posthuman subject/body, one in which "emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature" (288).

As I will argue in the rest of this essay, Slonczewski's novel explores both this kind of posthuman subjectivity and the utopian prospects that it makes possible. Crucially, in my view, Slonczewski's posthumanism is one that acknowledges the importance of the body to subjectivity and recognizes that the body is not a single and stable entity but is instead something that is shaped by cultural forces, that changes with time, and that is experienced differently according to how one's particular morphological features are positioned within cultural discourses. This focus on embodiment is also crucial to Haraway's notions of the cyborg. Haraway argues that thinking differently about embodiment, as the metaphor of the cyborg allows us to do, also allows us to think differently about cultural politics and collective identity. In other writings, Haraway has also referred to this concept as taking responsibility for "what we learn how to see" ("Situated Knowledges" 190). Brain Plague is also about learning how to see differently, through a new relationship to embodiment, one that requires us to think of human identity as something that connects us to the rest of the world rather than something that isolates us in the prison of our own minds.

Posthumanism I: New Relation of Self to Non-Self

Slonczewski's novel is set in world populated by Valans (who are the "humans" in the novel), technologically superior Elysians (who are "aliens"), sentient machines (called Sentients), and the genetically modified simians or sims (a laboring class). The main action of the story concerns an artist, Chrys, who agrees to participate in an experiment with brain-enhancing mitochondria. She believes these mitochondria, which live in people's brains, will improve her ability as an artist. When she undergoes the final screening and acceptance process, Chrys learns that the mitochondria (micros) are sentient, and that some of the other people who have micros (carriers) believe the mitochondria should have "human" rights. Chrys also learns that, genetically, the micros are identical to agents of a disease called the brain plague, a condition that renders the human host an agency-less shell, driven to seek out arsenic, which the micros need to live. [2] These shattered humans (called vampires) are a threat to the larger population, as they are forced by their micros to kidnap new victims to serve as hosts once their damaged bodies collapse. The novel explores questions of agency, identity, and subjectivity through the complex interactions among human hosts and micro populations as Chrys struggles to come to terms with her subjectivity, the micros' subjectivity, and the difference between her micros and the plague.

In the background of this struggle, Slonczewski paints a world in which the question of human rights and posthuman subjectivity is crucial. Sentients, intelligent machines, are recognized as agents with legal status in the world of this novel. A hate group called the Sapiens argues for reserving the category of human, with all the entitlement it entails, to Homo sapiens alone. Sapiens commit acts of violence against carriers like Chrys because "they hate any intermingling of human and other. 'Pollution of the blood'" (100-101). Sapiens also target sims, humans who have been genetically modified to increase their simian characteristics. Although "the Sapiens had started out anti-sentient as well as anti-simian," they have reached a point where they call sentients "'virtual humans'" (245), preferring an intelligence entirely other than and separate from humans to the idea of modified human intelligence. Slonczewski makes it clear that, in her alternative fictional world, the desire to preserve a pure human body or subjectivity as the only legitimate mode of subjectivity is fascist.

The posthuman subjectivity represented by Chrys is a model for Hayles's vision of the posthuman subject, "a collection of autonomous agents operating together to make a self" (Hayles 6). The novel explores Chrys's struggle to become this subject, primarily through the trope of the master/slave dialectic as a model for the relationship between human hosts and their micro populations. The relationship of dominance and submission is the only model of integrating self and other that is offered to Chrys. The micros have been trained to consider their human hosts as gods who must be obeyed; the result of disobedience is death for the micro population. As a host, Chrys is responsible for keeping the micro population safe both physically and ideologically; she must "make the rules" (32) in her head so her micro people will be judged acceptable by the Council who monitors all carriers. If her micros are seen to resemble the plague micros, they will be exterminated. This model of Chrys's relationship to her micros thus requires that they remain separate entities; any erasure of such boundaries would threaten not only Chrys's self as theorized by the beginning of the novel, but also the distinction between micros as people and the Masters—micros as disease.

The Masters have resolved the problem of shared agency in a single body by removing the host's agency entirely. They do this by controlling the dopamine center of the brain: "Your will is replaced by their own" (193), as only they control the dopamine-induced euphoria called "Endless Light." The micros are like "smart cocaine," Chrys is warned; "If you don't rule them, they'll rule you" (45). This mode of the master/slave relationship, in which the micros are the Masters and the humans are reduced to shells, is clearly not successful in the novel: the micros must continually seek new hosts as the bodies they occupy wear out, and the hosts' subjectivity is entirely destroyed. By the time the host becomes a vampire, no human agency is left. The body is simply a transport system for the micros as they search for a new host. Once a replacement is found, the old host bites the victim (hence the name vampire), and the micro population is transferred in the exchange of bodily fluids.

In opposition to this model, one of Chrys's fellow carriers, Selenite, represents a resolution that preserves all agency for the human host, making the micros the host's slaves. Selenite argues that micro individuality is only a temporary step in their evolutionary journey and that they will eventually be absorbed into the body of the host as earlier mitochondrial ancestors became part of larger organisms. A micro rights advocate, Daeren, argues against this analogy, pointing out that "mitochondrial ancestors were individual, but mindless. Mindless cells, like any ordinary microbe, at the mercy of natural selection. But micro people are intelligent. They breed their own children, correcting their genes" (129). Selenite refuses to allow her micros—the only population in the novel that is not given a name—this degree of agency. Instead, she believes that if hosts control the breeding, the micros will eventually "merge with [the hosts'] brains—true brain extensions" (129). This model of dominance is also not successful. Selenite's micros are not as advanced as the populations of more sympathetic hosts, and they do not contribute to her intellectual and creative output as they do for other hosts like Chrys. For a viable model of posthuman subjectivity to be articulated, the master/slave dialectic must be transformed; Chrys is this new synthesis.

Both Chrys and her micro population need to learn how to share a single body without violating the autonomy of the other. When she first receives the micros, Chrys is uncomfortable with the notion of pretending to be a god to control them. She questions some of the rules that have been set up for the relationship between carriers and micros, particularly the pretence that humans are infallible and immortal. However, she learns through experience that some mode of authority, even if not the god pretence, is necessary if she doesn't wish to become a slave. One of the complications of living with micro populations is that they live on a time scale that is radically different from the human one. When Chrys forgets to frequently contact her micros (during a 10 hours sleep), she finds herself in emergency medical care because "the micros decided, after ten years of silence, they could do a better job of running your body than you could yourself" (82). From this point on, Chrys is more wary in her relationship with the micros, fearing a repetition of this decision to subvert her will.

Ultimately, however, the novel argues for a more equitable approach that acknowledges the individuality and agency of micros and hosts. The idea that shared agency can extend the possibilities for each individual self rather than erase its subjectivity is explored in the novel through the question of intellectual ownership of Chrys's art. After she becomes host to the micros, Chrys's artistic practice changes. Able to see infrared light, Chrys has struggled with the problem of trying to create her inner vision in a form that other humans who do not have her genetic anomaly can share. Before Chrys becomes a carrier, a fellow artist tells her that what she needs is "a sentient studio—an intelligent partner to project your vision" (13). She finds precisely this kind of partner in the micros. Working on a piece she was struggling with before becoming a carrier, Chrys asks a micro, Poppy, "how can I help other people to see it as I do?" (55). Poppy suggests a new palette of colors for the work, a solution that satisfies Chrys. However, Chrys is left with doubts about the fact that this contribution "was more than just a shifted wavelength; an aesthetic choice was made, a choice Chrys could not have made herself. The results were exciting; but were they hers alone?" (56). Chrys decides to add the symbol for Azetidine, a chemical that stimulates the micros, to her cat's eye artist signature on the piece, to signal its collaborative origins.

As the novel progresses, Chrys continues to struggle with the problem of shared agency and shared intellectual ownership of the art that she produces collectively with the micros. She eventually comes to see that, while the pieces are no longer hers alone, they are also not something that the micros could do without her input. Her art takes a new direction, creating portraits of micro people: the subject of this work clearly comes from the relationship with the micros, but the idea of creating the portraits belongs to Chrys. Neither could produce the portraits without the input of the other.

Chrys now has "more than a dozen collaborators in her head" (249) as she works, but the sharing of this work does not make the art any less Chrys's. Her later work is described by a gallery owner as that of "Azetidine, collectively" (208), acknowledging that it is more than what Chrys could do before the micros, but also that it is not the micros alone who have produced it. The collection of agents that make up Chrys's self thus does not diminish the self that she was before the micros; instead, the collaboration augments the self. The process of naming in the novel also emphasizes collective agency; human hosts give names to the micro representatives with whom they interact, and the micro populations give names to their hosts. Chrys is called the God of Mercy by her people, and she often feels a need to live up to the expectations that such a name invokes. The character of micro populations also shifts with the hosts they occupy. The micro people "mirro[r] their own gods" (168), and because "the God of Mercy cared for ideas of any sort, of all colors on the palette," Eleutheria experiences its "most creative period of history" (168) while with Chrys. Thus, within the body politic that is Chrys herself, a fertile posthuman self is embraced through the erasure of boundaries and the rejection of the concept of self as isolated. The novel, however, is concerned not only with collectivity within the posthuman self, but also with how such posthuman selves exist among other subjects.

Posthuman II: New Relation of Self to Society

This idea that collective agency is more than individual agency is further emphasized through the character of Daeren, an activist for micro rights. Daeren is actively involved in saving those humans who have been corrupted by the Masters. Near the end of the novel, Daeren himself is colonized by the Masters, his agency erased by "Endless Light," the continual stimulation of the dopamine center that erases the host's subjectivity. Chrys is able to rescue Daeren's body from this fate, but she cannot rescue his mind as without continual dopamine high Daeren's continued life seems more like a living death to him. Most carriers in this situation are required to give up their people since the temptation to have the micros stimulate the dopamine center is considered too much for a human in this shattered state to resist. Chrys successfully argues that Daeren should be allowed to keep his micros, who prove to be the ones who can rescue the mind that Chrys cannot reach. Their refusal to submit to Daeren's demands for Endless Light ironically allow Daeren to return to a fuller sort of agency than he had as an autonomous self. Through this experience, Daeren comes to realize that his "self" is constituted by both his desires and those of the micros; he can no longer think of them as separate and competing entities.

Chrys experiences a similar realization in her collaboration with the Eleutherians on architecture. Initially, Chrys is uncertain about her role, as she does not have any architectural experience. She becomes involved in this work because one of the Eleutherians' architectural projects, created with a previous host, needs repair. Buildings are intelligent technology in this future; although they have not achieved the self-awareness that would entitle them to human rights, they do grow and change with time along parameters programmed into their design. This building's growth has made it structurally unsound, and only the Eleutherians, who were involved in its design, are believed capable of correcting the problem. Initially, Chrys has to convince the micros that it is worthwhile to do maintenance work; they arrogantly believe they should concern themselves only with creating the new. Chrys's influence shapes the Eleutherian population toward an ethos of responsibility, encouraging them to repair their earlier work and to offer service contracts on their new buildings. Although Chrys is initially anxious, it becomes clear that her ethical contribution is as important as the Eleutherians' technical knowledge.

Ultimately, both Chrys and the Eleutherians learn how to share agency and to avoid a repetition of the rebellion incident in which the micros attempted to run Chrys's body. At first, Chrys must continually have the vigilance to say "No" to the prospect of Endless Light. The micros simply do not understand why giving pleasure to their host could be wrong. Both Chrys and the micros learn that the way of the Masters which makes a slave of the host is a mistaken path when they contact the Masters and explore the possibility of Endless Light under the influence of Rose, a micro refugee saved by Chrys when one of the Masters' vampires dies without finding a host. Chrys takes the ideas of all her people seriously, and so she gives fair hearing to Rose's ideas about Endless Light. When Rose first arrives, she announces, "Gods are a fiction. All talk of gods is the people's cocaine" (150), echoing Chrys's reservations about pretended godhood. [3] Rose tells Chrys that the path of Endless Light, when not betrayed as it is by the corrupted vampires she has seen, is the path of the Ultimate Truth that "all people are one. All sisters are as one cell" (150). Endless Light, according to Rose, avoids the corruptions of Eleutheria, a society Rose claims is plagued by "homeless, jobless, pitiful outcasts" (150).

Chrys is sympathetic to Rose's vision of a society of plenitude and is willing to pursue the promises that Endless Light might offer. The Eleutherians, influenced by Rose and Chrys's sympathy with the ideal, allow Chrys to be kidnapped by the leader of the Masters. When Chrys arrives at the place of Endless Light, she finds that the human hosts are "all thin and pale, seemed mostly asleep, although some sat up in chairs, their eyes glazed, rocking" (285). The human are mere shells, no longer desiring anything but dopamine. The micros within them also suffer, deprived of adequate supplies of arsenic because its distribution is restricted. The Masters manipulate the hosts into giving up everything to obtain arsenic, but both hosts and micros are starving in this union of mutual exploitation. The Eleutherians are shocked to discover the state of the human hosts and of the populations who inhabit these decrepit bodies. The Eleutherians vote to override Rose and leave Endless Light, concluding "We have nothing to learn here. Half starved, overrunning their habitat; lacking even civil discourse, they follow authoritarian control" (287).

The Eleutherians and Chrys learn that the promise of Endless Light is empty for both micros and humans. By overriding the will of their human hosts, the micro populations doom themselves to mere subsistence, barely surviving on the small bits of arsenic that they can force their hosts to buy on the black market. By neglecting their hosts' health, these micro populations pollute their environment—the hosts' bodies—and need to expand continually into new territory. Eleutheria, in contrast, has a plentiful supply of arsenic that is consumed by Chrys in exchange for cooperative rather than exploitative sharing of her body. At the same time, Chrys becomes aware that she would be helpless before the dopamine overload planned by Rose if the other Eleutherians had not helped Chrys to escape. After this incident, Chrys no longer needs to worry about the Eleutherians' desire to take over her body; they have all realized that unless they work together to create a collective agency, none of them will have a good chance for survival. This is confirmed later, when Chrys despairs over a failed love relationship and tells the micros that they may "do as [they] will" (305); they refuse to let her fall into the sensual abandonment of dopamine overload because preserving Chrys's agency is more important than alleviating her immediate pain. Thus, the novel contrasts a bad collectivity in which all being one demands the erasure of individual identity and instead posits a collectivity of shared agency, one in which the dialectic between the individual and the collective is never collapsed.

By the end of the novel, Chrys has reconciled herself to the idea of shared agency with the micro people, recognizing that they augment her subjectivity. Instead of worrying about whether her art is "really hers" or what she contributes to the Eleutherians' building projects, Chrys celebrates the fact that they share collective agency without sacrificing individual autonomy. This model of identity and agency is very different from a liberal humanist one, which makes absolute autonomy the primary basis for both subjectivity and agency. In Slonczewski's version of posthuman identity, self and agency are not identical, and neither needs to be established through the separation of self from others. Chrys has not lost herself in sharing her agency and giving up the illusion of autonomy; instead, her "self" has been enhanced by the joining. The idea of being an isolated and autonomous individual now frightens Chrys; she remembers, "Living alone. Even when she lived with Topaz, she could remember waking up nights in the dark, Topaz fast asleep with her back turned, feeling alone, totally alone in the universe. She recalled it as a fact outside herself; she could no longer imagine, now, what aloneness meant" (328). Just as she has extended rather than lost her subjectivity and agency by sharing it with Eleutheria, her art has become stronger because of their combined efforts. Musing on the tongue-in-cheek description of non-carrier humans as virgin territory, and remembering how her early art failed to communicate her infra-red artistic vision to her audience, Chrys concludes, "'Wilderness without people'—that would describe most of her past work. But now she would start something a bit different" (105). By sharing her artistic decisions with the micros, Chrys is no longer isolated in an artistic vision that she can't communicate.

Chrys and the micros develop the concept of endless life to describe their collectivity of mutual agency and contrast this to the false promises of Endless Light. Announcing their new building project, the city Silicon, Chrys describes it in terms of the "lights" that Eleutheria uses to describe itself symbolically: "Silicon was designed by the lights of Eleutheria. The light of Truth, ever true to its nature; of Beauty, the kind of beauty to draw the awe of generations; of Sacrifice . . . " (384, ellipses in the original). Chrys's speech concludes with, "the Eighth Light of Mercy" (384). This light of mercy is Chrys herself, the Eleutherians' God of Mercy, suggesting that this project and all their future work will be, like Chrys's art, a collective effort. Eleutheria with Chrys is more than it was before, just as Chrys is more with micros than alone. Finally, Chrys concludes, "Eleutheria is a way of being, a path of endless life. All those who seek to build in truth and memory shall find our way" (384); she is echoing Forget-Me-Not, an earlier micro leader, who said of the micros' identity, "in truth, Eleutheria is no genetic race, nor a physical place, but a way of being, a path of endless life. All those who seek to build in truth and memory shall find our way" (372). This way of being in the world, seeking endless life, is the mission of this posthuman agent. The novel here distinguishes between endless life and Endless Light: the posthuman agent is endlessly connected to all other life, rather than isolated and blinded by Endless Light. This term alludes to the Enlightenment as a source of the liberal humanist model of the autonomous and isolated self. In choosing endless life and a posthuman self over Endless Light and an Enlightenment one, Slonczewski's posthuman agents rely on a vision of embodiment and identity that is similar to Haraway's cyborg: it is a subjectivity characterized by embodiment and collectivity rather than a reified identity rooted in genetics or other systems of differentiation.

Slonczewski's micros seem to me to be positioned similarly to Haraway's cyborg. Like the cyborg, they are creatures of "social reality as well as [creatures] of fiction" (149), metaphors drawn from contemporary science who might also serve as potent myths for rethinking ourselves and our politics. The social realities that Haraway imagines her cyborgs inhabiting are beyond the divisions of gender, class, race, and orientation. Haraway points out that her cyborgs are "the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins" (151). The micros in Slonczewski's work are the offspring of cross-species parasitism, environmental destruction, and imperialism. However, perhaps they, too, can prove unfaithful to these origins and offer a model for posthuman identity that moves beyond the liberal humanism that informs both our classical concepts of self as autonomous and self-owned and also the logic of expansion that lies at the root of colonialism and science as the domination of nature. Even Chrys's positive rapprochement with her micros is still rooted in a notion of self as individually and creatively expressive. However, I believe that the diffuse sense of self that is also part of this posthumanism contains the beginnings of a more utopian and inclusive way to conceive of identity as part of rather than distinct from world, a way to become posthuman in attitude if not in biology.

In order to explore the utopian vision that I believe is inherent in Slonczewski's posthumanism, I will situate my analysis of the novel in terms of Carl Freedman's arguments about science fiction in Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Freedman contends that science fiction is a privileged mode for thinking critically about technology, human culture, and the possibility of a utopian future. According to Freedman, science fiction occupies this privileged space because, like critical theory, it

insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility. Of all genres, science fiction is thus the one most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory. The science-fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes. (xvi)

In exploring the "difference that such difference makes," the reader necessarily sees that the world he or she inhabits is contingent, not necessary. This knowledge opens the space for imagining that world otherwise.

Freedman bases his argument on Darko Suvin's definition of science fiction as "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" (Metamorphosis 5). Building on Suvin's definition, Freedman argues that science fiction

is determined by the dialectic between estrangement and cognition. The first term refers to the creation of an alternative fictional world that, by refusing to take our mundane environment for granted, implicitly or explicitly performs an estranging critical interrogation of the latter. But the critical character of the interrogation is guaranteed by the operation of cognition, which enables the science-fictional text to account rationally for its imagined world and for the connections as well as the disconnections of the latter to our own empirical world. (16-17)

What is crucial about Freedman's argument is that he focuses attention on the relationship between sf representations and critical engagements with the material world outside sf. My interest in the posthuman is predicated on the conviction that models of posthuman agency are integrally tied to assumptions about human identity and agency in the present, material world. Exploring models of posthuman that offer liberating metaphors of self and society is important precisely because our traditional models of understanding perpetuate the old ideologies. The transformative potential of sf lies in its ability to change the way we understand the world; as the way we understand the world changes, so might the way we create it. Slonczewski's micros perform precisely this mental operation, asking cognitive questions about posthuman identity and collective agency and estranging these questions by replacing the idea of collectivity in the relationships among humans with the idea of collectivity as relationships within a single human body. I'm interested in exploring what difference this difference can make, what possibilities for embodying a positive posthuman subjectivity and expressing collective agency without eliminating difference this novel allows us to see. Does this tension between cognitive engagement and estrangement allow Slonczewski to lead her readers both to question the stable, liberal humanist self that is often seen as the antithesis of the posthuman, yet also to recognize this alternative model for subjectivity as something possible in the material world?

Posthuman III: New Theorization of Social Collectivity

My analysis thus far has focused on the estrangement side of the science fiction dialectic, the way posthuman subjectivity and collective agency are configured in an alternative world where one's body is shared with intelligent mitochondria. Now, I'd like to focus more explicitly on the cognition side of this dialectic, and how the novel forces us to apply its ideas about collective agency and posthuman subjectivity to our empirical world. In Brain Plague, this cognitive engagement emerges in the connections that can be made between the human body shared by many subjects in the novel and the idea of the body politic shared among subjects in the external world. The novel itself suggests these parallels by drawing connections between the debates about the proper social organization for micro people—Endless Light, submission along Selenite's model, or shared agency and endless life in Chrys's model—and for the larger world of human subjects and political organizations that Chrys inhabits. The novel characterizes the Masters and Endless Light in terms recognizable as a reactionary American understanding of Soviet communism, and Eleutheria—the society of the Eleutherians—as a culture recognizable as an American land of opportunity. The novel suggests that just as individual needs must be balanced with collective needs within the body of a micro host, individual and collective needs must also be balanced in the social struggle for utopia.

The wider political analogy—the body of host as the body politic of society—is evident from the beginning of the novel. Chrys learns that the micros have invented the neuroports, a cybernetic implant that allows the human eye to interface with optical technology. Chrys, still adjusting to the news that the micros are genetically identical to the brain plague, panics at this news: "Micros designed the neuroports, for sale all over Valedon—to help the micros spread. Suddenly it dawned on her. She looked at the doctor, then back to the agent. 'They're taking over—and you help them'" (35). The agent responds by linking her fear to xenophobia: "'[People] always say that, about the latest new immigrants: "They'll take over"'" (35). From this comment, the analogy between micros and humans sharing a body and various kinds of subjects sharing the geographical space in the world is established. The problems of collective agency that micros and hosts must resolve also must be negotiated in the larger social world, where many subjects with competing interests struggle to occupy the same planet and share the same resources.

As I suggested above, one of the ways that Slonczewski suggests this parallel is through her critical representation of the Sapiens League, as she demonstrates the irrational prejudice of an ethos that believes some sentient subjects are entitled to more rights than others. However, Chrys is also concerned about the more widespread and subtle economic exploitation that is prevalent in her society. At the beginning of the novel, before she has made her fortune selling micro portraits, Chrys is struggling financially. She agrees to participate in the micro program in part because she needs money by the end of the day to pay her rent or she will be evicted from her apartment. Although once she becomes a carrier Chrys has to leave her old neighborhood (because the Sapiens attack her home), she never forgets the experience of living in poverty or the value of the lives of those who continue to do so. As she moves into the affluent social circle of other carriers, she continually points out the juxtaposition of great wealth and waste with the poverty that she sees. The extravagance of the wealthy class is evident in scenes such as a "sim push[ing] another in a wheelchair, while a better-off couple passed cloaked in air-conditioned chinchilla from head to toe" (140-141). On another occasion, she is upset to see "a simian boy in a ragged red coat [holding] out a tin cup, imitating a street player's monkey. Playing to the stereotype, for a few credits" (195). Waste of food is one of Chrys's chief objections to the decadent lifestyle of the affluent. Observing the extravagant number of courses at one banquet, she muses to herself, "How the other half a percent eats" (128). At another feast, she notes that a dish was "shipped across the light-years from two different worlds, when a synthesizer could have done as well" (202). Inequities in social services are also foregrounded. One evening at the soup kitchen where Chrys volunteers, one man fatally stabs another. Chrys herself is cut in this encounter as she tries to disarm the aggressor, but she has access to Plan Ten (the best) medical services because of her participation in the micro project. The medical technicians immediately arrive to treat her. However, they refuse to treat the stabbed victim, who is bleeding to death, because they are Plan Ten technicians and only treat Plan Ten patients. Plan One (available to all) technicians, who will treat the destitute man, do not respond as quickly and might not even come at all. The reader is thus made aware of inequities in access to food, shelter, and health care as Chrys adjusts to her new social status.

After the stabbing incident, Chrys discovers that one of her micro leaders, Jonquil, has been lost. The Eleutherians inform her that a year has passed, one hour in Chrys's time, since Jonquil went out to patrol the blood, and that they have given up hope of her return. As she reflects upon this loss, Chrys establishes a direct connection between her responsibility as the "body" of Eleutheria and the body politic's responsibility for all of its citizens: "Jonquil was dead—lost in that rush of blood from her arm. Mopped up and gone forever. Chrys sank down onto a bench and rested her elbows on the long table, sinking her head into her hands. 'I'm so sorry. I should have known.' Instead, she'd ignored them, just as the city ignored her calls" (237). This passage encourages us to apply the political struggles between micros and hosts who share a body to external struggles among groups of subjects who share the resources of the planet. Eleutheria is a microcosm for the larger social world and shares its problems of just distribution of resources. When Eleutheria was young and had a limited population, "everyone shared alike; but now, as their world neared a million strong, some, like Jonquil, grew rich enough to spend all their palladium in the nightclubs, whereas others floated by with nothing" (117). The concentration of capital has resulted in a society where some have access to all the resources, and others have access to none. It is this situation that Rose objects to when she calls Eleutheria "a sham. Corrupted, untrue to its founding principles. "World of opportunity"—what falsehood. See all the beggars floating homeless in the veins" (223). The idea of Eleutheria as a "world of opportunity" alludes to America's self-image as the land of opportunity, a place where all, in theory, have an equal chance to succeed and to share in the material prosperity of the nation.

The reality is often otherwise because of corruption or greed or simple mismanagement, which is why the ideal of Endless Light remains appealing. Initially, Endless Light does seem to provide the model on the micro scale for the problems that Chrys is concerned about in the macro world. Rose preaches of Endless Light in terms reminiscent of Marxism. Chrys asks Rose how the Masters deal with the homeless mutants, those micros so deformed that they cannot contribute to the overall community and hence are prevented from breeding. Rose answers, "from each according to ability, to each according to need" (150). When Endless Light is revealed to be an exploitative facade rather than a true utopia, the other Eleutherians see that the problem with the Masters is that their relations with one another and with their hosts remain rooted in hierarchy rather than the true collectivity they promise:

Nothing, not even generations of life in freedom, could dissuade Rose from the conviction that the Leader she was taught to revere since birth held the way of truth; the way for all people to live as one. But indeed, the masters of Endless Light continued to believe. But where they saw light, Fireweed saw only ignorance and want. People who claimed to live 'each for all,' but in fact they lived only to master and outgrow their host—dying with their host, all but a dubious few who escaped to perpetuate the ghastly cycle. (289)

The way of the Masters, like the way of the elite world Chrys criticizes, allows some to prosper because of the suffering of many. This model of collectivity, which requires the sacrifice of individuality of the host and most micros for the sake of a few, is not a successful posthumanism.

The Masters are clearly the villains in this work; however, Slonczewski insists that although we recognize the failings of this version of socialism, we do not simply reject the notion of collective agency as a model for social life. The sort of vulgar Marxism rejected by Brain Plague is that of a hierarchy masquerading as a collectivity rather than that of a true collectivity. The novel is a critique of a certain way of producing collectivity (as oppression and erasure of individuality) rather than a critique of the idea of collectivity itself, just as it is a critique of a certain kind of posthumanism that positions the liberal humanist subject as the center of all meaning and agency rather than a rejection of posthumanism entirely. As I discussed above, the novel presents three models of posthuman identity in terms of the relation of self to other that is necessitated by the micros/human liaison: all agency goes to the micros (the plague), all agency goes to the host (Selenite's model of absorption) or shared agency among micros and humans (Chrys).

Similarly, the novel seems to suggest that we have these three models when considering how to organize social collectives on the macros scale. The model proposed by the Masters represents what is worst about socialism if it is collapsed into totalitarianism (as in the Soviet model). The individual is entirely subordinated to the collective to the detriment of both. When thinking about the wasteful banquet, Chrys wonders, "was microbial dopamine any more immoral than serving a meal ten times bigger than anyone could possibly eat?" (202). The Masters destroy their hosts' bodies through dopamine manipulations; the social order destroys the bodies of those it ignores through neglect and material deprivation. But this same exploitation and neglect is also apparent in the model represented by Selenite, the model of capitalist class exploitation also critiqued in the larger novel as I suggested above. In this case the individual is not simply subordinated to the collective, but is in fact absorbed by it. The Eleutherian collective breeding program which eliminates the weak through attrition—paralleled in the macro world to the elimination of the poor through lack of healthcare and food—is no more a real collectivity. When the metaphor of body as body politic is made literal, it becomes ridiculous to think of parts of the social body as if they could function in isolation from one another, as if they might have various degrees of health without the problems of one affecting the other.

The novel struggles to try to present a third way, a model of social collectivity as shared agency, where identity is neither subsumed nor erased into the collective. On the individual level, this was accomplished by Chrys's sense of herself and Eleutheria as the collective artist Azetidine. Such shared agency is much more difficult for the novel to represent on the macro world level, however. It does seem worth noting here, though, that this sort of collectivity prefigured through Chrys as posthuman character does correspond to a model of collectivity that is much truer to Marx's own depiction of true human collectivity under socialism than is the vision of the Masters and Endless Light as articulated by Rose. In The German Ideology, Marx writes

Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. [4]

Thus, true collectivity in Marxist terms is much like the model of posthumanism offered by Chrys: the individual is more free—if less autonomous—within a collective. Isolation from community is the true loss of identity, not diffuse identity spread across the community.

Chrys's family provides another perspective on the idea that collective posthuman subjectivity should be a model for social organization. Chrys's brother suffers from a lung ailment that could be treated if the family had a high enough level of health-care coverage. When Chrys becomes wealthy, she purchases such coverage for her brother, but Chrys's parents refuse the gift. Her family lives in a remote community that is small enough to operate by the norms of communal life. The neighbors all know one another, share common ethics, and help one another with the agricultural tasks that are their livelihood. Chrys's father asks her, "How can a man eat his fill when his neighbors go hungry?" (151). He recounts the medical problems of other members of his community, asking, "Who shall help them? Shall our son walk among them like a god?" (152). The simile echoes Chrys's discomfort with taking on the role of the micros' god, and the implications of her apparently generous impulse become clear when her mother warns her that she is on "a dark path . . . a path empty of light and love" (152). To her parents, the fact that Chrys could think to give her brother help that is denied to the rest of the community suggests that Chrys has fallen into moral darkness. Like the false Endless Light, the selective limitation of one's social responsibility to only one's immediate family members and friends—those like oneself—produces only a false utopia. Chrys must learn to see the collective identity she shares with the Eleutherians, in which her self is bigger than her own agency, as a model for the shared community with the world. She solves the problem by providing health care for the entire valley, not at Plan Ten as she had planned for her brother, but at Plan Six (a more than adequate level for non-extravagant needs), and thus all share the resources equally.

Clearly, this model of socialism works best in small communities like her family's village or the Eleutherian community in its early days. However, the novel challenges us to find a way to extend the collective agency of posthuman subjectivity to a collective community of shared interests. By the end of the novel, the Eleutherians have embarked upon a project to rebuild the Underworld, making safe and reasonable housing for all those subjects—the sims, the poor, the vampires—who live on the fringes of the wealthy world inhabited by their hosts. They believe they can enact such a change within the macro world because they have been effective in creating more equitable structures within their own community, overcoming some of the limitations Rose diagnosed without going to the extremes of Endless Light. Just as Chrys has learned to extend her sense of community to all the inhabitants of the valley rather than simply her immediate family members, the Eleutherians have learned to extend their sense of responsibility for the gods from Chrys herself, to Daeren (with whom Chrys forms a romantic relationship), and finally to all the gods, even those who remain "virgin" territory. This model of collective agency also leads to knowledge which is shown to be good for both the subjects and the larger collective. Instead of the false path of Endless Light, Eleutheria now identifies itself as the path of endless life, an ethos that includes all life and celebrates the posthuman transgression of boundaries. The Eleutherians will celebrate and care for life where and as they find it as their concept of collectivity moves ever outward, seeing no end to their scope of responsibility, not as masters who must care for their subjects but as fellow agents who only grow by sharing their agency.

Other carriers are initially skeptical about the Eleutherians' plan to create a utopia in place of the Underworld, arguing with Chrys that this improving impulse is doomed to failure:

Selenite crossed her arms. "It's absurd. You can't just rebuild the Underworld. Public housing is always a failure."

"That's right." Jasper's jaw jutted forward. "I should know, I grew up in it. We sims don't want fancy designers messing around down there. Property values rise, we get shoved out."

"Quite true."

"We know you have a good heart," Selenite added, "but you have to understand, the Underworld has always been there. Every society has an Underworld." (382)

Rather than argue with them, Chrys merely acknowledges their right to their opinions and advises them to refuse the Eleutherians' fund-raising efforts given their reservations. When asked why she "allows" the Eleutherians to work on this project when she also has doubts, Chrys replies, "My people have done well for me. I like to humor them. I can spare a few million credits" (382). Although Chrys characterizes her actions as "humouring" her micros, her acquiescence can also be understood in terms of the collective agency that has been developed. Chrys respects the Eleutherians' autonomy and is willing to cooperate in a venture that is important to them, as part of the give and take required of a collection of autonomous agents that form a self, that is, a posthuman subject. She also suggests something of the ethos of taking larger responsibility for sharing a planet in her notion that she can spare a few million credits. Although it is not guaranteed success, the Eleutherian housing project is a better use of money than air-conditioned chinchilla coats or banquets that will never be eaten. The novel ends before we learn of the Eleutherians' success or failure, but the fact that they obtain donations from both Selenite and Jaspers suggests that the social ethos developed by the Eleutherians and Chrys has the potential to expand and transform the larger society.

This ideal of endless life is the novel's answer to the question about how to live collectively, whether the collectivity is the posthuman one of multiple agents sharing a single body or the political one of multiple subjects sharing a planet. Rose, the Master refugee who tries to convert Chrys to Endless Light, admits just before her death that the Masters offer a false path. However, despite this disappointment, Rose remains committed to the search for a more ethical and just way to live in the world with others. The importance of the vision of collective agency as posthuman subjectivity is the final message Rose leaves with Eleutheria:

You know how I spent my life, my endless quest for light. Betrayed, time after time, until the end, when I myself was the betrayer . . . .This is most essential—remember. Never give up seeking. No matter how many times betrayed, no matter how obsessed with your work, no matter how dangerous the quest—never end your search for light. (291)

This sense that we should never end our search for light offers hope for the future that Chrys and Eleutheria might be able to build in the macro world of the novel. Despite doubts about its efficacy, the project to rebuild the Underworld is a step on the path of endless life. Even if it fails, what is important is that they will continue to try.

In its representation of Chrys and Eleutheria's ability to overcome the master/slave dialectic and create a form of collective agency that adds to rather than overwrites the individual agents who are its parts, Slonczewski's novel offers a positive vision of posthumanism. This posthumanism embraces the distributed cognition and dynamic partnership among human and non-human agents that is the promise of an ethical posthumanism as theorized by Hayles. In its rejection of the master/slave dialectic, the novel also points to the complicity of the liberal humanist subject's autonomy in projects of domination. This is not a posthumanism rooted in the fantasy of escape velocity, but instead one that assures us that our only hope for survival lies in learning to live ethically and responsibly with one another. Finally, it suggests that the posthuman collective agency modeled by Chrys and Eleutheria can be extended into the macro world as part of the project to create a feasible utopia that lives up to its promises.

The final question I'd like to turn to is whether Brain Plague provides a successful model of the dialectic between cognition and estrangement that Freedman argues makes science fiction the privileged mode for critically interrogating our current cultural moment. The novel has explored a question central to Leftist thinking, namely, how to organize collective agency without sacrificing individual autonomy. Can we move from the alternative world of the novel to a critical interrogation of our own world and its various masters and slaves? In logic, the power of the dialectic is that it overcomes both thesis and antithesis, each of which can represent only one side of the question. Brain Plague suggests that the posthuman might be neither sublime nor monstrous, but rather a new mode of collective existence. This collective agency might not require the sacrifice of individual autonomy, but would involve the recognition that the agencies of others count equally with one's own: Chris and Eleutheria learn that they can both be more when they share agency and responsibility. Although the end of the novel has not solved the problems of Chrys's society—poverty, lack of opportunity, unequal distribution of resources, prejudice and discrimination—we are left with the message that working on them is the next and continuing project. Chrys and Eleutheria needed time to work out their collective agency, leaving us with the hope that those in the larger society might do so as well.

However, this is precisely the space in which the limits of posthuman agency also emerge most clearly in the novel. Theorizing the global is precisely what this novel is unable to do. The theory of endless life over Endless Light does privilege connection to the world over individual transcendence; the cooperative work of Chrys and the micros suggests a model for shared agency that enhances rather than diminishes the self. The new kinds of agents formed by the transformative power of the micros do suggest possibilities for new models of community organization that implicitly privilege situated knowledges and multiculturalism. However, like the model of the village from which Chrys's parents come, the new community works because it is local and hence manageable. The novel is less clear about how such collective agency might work on a global scale. To be fair, the novel is not explicitly concerned with extending its theorisation in such a direction. However, I do think that it is worth exploring the ways in which the novel fails to be able to narrate its vision of posthuman collectivity beyond the micro populations or the limited village communities if only because such a failure puts into clear focus the difficulties in trying to imagine—let alone create—a collectivity that balances individual freedom with collective responsibility and agency. Thus, if the micros are going to be more than a fantasy model for how we might reconceive identity, if they are really to serve also as a potent metaphor for how such newly-imagined identity might also enable us to create different communities, it is important to consider the limits Slonczewski encounters in her posthuman tale.

The novel's inability to deal with the global context is revealed in a number of ways beyond the pessimism about the project to rebuild the Underworld. For instance, the cooperative relationship for sharing the body that Chrys and the Eleutherians develop is predicated, in part, on the micros' need for arsenic, whose supply Chrys controls. As we saw above, the novel explores various permutations of this relationship and its inherent power dynamic in the contrast between Chrys, Selenite, and the Masters. However, what the novel leaves unhorsed is the relationship between the hosts' access to arsenic and the global economy of Valen. Although arsenic was naturally occurring and plentiful on the planet on which the micros evolved, it is a carefully controlled substance available only to the wealthy on Valen. Chrys's status as a carrier automatically ensures her access to a sufficient supply, something the novel does not explore as part of its consideration of Chrys's relationship to the wider economy. Similarly, there is a multi-world empire that lies in the background of this story, one whose domination by the Elysians is another unexplored aspect of the connection between global and local existence; it is this very domination that ensures that Valen has a supply of arsenic procured from elsewhere. Chrys attempts only to imagine the interconnection between herself and other people within her own city, and even this level of theorizing proves elusive.

Second, although the novel argues for a vision of wide-scale collective agency through its representation of the micros, the limits of narrative form mean that our experience of the micro society is filtered through Chrys's perceptions of a few individual micros, while the millions who truly make up the collectivity are relegated to the background of the text. Although the decisions of Eleutheria are always presented as the collective judgment of all members of this society, in practice Chrys and the reader become acquainted with only a few individuals who are named within the text and given distinct personalities and dialogue. On the one hand, this can be seen as a limitation of the novel as a material object, one whose need for plot development and marketable length precludes the creation of individual identities for all the millions of micro individuals. On the other hand, this very formal limit points to the problem of trying to imagine global agency on a collective scale in any context. Although Slonczewski makes it clear that the perspective of the world is what we need if we are to imagine progressive posthuman subjectivities and communities, she also shows us the difficulty of fully imagining and representing this global vision.

The failure to imagine and represent collectivity on a global scale within the structure of the novel itself thus points to the more pressing problem that we cannot use or implement in the material world ideas that we find difficult to imagine in the fictional one. I want to return here to thinking of the novel in Freedman's terms, as something that explores the dialectic between cognition and estrangement. I have argued that Brain Plague engages with three crucial questions raised about posthuman identity and collective agency: the relationship between self and non-self that is envisioned by the concept of the posthuman, the relationship between transforming self and transforming society implicit in the vision of new subjectivity, and the perspective on collective or global agency that is implicit in a vision of posthuman identity in which identity is produced by connections to others rather than through repudiation. I have further argued that through an analogy between the individual body and the idea of the body politic, Slonczewski is ultimately interested in asking questions about collective political agency among subjects in a global system, using the sf technique of estrangement to displace the idea of collectivity in the relationships among humans with the idea of collectivity as relationships within a single human body. The novel seems to falter in that it is unable to theorize a return displacement, from the idea of collective agency within the body being shared by millions of agents to the idea of collective agency on the globe being shared by millions of human subjects. Slonczewski can only gesture toward this possibility rather than fully representing it. However, despite this limitation, I think that Brain Plague still offers sufficient material for us to understand the importance of our metaphors for self and society even if we are unable to envision a perfect solution. The novel is asking questions that may lead us to imagine some answers.

Brain Plague leaves us with a vision of endless life and connection rather than Endless Light and transcendence. Our subjectivity and agency are not limited by our corporeal being but are defined by our ability to make connections and collectivities. Hayles has argued that an ethical posthumanism is one in which "dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanist subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature" (288). Slonczewski's novel offers one way to imagine such a dynamic partnership through the cooperative agency of Chrys and Eleutheria. It further suggests that it is not only our relationship to nature that might be changed if we rethought our conception of the posthuman, but also our relationship to others in the body politic. The tension between cognition and estrangement recognizes the metaphor of body for body politic; making this metaphor literal by combining intelligent alien mitochondria with a technologically modified posthuman allows Brain Plague to imagine the consequences of our theories of the posthuman in concrete specificity. Slonczewski does not simply use the micros as a metaphor for collective agency, nor does she simply use the text to explore the scientific possibilities of symbiotic intelligence. Instead, because she does both at once, Brain Plague succeeds in forcing us to question, critically, the premises of our own construction of identity and agency and to think through how we might achieve a kind of posthumanism not simply through modifying bodies but through modifying our ideas about them. I believe that possibility warrants some critical reflection on the difference that this different attitude toward posthuman subjectivity might make. [5]

Sherryl Vint teaches Cultural Studies and American Literature at St. Francis Xavier University. She has published articles in journals such as Science Fiction Studies, Foundation, and Extrapolation. She is currently working on a project on the human/animal boundary and how it informs the representation of otherness in science fiction. She can be contacted directly at

End Notes

1. Comment on Slonczewski's web site: 13 Mar. 2005.

2. The micros evolved on a planet that had an abundance of arsenic in its atmosphere. The story of their evolution is provided in another Slonczewski novel, The Children's Star.

3. The reference to Marx here and the idea of religion as addictive drug further emphasizes Slonczewski's concerns with the master-slave dialectic. Whether it's the Endless Light/micros are smart cocaine version or the religious subjection/gods are the people's cocaine version the master/slave dialectic is presented as a seductive, harmful, and addictive drug. The double use of the metaphor emphasizes the danger of the master-slave model for the slave (in both case it's used to warn people against becoming slaves) but it also says something about the seductive pleasure of the prospect of giving up subjectivity to a greater power, and how dangerous letting go of one's subjectivity can be. Slonczewski so clearly doesn't approve of anything but agency for all subjects.

4. The online Marxist Archive: 13 Mar. 2005.

5. I would like to thank Lisa LaFramboise, Maureen Moynagh, Susan Vincent, Marie Loverod, and Claire Fawcett for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay.

Works Cited

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Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Information. Illinois: Chicago University Press, 1999.

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Slonczewski, Joan. Brain Plague. New York: Tor Books, 2000.

Suvin, Darko. "Estrangement and Cognition." Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979. 3-15.