The chapter analyzes Theresa Hannig’s novels, Die Optimierer (2017) and Die Unvollkommenen (2019), as a creative literary intervention into discourses of posthumanism. Hannig’s work exposes the different arguments regarding the development of human enhancement, consciousness transfer, sentient robots, and artificial intelligences and negotiates posthuman positions of subjectivity and the rights of personhood for artificial beings. The article presents the evolving concepts of an artificially created posthumanity in the novels and reveals Hannig’s perspective on how to deal with a becoming-machine.

From a socio-economic perspective, the automation of work processes—and with it the development of artificial intelligence (AI)—is one of the key challenges of the 21st century.[1] This is why political journalist Kevin Drum (2013) talks about the digital revolution, in which automated processes are going to make superfluous the majority of our jobs and will completely change our lives—he warns us: “it’s time to start thinking about our automated future in earnest.” But we have earnestly started thinking about it—as well as about its social transformations. We have been discussing it for quite a while in science fiction (SF)—maybe not always in line with real developments of AI or in all the complex nuances that this issue presents. But, as Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal (2019, 74) argue, cultural imaginaries as expressed in popular films or novels do negotiate “fundamental hopes and fears […] portrayed in tones of great optimism or equally great pessimism.” Cave and Dihal (ibid.) have analyzed a variety of texts and concluded that AI is represented along the lines of several dichotomies:

the hope for much longer lives (‘immortality’) and the fear of losing one’s identity (‘inhumanity’); the hope for a life free of work (‘ease’), and the fear of becoming redundant (‘obsolescence’); the hope that AI can fulfil one’s desires (‘gratification’), alongside the fear that humans will become redundant to each other (‘alienation’); and the hope that AI offers power over others (‘dominance’), with the fear that it will turn against us (‘uprising’). 

The spectrum presented here is, of course, not determined by the dimensions of actual research in AI, but arguably maps out the cultural perspective, reflecting the varied theoretical concepts of posthumanist thinking, from techno-optimist positions of transhumanism to the techno-skeptical views of critical posthumanism. In this regard, SF negotiates, on one end of the spectrum, positions of transhumanism such as the enhancement of the human body via technology in order to transcend human biological limitations, or the idea of a consciousness upload to completely move beyond biology into an artificial body. Transhumanist thinkers understand our technological progress as a means to transcend our bodies and move into a post-biological age, a world in which “human thought [can be] freed from bondage to a mortal body” (Moravec 1988, 4). At the other end of the spectrum, we can find the perspectives of critical posthumanism, which understands technology as part of a hybrid, fragmented, and rhizomatic subjectivity: “Located within the dialectic of pattern/randomness and grounded in embodied actuality rather than disembodied information, the posthuman offers resources for rethinking the articulation of humans with intelligent machines” (Hayles 1999, 286f.). In this sense, technologies are part of a continuously adapting frame of reference that sees them as non-human actors. This thinking is likened to a “radical decentering of the traditional sovereign, coherent and autonomous human in order to demonstrate how the human is always already evolving with, constituted by, and constitutive of multiple forms of life and machines” (Nayar 2014, 2).[2] Posthumanism thus describes a changing conception of the human, be it within the techno-utopian thinking of transcending human biology or in critical-reflexive reimagining of human relations to environments, technologies, and life forms. 

In this chapter, I will discuss the different posthumanist positions and how they are negotiated in the contemporary German SF works of Theresa Hannig, who won the 2018 Seraph Award for Fantastic Literature for her debut novel Die Optimierer (The Optimizers, 2017) and was shortlisted for the Fantastic Literature Award of the City of Wetzlar for her follow-up novel Die Unvollkommenen (The Imperfect, 2019).[3] In the novels, Hannig develops a discussion of different posthumanist positions, showcasing them for the reader to decide on their own.

In an interview, Hannig describes how technological enhancements (computers, smart phones etc.) have slowly integrated into our human realm of experience and become part of everyday life. Hannig points towards an extreme form of imminent technological progress—the digitization of consciousness—which could radically alter our selves: “We might become a species that lives digitally, that merges with artificial intelligence and creates something completely new” (Schmeink 2020b, 18). How we are going to live, work, and interact with each other in the future will be integrally connected with the concepts of automation and artificial intelligence. Thinking about the potential impact of these kind of coming changes, we need to negotiate the realm of the posthuman to come to terms with the changing world around us. In her novels, Hannig takes advantage of the possibilities offered by SF as a sandbox to experiment with different positions towards and variable possibilities of our becoming posthuman.[4] The subtle processes of human enhancement are as much part of her scope as is the techno-utopian idea of the consciousness upload or the radical creation of a fully artificial digital humanity, i.e. artificial intelligence (AI) in robots or androids. The novels present readers with a variety of posthuman positions, negotiating the many anxieties and desires linked to each technological variant and ultimately denying a clear-cut answer as to how posthumanity is going to manifest itself and what that means for us. In this chapter, I present the different viewpoints of posthumanity via Hannig’s novels, analyzing the distinct contribution that recent German SF makes to our social discourses of the posthuman. 

1. Automation and the State

The setting of both novels is a future world, in which Germany has become part of the Federal Republic of Europe (FRE). When the ‘old’ world fell apart due to crises of wealth distribution, energy and resource (mis-)management, and economically motivated migration, a few central and northern European countries saw the solution in rejecting nationalism and abolishing capitalism. Instead of aiming for continued economic growth, the FRE opted for a new state-planned and state-run economic system called the “Economics of Optimized Well-Being” (“Optimalwohl­öko­nomie”; Opt 69). The FRE has automated its social, political, and economic institutions, relying on AI to manage production and calculate both the needs of every person and their possible contribution. This concept of a technocratic state-mandated solution to capitalist overproduction, made possible via AI, has been anticipated by William Davies (2018), who argues that states should see climate change or other social challenges in similar terms as war efforts and consequently suspend free market doctrines:

Just as the state could decide on the quantity of munitions or uniforms that a war economy needed, it could make similar ‘in kind’ calculations for the supply of goods in peacetime. A similar argument might well be made about industrial production in our own context of anthropogenic climate change, which may require a similar level of state management if catastrophes are to be averted over the next 100 years.

It is mainly the technological advancement of the “‘big data’ era,” Davies (2018) argues, that may provide the solution to this issue as it can make calculations of demand and production possible and thus help our society tap into the “vast but unrealised potential for socialism” that this tech provides. Hannig does tap into this potential but is keenly aware that with the positive potential of this technology also comes the opportunity to abuse the vast amounts of data provided by social media and surveillance for more sinister aims. As Ingo Cornils (2020, 175) observes, “Hannig is well aware of the German trait […] to always have good intentions and yet create evil.” In her novels, every citizen is monitored and evaluated for social cooperation and interactions of civility via a social credit score. In return for this compliance and the surrendering of every bit of information about them, participants are given everything they need to lead a comfortable life—the higher their score, the better their benefits. Here, we see a deep interconnection between technological integration and a posthuman society forming. The novels explore this interconnection in a variety of scenarios, which will form my analysis. 

Before going into the details, I will briefly summarize the main story lines of the two novels. In Die Optimierer, protagonist Samson Freitag works for the federal ‘Agency of Life Coaching’ as a counselor who helps people find the right place in society. For his services and loyalty, he is rewarded with additional benefits. Consequently, he is a model citizen—that is, until one of his clients kills herself and the tables turn on him. He goes on a downward spiral of self-destruction and finds himself at odds with the system’s algorithms, realizing that optimal society is only optimal for those who play by its rules. When the system finally catches up with him, he is arrested and uploaded into an artificial body, becoming part of the system itself.

In Die Unvollkommenen, protagonist Lila Richter has been arrested by the system for attempted insurgency and frozen for five years. At the start of the novel, she is revived and placed in a permanent detention facility, where she realizes how much life has changed in those five years and that Samson Freitag has not only become the de facto leader of the FRE but also a revered god. People have merged their bodies with the system, receiving benefits and living a happy and sedated life, before dying and digitally ascending into a virtual heaven, the “Pure Land”. Lila is appalled and tries to flee from the detention facility and the FRE, but Samson catches up with her and offers her a deal. If she manages to convince his dying mother—a strict anti-technologist who rejects the ‘new’ Samson—to speak with him again, Lila gets to be free. Meanwhile tensions between political groups rise and, in the end, a violent conflict between proponents of robot rights and extreme anti-technologists breaks out.

2. Biological Humanity

What characterizes the representation of posthuman technologies and their consequences in the two novels is their embeddedness in a variety of discourses of posthumanism. In Die Optimierer, for example, we encounter technology that is visceral, in the sense that Bruce Sterling (1985, xiii) defined for cyberpunk: “pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.” Though clearly not part of this 1980s SF movement, Hannig nevertheless sees the connection and impact that its visions had on our modern media interdependence and the ubiquity of information technology in everyday life. As Sherryl Vint (2010, 229) has argued, life in the 21st century is firmly “embedded in […an] information milieu and augmented by technology,” so much so that it has become “an exteriorization of some of the motifs of cyberpunk.” One of these motifs is the interconnection of data and material reality, which the novels represent through augmented reality which can be accessed via technological enhancement: “Samson blinked twice and rolled his eyes clockwise. Immediately, the communication lens in his left eye awoke from standby and the half-transparent veil of augmented reality inserted itself over his view” (Opt 9). The lens—an extrapolation of our current smartphone technology—allows access to aspects of everyday life: they are used for work (even remote controlling artificial bodies), for ordering commodities and services, for navigation and communication. Further, they allow for the recording of every moment of the wearer’s life, thus feeding a complete datastream into the system, which in turn provides the basis for the calculations of the ‘optimized’ economy. This technological enhancement of an augmented and automated world offers us “gratification,” as Cave and Dihal (2019, 76) argue, in providing “fulfilment of every desire” via technology.

Via her protagonist Samson, Hannig reveals the consequences of this technological enhancement of daily life—showcasing how the comforts and services we rely on in our current experience of the world is based on accepting technological tools—which is part of the transhumanist concept of self-optimization and human enhancement via technology. As Nick Bostrom (2007, 6) argues, technological progress will eventually lead to overcoming any and all limitations posed on human biology. Bostrom (ibid. 16) continues: “the capability of recording, surveillance, biometrics, and data mining technologies will grow, making it increasingly feasible to keep track of where people go, whom they meet, what they do, and what goes on inside their bodies.” According to transhumanists like Bostrom, big data and AI will lead to advancements in science and to enhancement in the quality of life via better technologies. Accepting and expecting technology to improve your life is also a key tenet of the FRE’s economics system—but the tenet is undermined through individual experience, literalized in physical transformation. The novel juxtaposes Samson’s slow realization of how dystopian a world controlled by technology is with the painful process of his body physically rejecting the lens, prohibiting him from using the tool: “A glaring pain shot through his eye. He quickly licked his finger and pulled out the lens. Then he waited for a few seconds, letting the burning sensation pass” (Opt 26). Losing his use of the lens consequently means losing the experience of his posthuman self and being reduced to his (biologically) limited state. Without the lens he cannot access data or receive messages—he cannot even call the elevator or open his own apartment door, because all older forms of interaction (i.e. buttons, handles) have been removed.

If one follows the transhumanist concepts, as explained in Bostrom’s comments, embracing technology to enhance your life will also generate a large amount of valuable data. In the novel, the lenses are used for governmental oversight and surveillance: “At the same time, everything the users of the lenses saw and heard was recorded on the servers of the Agency for Life Coaching. This way, users had real-time limitless access to any content […] and the Agency for Life Advice had real-time knowledge of what the people did” (Opt 27). Lens technology merges citizens with the technocratic system itself, and dissolving this unity goes hand in hand with a loss of social agency and political rights. To not be enhanced means effectively to not be part of society. The process of human enhancement via technology here produces a form of surveillance capitalism, as described by Shoshana Zuboff (2019), who claims that our life is being monitored in intricate details to analyze it and create “behavioral surplus.” This surplus is then used to fabricate “prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” For Zuboff, prediction products are part of the capitalist system, but Hannig argues in her novels that a state-operated system could just as easily employ behavioral surplus to enact autocratic control. This becomes apparent in the way that decisions on how each citizen can participate in society are based on the algorithmic data: “The state is interested in every one of its citizens. It worries about their well-being and analyzes all available facts to allocate each to their ideal place in society” (Opt 18).

Samson’s behavior is used predictively as well—his slow release from the institutions of society, for example, by way of his ‘rejection’ of wearing a communication lens, ends in the police ordering him to report in:

The law enforcement agencies produce statistical data on when a crime is going to be committed by whom and under which circumstances. We also analyze what events have preceded a crime. When a citizen displays a cluster of factors which usually precede a crime, these citizens will receive a statistical warning. (Opt 207)

In Die Unvollkommenen, this kind of surveillance has progressed further. Human enhancement via technology has shifted from wearables to implants — “total integration” with the system: “The optical and the audio chip I already had […] So I got the rest implanted as well, including the Emóchip. […] With the chip’s help emotions can be heightened or dampened; it stimulates or suppresses the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and some others” (Un 188f.) Integrated humans not only transmit their sensations but also their biological data to the state surveillance system and can in turn also be manipulated by the system. Samson, having become integrated with the system in his new artificial body at the end of Die Optimierer, has completely overhauled the FRE into a religious, totalitarian state, and not only fully surveils integrated humans, but is able to generate extreme bodily states from manic euphoria to unbearable pain: “The pain filled her thought, took hold of her body, seemed to tear apart her insides” (Un 288). Samson uses this to elevate himself to godhood and to build a religious cult by evoking adulation and awe in his followers. For Lila, who has been forced into total integration against her will, the artificially created emotions are akin to magic—marvelous until you find out how it is done: “You are messing with people’s brains, and then they love you and believe you to be a god” (Un 283).

With regard to Cave and Dihal’s (2019, 76) dichotomies, total integration points towards the extremes of “alienation”—in Die Unvollkommenen, humans do not need interaction with each other anymore, but rather prefer the totally integrated control of their hormone levels and the artificial experience of quasi-religious rapture. Lila, for example, gets lost in a feeling of euphoria when she tries to investigate her own memory of an encounter with Samson, involuntarily looping the memory to experience it over and over: “Every time the film starts anew, her body convulsed with joy and excitement. Again and again” (Un 275). She does not eat, drink, or move during this time and is only brought back by an interruption from the outside. The scene warns of the potential of virtual realities to present humanity with an appealing alternative life, which will come at the price of leaving one’s biological body behind. It thus implies a connection to cyberpunk’s and transhumanism’s disdain for the biological body, which they see as “out of step with the inventions of our mind” (Moravec 1988, 4). 

How much humans might want to escape their biologically limited bodies is further discussed in the novels via another technology which allows for “biologically stored information—the spirit, or the consciousness” to be converted into “synthetic memory” (Un 128) and transplanted either into a synthetic body or a virtual reality, an artificial world. The consciousness upload into this virtual reality, the “Pure Land” (“Reine Land” Un 128), run by an AI, is the final step towards the transhumanist fantasy of immortality, which Cave and Dihal (2019, 75) identify as one of the biggest hopes for AI technology. Moravec (1988, 117), for example, argues that a person is not comprised of the organic matter of their body, but that “the essence of a person […is] the pattern and the process” in their brain. Transferring patterns and processes into a virtual world would mean preserving the person eternally, “the rest is mere jelly” (ibid.). Hannig questions this supposedly desirable state, though, by pointing out that the upload technology—just as lenses or integration—are not under the control of the individual but are used by the state, or Samson as ‘benevolent’ ruler, for their own ends. For her, transhumanist visions of human enhancement are thus always connected to loss—assurance is traded for freedom, the desire for immortality is paid for by a complete loss of self-determination.

3. Digital Humanity

Next to biological humanity, which is able to reach posthumanity via technology, Hannig also presents a digital humanity—robots, which she calls “digital humans” because the term grants them “automatic status as persons, with all the accompanying human rights” (Schmeink 2020b, 22). In her novels, certain ethical and legal questions—how robots gained this status of ‘digital humans’; whose property the resources and means of production are, etc.—remain unanswered as robots are depicted as part of the socio-economic and political landscape. Robots are present in everyday life, doing jobs, interacting with each other and biological humans, even living in suburbia. The League of Robot Rights advocates for robots, providing them with a form of social identity, which expresses itself in them displaying a “red eleven” on their face, a signifier of their othered status, which is supposed to refer to the demands of the French revolution: “Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité” (Un 257).

The central conflict over power and superiority (cf. Cave and Dihal 2019, 77), which is dominant in many fictions about AI and automation, is also present in Hannig’s works, but more nuanced. A key reason for this is the presence of two different types of digital humans. In Die Optimierer, the ‘Basileus’ models take on a variety of work-related tasks and become more and more present in everyday public and home life. When encountering a Basileus, Samson does not at first recognize their artifice, as they “appear deceptively real by now,” giving him the feeling of being “caught off guard” (Opt 71). And because Basileus-models never tire, never get bored, or feel like they are above doing a menial job, they almost completely replace humans in the field of labor. Reasons for handing a job to a Basileus are plentiful: Tourist guides used to need breaks from walking all day (Opt 71); the early shift at a bar was “unpopular” (Opt 103); dealing with teenagers was considered too “taxing” for schoolteachers (Opt 151).

Thus, they represent the concept of ‘ease,’ allowing humans to be “relieved from the burdens of work” (Cave and Dihal 2019, 76)—robots take over all unwanted labor from humans. In the novel, this is the basis for a complete realignment of the economic system: “Only with the help of the robots, who take on the majority of the simple and redundant labor, the state is in a position not to strive for a maximum in profits, but for the maximum in well-being for each citizen” (Opt 69). Society is oriented towards what the system itself calls the ‘optimal well-being’ of its citizens and the posthuman technology of the Basileus-models offers humans the freedom to choose tasks independent from the need to earn a living. But this orientation also evokes fear that one could face ‘obsolescence’—when the need for labor dissolves, other aspects connected to labor also dissolve, among them social standing and aspects of identity (cf. Cave and Dihal 2019, 76). In fact, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue: “It’s tremendously important for people to work not just because that’s how they get their money, but also because it’s one of the principal ways they get many other important things: self-worth, community, engagement, healthy values, structure, and dignity, to name just a few.”

The novel explicates this essentially Marxist view of work as central for one’s identity, the fear of becoming obsolete, and the loss of social stability through the story of young Martina. Her life is analyzed and evaluated by Samson, who bluntly tells her that her skills are inconsequential to society: “The state does not need you. The economy does not need you” (Opt 24). Martina has become superfluous to the economic and political system, as “Every robot can do every job better than you” (Opt 49). Martina’s worth for society, as well as the social structure giving her purpose in life, are denied by an algorithm calculating the ‘optimal well-being’ of all society. In this calculation, society is best served by Martina in “contemplation,” a form of enforced permanent leave: “You will leave the labor market and are free to concentrate on your hobbies, have fun, or just chill out. You can do whatever you like, as long as you don’t try to get a job” (Opt 24).

The conflict between humans and robots, in Die Optimierer, is thus projected mostly onto the socio-economic dimension, which does not mean though that there is no existential dimension involved. Martina is depressed and her evaluation by the Agency of Life Coaching is devastating to her—she commits suicide (Opt 155), thus revealing the fallibility of the ‘Life Coaching.’ In Die Unvollkommenen, the conflict escalates into violence. Biological humans that have lost their jobs (and identity), as well as people resisting any form of technological advancement, fight against robots when and wherever possible—either by individual ‘de-animation’ (Verlebung, Un 41) or by means of larger acts of terrorism (Un 301).

Complicating the situation is that Basileus-models are not fully artificially created life forms. Instead, they are based on “personality profiles and appearances of real humans,” uploaded with the “complete memories” of a dead person—in the case of Samson’s personal care-taker robot, the looks and personality of his customer Martina: “I feel like I experienced it all, everything that she has. Some robot rights advocates would even say: I am Martina Fischer” (Opt 247f.) – a version of Martina, though, that is aware of her existence as a Basileus, and thus granted a new and different form of subjectivity. A Martina that has access to the network of Basileus-models, that shares information with them, taps into the knowledge of the system and is thus enhanced with the posthuman abilities that had denied her biological existence a purposeful life. Basileus-models have received the technological upgrade that transhumanists such as Moravec (1988, 5) dream of: She is the uploaded consciousness, “rescued from the limitations of a mortal body […] reprogrammed for continual adaptability to be long viable.”

But Hannig does not fall into the technocratic fantasy trap of transhumanist immortality. Die Unvollkommenen takes place five years after the Basileus-models were introduced—and they have all but disappeared from view. Eoin Kophler, an engineer who took part in the development of the Basileus, explains why the models are prone to issues with their human personality transplants:

Having created the Basileus, in principle human, with hopes and wishes, and above all with a capacity for suffering—that was a grave mistake. […] Their humanity is the problem. Suffering is the problem: Suffering because of a wounded vanity, disappointments, failures—all the bad experiences of a past life. The Basileus-models are basically humans, doomed to eternal life and endless knowledge. At first it might be a never-ending trip, like paradise, but how does it end? (Un 146)

The novel shows Basileus-models self-destructing, because their human character profiles have no “adequate cognition of reality” (Un 134) and because they cannot adapt to their new embodiment and abilities to interface with others. In addition, Samson has developed into a Basileus with extremely dominant character traits, taking control of the network and pushing his own agenda into the algorithmic rules governing the Basileus-models. “He manipulated their thoughts and actions in a major way and brought the system to collapse in a short time” (Un 221). Samson – due to a bug or glitch in the transfer – remains fanatic about the Economics of Optimized Well-Being and is unable or unwilling to accept deviance from the algorithm: He kills many of the Basileus-models “because they did not think along the optimal trajectories” (Un 374). 

Human ambition, the desire to gain an evolutionary advantage, has been inscribed into the Basileus-models with their human character profiles. But the embodied reality of being in an artificial (and, presumably, eternally healthy) body, connected to a network of other voices is quite different from human embodiment. For N. Katherine Hayles (1999, 372), this is an issue at the heart of the transhumanist consciousness upload—the assumption that the human body (with all its limitations) is not relevant to the (post)human condition and thus replaceable:

[T]he body itself is a congealed metaphor, a physical structure whose constraints and possibilities have been formed by an evolutionary history intelligent machines do not share. Humans may enter into symbiotic relationships with intelligent machines […] but there is a limit to how seamlessly they can be articulated with machines, because they remain distinctively different from intelligent machines in their embodiments.

The Basileus-models demonstrate that embodiment is a central aspect of the human experience and that a human cannot simply be reprogrammed for a different body. Even though they exist without biological limitations (such as aging, illness, vulnerability), the Basileus-models are capable of suffering and emotions. Homunkulus, an autonomously living Basileus explains this: “It would not be so bad […] to treat machines like machines, if they did not suffer like humans. […] There are different forms of suffering. I am a Basileus. I know what it is like to have been human” (Un 323).

The novel introduces a second variety of robot, the Custos-models, who also do not get by without suffering, as Homunkulus continues: “The Custos do not know this. They only know what it is like to be a robot. But they can still suffer, because they can… feel. Even if it is different to what humans feel, does not make it any less true” (Un 323). By contrast to the Basileus, the Custos are a new design of robots, which do not feature a human character chip. But the Custos recognize their difference to humans, and they suffer because of it. Their own identity is linked to the identity of biological humanity: They look just like humans, their artificiality obscured as not to mark them as robots, to close the “acceptance gap” (Un 257) and allow easier interaction with humans. And yet, they are treated differently, as a Custos makes clear when he reappropriates Shylock’s famous lines from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1600):

No worries, Miss Richter. I am really a robot. A machine. […]  If you prick us, we do not bleed. If you tickle us, we do not laugh. If you poison us, we do not die. And if you wrong us, we shall not revenge. We are like you in the rest, but never the same. (Un 202f., my emphasis) 

It is especially important to note that the Custos does explicitly state he would not want revenge as an option for being mistreated and shunned. Instead, he says that he shall not revenge. And he is keenly aware of being treated differently—his identity is grounded in the awareness of being a second-class citizen. All the Custos-models work and are integrated into society, for example as service robots, but, as a Custos-waiter explains, they do not receive payment but are understood to be part of the infrastructure provided by the state: “As a Custos, I have no need for money. […] If I need something, I will get it as fast as possible. The better I can function, the better for all of us. It would be foolish to delay these improvements via a secondary economy” (Un 256).

That Custos may be discontent and suffering is not made explicit in the novel, but it does implicitly show via their institutional organization. The League for Robot Rights advocates for “equal treatment of intelligent and autonomous robots” and defends their “evolution […], their own history and culture” (Un 334). It is part of this culture to adopt the red eleven as a signifier, to show “pride in their digital heritage” (Un 256) and point towards their goals of true equality. It helps them create a part of their social identity. But during the novel, the conflict with humanity is not solved, instead it is becoming stronger, as a growing number of terror attacks against robots show.

Once again, the novels do not simply accept an interpretation of digital posthumanity as being unfairly oppressed. While the Custos’ claim to subjectivity is valid, concerns of biological humans, expressed in the Luddite movement of the ‘Imperfect,’ are just as important to recognize. Custos are superior in physical strength and endurance, in cognitive abilities, and robustness. The Custos represent a concept far from the human horizon of experience, a “new species […] which is far superior to us already” (Un 354), as Samson’s mother Anna explains. She has understood that a species that does not die naturally will replace humanity: “First the robots take over our jobs, then they take over the organization of our state, and in the end, it will be our life. Humans have made themselves obsolete. In one or two hundred years, we will just vanish” (Un 354). Here, the novel voices concern about a social anxiety that AI might start an ‘uprising,’ even though the Custos’s revolution is far less dramatic and violent than popular cultural variants in which an AI “attempts to eliminate humanity as soon as it becomes self-aware” (Cave and Dihal 2019, 77). As AI-expert Markus Giesler argues, these fears of a violent conflict are “deeply embedded in our consciousness […] based on emotions and mythology” (Koch 2019). The Custos simply have to outwait the humans to be granted more and more power. As Cornils (2020, 193) points out, the Custos can count on “the enthusiastic cooperation of people in their own enslavement.” 

4. Posthumanity

At the end of Die Unvollkommenen, Samson rushes to turn his dying mother into a Basileus but is thwarted by a rebellious plot and deception by others. Only Samson and Lila remain, while all around them the human-robot conflict has escalated into violence, with the FRE on the brink of a civil war. When asked to step in, Samson argues that he has tried to optimize human nature (via persuasion and understanding), but that humans’ base desires will always drive them towards destruction: “the few will plunge the whole civilization into ruin. If one, just one, wants to destroy, then no construction will help. Everything is destroyed, when just one begrudges another something. I am done. Let them tear each other apart” (Un 381). What Samson struggles with, and what Hannig emphasizes in her work, is “the absurdity in the life-destroying belief that human existence can be controlled” (Cornils 2020, 176). No technology, the novels suggest, will ever be able to create a uniform goal for all humanity. There is no optimizing the different desires and anxieties that drive humanity.

The technological fantasy of physical enhancement, transcending the biological limitations, does not take into account that humans do not share a unifying ‘nature,’ Hannig here provocatively rejecting the humanist ideals of a conditio humana. The majority of biological humans in the novels might be lulled into the comfort of technological enhancement, seeing no problem with handing over control. But others reject the technology, the control, and the social imperative for improvement, claiming their biological ‘imperfection’ as the excluding mark of distinction—hence the title of the second novel. And yet, while refusing to be forced into compliance by the system and treated with prejudice, they similarly reject other people’s desire and individual choice for enhancement, even going so far as to deny digital humans their existence altogether. In this, the self-proclaimed “Imperfect” are just as rooted in their humanist ideals of anthropological universals as the transhumanists are. Cary Wolfe (2003, 8) has rightly observed that humanist concepts of exceptionalism (with regard to other forms of life) and their flawed ideals of what humanity is (based on categories such as male, white, able-bodied, wealthy)[5] haunt current posthumanist discourses and entrench systems of exclusion and oppression. And while Wolfe makes his point via nonhuman animals, it is valid for digital humans too. He claims that these speciesist structures, provided for by the supposed exceptional position of ‘the human,’ take “for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species.” When one side feels they can question the other’s existence, these structures can be brought to bear on any other form of life “to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference” (Wolfe, ibid.). This is what Samson realizes is troubling humanity as a whole: that they claim exceptionalism in their position towards others.

Samson, weary of the burden of caring for this flawed humanity (both biological and digital) asks Lila to end his existence and hands over “the burden of power” (Un 395) to Lila, an enhanced (i.e., fully integrated) human. And Lila experiences the change to her subjectivity clash with her physical, embodied humanity: “Lila felt herself splinter. […] Every cell in her body, every molecule, every atom was in turmoil, seemed to vibrate, full of energy and force” (Un 395). When Lila realizes the different desires and anxieties that the groups have and that a decision for one would inevitably be a decision against the other, she decides not to favor any side. She feels connected to, and in a hybrid subjectivity with millions of other living beings, a posthuman position of becoming: “She was human, but she had a connection to and control over more than two hundred million integrated humans, universal power over all systems, root access for the world” (Un 397). She considers the desires of each group, that each would like their own version of the ‘Pure Land’ without the other groups, that each would like to be favored before the others. It is no coincidence that the concept of ‘purity’ is so central here, highlighting the perceived notion of the other as impure, not fully worthy of subjectivity and status as a person. In the end, Lila decides to wipe all memories, data, and relations, and sets everything back to zero—tabula rasa: “With just one thought, she cleared it all” (Un 399). Here, Hannig opts for the open-ended solution and firmly lays the decision of how humanity is going to deal with posthumanity in the hands of her readers.

As I have shown, the conflict between, and contradictions of, the different posthumanist positions in the novels are noticeable in these novels, and the variable social desires and anxieties are well-analyzed. Hannig depicts the slow and sometimes unnoticed progress of human enhancement technologies, their networked character, and the insidious posthumanity that comes with them. Communication lenses and total integration offer a huge and important potential for augmentation? of human cognition, but they also produce new dependencies and a loss of freedom—both positions are prominently discussed in the novels. Even more clearly present is a discourse on artificial life, on robots as persons and in relation to biological humanity: on the one hand in the human-derived Basileus, suffering because of their lost humanity but still driven by its desires, on the other hand in the separately built species of Custos, who are fighting for political recognition while ignoring that formal equality would clearly grant them superiority. The novels do not offer simple solutions for our posthuman condition, but instead point towards a number of perspectives which readers are supposed to engage with, work through, and decide on their own. The open ending clearly suggesting that the future is not set in stone. Instead, our decisions on how to proceed are important to consider if we want to embark on “a now without a past, a future without reservation, a world in which everyone is imperfect” (Un 399). In such a broad discursive context, SF allows us to explore the limits of our own agency and broadens the scope of our thinking about artificial intelligence. Authors of SF, like Theresa Hannig in her two novels, can show us the ethical challenges in dealing with posthuman life, even before we get there, thus allowing us to be better prepared when we finally do.  

Works Cited

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[1] Research for this chapter was made possible by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) via “FutureWork: The Transition to the 22nd Century” (funding no. 02L18A510 and 02L18A511). A shorter version was published in German as Schmeink 2020a.

[2] A full historical and philosophical discussion of concepts such as transhumanism and critical posthumanism is not possible in the confines of a chapter such as this. For a quick overview, see Schmeink 2016, 39–46; for more detailed analyses, see Hayles 1999; Braidotti 2013; Nayar 2014.

[3] At the point of writing, the books have not been translated into English yet—Hannig is working on finding a publisher and opening the English-speaking market. Nonetheless, Hannig’s success in Germany, her work in getting the books out to students in school, and the importance of a German literary intervention into debates of posthumanism make the books valuable objects of academic inquiry. All translations from German original texts, unless otherwise noted, are thus mine.

[4] All citations will be abbreviated as Die Optimierer (Opt) and Die Unvollkommenen (Un).

[5] For more details on the central thesis of humanism, see Soper 1986; for more details on posthumanist critiques of humanist concepts, see Braidotti 2013, 2; Schmeink 2016, 39–46.

This originally appeared as:

Schmeink, Lars. „Optimizing the Human: A Posthuman Taxonomy in the Works of Theresa Hannig.“ New Perspectives on Contemporary German Science Fiction. Hg. Lars Schmeink und Ingo Cornils. London: Palgrave. 211–28.