Review of Hardwired Humanity by Sarah Wagner

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If you enjoy well-written, thought-provoking science fiction short stories, then this anthology is required reading. Six stories are themed around the subject of artificially augmented humans – hence the title. And while there is plenty of adventure and excitement, Wagner isn’t afraid to reflect upon the darker consequences of ‘improving’ upon nature.

As Edward McKeown discusses in his Foreword, this subject continues to have increasing relevance as medical and technological hardwiredadvances challenge our ideas of what is acceptable. In citing the example of the para-Olympian disbarred from racing against able-bodied athletes on the grounds that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair advantage, McKeown points out that our society should be considering these issues before we get ambushed by the actuality. Enter Sarah Wagner’s string of stories which do just that…

Switch is one of the longer tales, about Spider, a young man perpetually on the run due to his amazing invention. Doomed to be constantly abandoning his life and disappearing, he is innately suspicious of people – until he rescues a beautiful young woman. Wagner’s clean, unfussy style quickly pulls us into the story, told from Spider’s viewpoint, and makes us care about the characters. Which is important when considering one of main issues she raises with this storyline. If an artificial construct commits a crime, who should be punished – the cyborg, or the programmer? Not that you are given much time to ponder these questions while engrossed in the plot. Wagner moves events along at a cracking pace with the action-packed climax making this a satisfying read.

Venus and the Birth of Zephyrus is a major contrast. More of a piece of flash fiction, it is a tale of a spy satellite becoming self aware – and discovering feelings for one of its human charges. In these shorter tales Wagner’s talent shines through. Her knack of creating poignancy in a situation without it tipping into sentimentality takes finesse and control.

When Closed Eyes Open is another longer story, told by Chase, a trainee soldier. This tale raises uncomfortable questions. Though Wagner makes it clear early on that the soldier has been artificially augmented, the ending still left me feeling queasy. And yet had me wondering whether the terrible fate inflicted on Chase and his comrades might – in such dire circumstances – still be regarded as acceptable…

Canned Man is my personal favourite. A helpless cripple, whose consciousness has been uploaded into a spaceship, this story is a stark contrast to McCaffrey’s cosier version of shipminds. Wagner’s ability to create a character wrestling with a desperate situation in two pages, is impressive. Her story Fireworks on the Abandoned Towers website is a gem – and in my opinion, Canned Man is right up alongside it.

The Wreck of the Griffin is a classic swashbuckling story of daring-do, including a wreck and a battle for survival – except the captain’s daughter is also sporting a pair of artificial arms, along with the curvy figure and feisty attitude. And our hero comes complete with a pair of spider-bots, along with the chiselled good looks and infuriating male smugness. The pace carries the reader along with plenty happening and is the least controversial of all the stories in the book – except that you are left reflecting that if the heroine hadn’t been augmented, she wouldn’t have survived their adventures…

Evolution of a Shadow is the most disturbing of all the stories in the anthology. Shade, a highly augmented fighter, is locked in a vicious battle for survival with Jacob, who was similarly upgraded, but intends to use his martial skills to raise an army of ultimate soldiers to dominate the world. So the stakes couldn’t be higher. However, when a scenario leads to a small child being tortured by her mother in order to test her healing powers – there is a sense that things have gotten thoroughly out of hand…

I am aware that in reviewing these stories, I have picked out the themes rather than focus on the fizzing plotlines, but there is certainly plenty action going on. However, one of the reasons why I love this genre, is because along with a cracking good tale, the best writers also offer me interestingly difficult moral issues to consider. And Sarah Wagner is right up there with the best.
9/10

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