It was a November night and we’d taken the subway out of Taipei, to the end of the line at Tamsui. A pagoda roof covered the elevated tracks, with precise modern brickwork below, a mix of traditional and colonial styles that marked much of the recent construction in Taiwan.
Nowhere in Taiwan is far from the water, but Tamsui was named after a river and where it met the sea. I was dressed for the tropics and tried to shelter from the damp breeze. When we’d left in the morning, there had been a number of buskers and artists in the vaulted area under the station, but either the lateness of the hour or the cold wind had chased away all but one.
He was seated on a little folding stool, surrounded by his work and materials. Long black hair hung over his dark, lined face as he bent to his work. He was surrounded by a gallery of colorful creatures. Most of the figures were for kids. Lots of bugs and bug-eyed characters, with a noise maker that would squeal when blown. But some were closer to fine art: Fish with intricate, glistening scales, the bright red interlocking armor of a lobster and a little fleet of shrimp. They were perched among flowers and bright leafy plants, a jungle of life overflowing his little table.
At his feet lay quivers of plastic drinking straws in all styles, sizes, and colors, along with a little jar of assorted googly eyes and noise makers. He made everything from these simple supplies. Directly in front of him was a cutting pad and a few tools never far from his hands: an antique pair of scissors, a sharp knife, and small glue bottle fitted with a needle for precise application.
We watched him work for a while, an arm around each other for warmth. The station wasn’t deserted, people rushed to and from their trains. But the only people not on the move were us, and the artist, face and hands lit by a little battery powered reading light, clipped to the edge of his table. With confident and precise movements, he sliced the straws into graceful arcs, refined the shape with his fingernails, and assembled them into a new creature.
His fingertips were yellowed and flaky with the buildup from hours of close quarters work with plastic glue. He cut with a blade, but did all the folding and creasing with his finger nails. With a pinch between his forefinger and thumb, he could put the payer into a praying mantis, add expression to the eye stalks of a crab, or put curl into a viney tendril. And those nails didn’t look ... normal. The thumb and first finger on each hand were almost talons, thick and pointed. I thought they might be some kind of callous or side effect from working with plastic and glue all day. Our languages didn’t overlap, but with the help of my companion, I discovered it wasn’t a side effect, but intentional. He’d built them up with layers of lacquer to strengthen them, and filed them to points so he could get sharp, precise creases without having to pick up another tool.
He had, in a small way, modified his body to make his job easier.
We watched as he built some other things things. Each was unique, some realistic, some exaggerated, but each precisely crafted. Finally, when I couldn’t stand the wind’s bite any more, we moved on. In my hand I carried a freshly made damselfly, perched on a leaf, tiny googly eyes rolling around at the wonders of riverside Taipei.
This happened a decade ago, but the sight of someone who had modified their body for work, even in a minimal, low tech way, really stuck with me. Today we have a lot more options to expand our capabilities. Ocular and cochlear implants help people regain sight and hearing, though they’re not the kind of thing that most people would put themselves through. Yet. The implants are better than nothing, but not better than what most people are born with. As the technology improves, we’ll start asking ourselves interesting questions. What will we want to enhance? What tasks are important enough that we’ll modify our bodies around them?
Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space
storied gives a few possible answers. He’s spent most of the last two decades setting stories in this deep and complex, hard science fiction universe. Two of his novels, 2007’s The Prefect
and 2018’s Elysium Fire
take place among the hundred million citizens of the Glitter Band, an orbiting ring of ten thousand habitats. Each habitat is as distinct as any person, with its own personality and goals for its citizens. But one thing they all share is a deep, physical connection to radical democracy. Not a representative democracy like most of them today, but a direct one. Each citizen has an implant that wirelessly connects them to the democratic hardware of their habitat. Everyone is invited to participate in dozens or hundreds of decisions daily, letting them vote on any and all choices that effect the local population.
Though written a decade apart, both The Prefect
and Elysium Fire
combine technology, social networks, and democracy in a way that feels particularly timely. The main characters in both books are the people entrusted with the technology underlying every one of ten-thousand democracies. They're the first and last line of defense against anyone or anything that would meddle with a true and honest vote.
Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect
(soon to be retitled Aurora Rising
) was released in 2007, while Elysium Fire
came out earlier this year, and if you like the greater world they're set in, there are six novels and a couple dozen short stories and novellas
set in the Revelation Space universe.