By Roivoire for Interpretatio
Waist-deep in the bioethical imaginary, if it can walk and talk, I am completely comfortable with addressing someone as an equal. It really doesn’t matter if this person has high heel implants, sensory tentacles and no eyes or nose, or a furry pelt. The genetically-engineered animal-human DNA-spliced characters in Paul Di Filippo’s Ribofunk are not seen as beings worthy of agency by their human co-characters in the context of their own universe. In the privileged world of the reader, the complexity and potential of these people is visible. Their behavior and capability mark them as autonomous, with a wide variety of intelligence and personality that create a heterogeneous and unpredictable group that mirror the same elements in humanity. These are beings that deserve the rights of humanity, which answers the tacit question of the rogue splice liberation effort plot-fragment. But what the act of answering this question does is ask another: what does the process of deeming splices worthy of enfranchisement demand of the reader? This becomes evident by the last chapter, when the “Grey Goo Boo Boo” evolves into the world-devouring “mass of rogue silicrobes known as the Urblastema,” or the Urb for short (279). By creating a group so easy to empathize with in the form of the splices, Di Filippo sets in motion the process of accepting the microscopic collection of hive-mind-components of the Urb as an entity that demands and deserves these same qualities. This is a far more complicated challenge to surmount for a newcomer to Di Filippo’s world, but the stories in this volume finally succeed in validating the sentience of both groups.
Di Filippo goes to great length to sculpt multiple models of splices that represent paradigmatically different extremes of this caste-like, subjugated class of beings. They are a caste because they are defined by their genetic origin, and so cannot change how they fit in their society. They are Ribofunk-world’s Untouchables: all splices are subservient in one way or another to humans, until the role of Krazy Kat is introduced. He is the first splice that has agency and uses his non-human abilities to inflict violence upon oppressing humans. In a different way, violence is also imbedded into the dog-like “Little Worker,” whose loyalty and affection to her master propels her to “do anything to make Mister Michael happy” (31). For the supposed good of her master, she indirectly kills off Mister Michael’s wife and his sex-servant splice, all for the aim of being together with him, alone. Other protagonists are an anthropomorphized mouse and rabbit. The choice of these animals cannot be an accident (poor bunny can’t be free!), it is in fact pure pathos, compounded by the humanity of their actions and desires. These characters are unique to each other but legibly compounds of their genetic sources. Since humans cannot be defined strictly by intelligence or personality, they are grouped together and deemed worthy of a specific place in a hierarchical structure of organisms by unique qualities of awareness or consciousness. This is what is referred to as sentience, and it is given privilege by those that inhabit this exclusive philosophical space.
In both instances of splices and the Urb, the Uncanny Valley plays a key role in how humans can metabolize the affront of conversing with one deemed “other.” This conversation might mean that said other can have just as much a right to exist and proliferate as said human. Humans in the Ribofunk world have a problem with splices despite – no, because – there is actual human in this organism. The reader will not grapple with the being-ness of the Urb despite – no, because – the Urb is able to perfectly duplicate/replicate/masticate (?) an intelligence and a body that is human. There is a recognizable pattern that emerges from these situations: the familiar exists within an unfamiliar form, then the human denies this familiarity and condemns the package that it arrives in either as sub-sentient, as with the spliced, or as enemy – the Urb.
So the tendency to dismiss the duplicated based on the mere premise of it being “duplicated” is tautological and therefore invalid. Meat is meat, whether it was functional muscle for an animal once, or engineered and reconstructed to be exactly the same (petri meat, anyone?). The Urb inhabits sentient space – the place where humans can react to it as a tangible force, mind and body – by means of creating its own macrocosm, a strangely carnivorous process that excretes a duplicate of what it ingests, all the information simultaneously intact and assimilated into the greater rhizome of the “panplasmodaemonium” with all the organisms and objects as its independently moving but ultimately networked visible manifestions.
It is successful in its aim to assimilate the entirety of the planet, and in the complicated process of understanding “everything” that it is, the Urb seeks to surpass sentience, as it finally attains absolute agency. But this is another appearance of the familiar, the striving for self-knowledge. It all fits into the uncanny model of human, questing to conquer all the outside as it does to know the inside.
In the acceptance of the Urb as a being that possesses the same qualities that humans and splices base their rights to exist and reproduce as they see fit upon, the Urb develops from an annihilating enemy to yet another site of difference that is more complex than good or evil. It makes the possession of faculty and cognition that much more complicated, interesting and worthwhile for the human. The parallax of intelligence formed by insight from a non-human can only help the understanding of its existence within a human.