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Modify Your Body!

John Tillson watches a world going mad.

Sitting nervously in Excel Bodily Modification’s waiting room, Reynolds watches Excel’s promotional video: “Fixing to travel through space without a shuttle, change academia, or win an Olympic medal? Choose Excel Bodily Modification, because enhanced ability is only an operation away!”

Having needed several large loans for his procedure, Reynolds reassures himself that he can make enough money to pay everyone off. The ad continues: “We know what we’re doing: we’ve been doing bod mod for generations, starting with breast augmentation, continuing on through breast multiplication, perspex craniums, and rocket-launcher feet. We’ve pioneered and perfected these ever-popular, classic operations, but we are also willing to work to special requests. We don’t advise silly-string skeletal systems, but if the choice is between back street clinics doing the job and our providing the best treatment possible, then we at Excel Body Modification feel bound by a strict duty of care to honour any request.”

As the ad begins to rerun, Reynolds’ attention turns to the news on another screen. A former Formula 1 driver has announced plans to enter ‘Death Race to the Sun’: “Elite racing vehicles have become so closely customised to their drivers, that the two are inseparable, and, indeed, indistinguishable. It has become a very real problem in F1 how organisers, bookies, pundits, the drivers’ wives, and, indeed, the drivers themselves, can keep track of which driver is which, since spare parts are regularly passed back and forth between teams. This particular driver was arguing that he had won an eighth world championship, but he has lost his case. Under the guidance of metaphysics panellists, the F1 committee decided that there was insufficient continuity between the relevant championship-winning drivers to indicate a single, persistent identity in any of the cases. Disillusioned, this driver has elected to switch to Death Race… Good luck Eric Bowles, if it is you in there!”

Television thoroughly exploits the mass interest in bodily modification. There are talent shows in every country, won each year with great drama, strain, and public interest, consistently producing victors who subsequently fail to flourish, or even survive. Surprise body modification hits such as Gild my Build, Changing Selves, and Pimp My Hide draw huge audiences. Reality television reaches a new level of realism by literally climbing inside housemates’ heads, using cameras implanted inside their eyeballs. A higher class of programming applauds in full, formal evening dress the self-improvements of the great and the good; although the life-time achievement awards are awarded posthumously half the time, since it takes a life-or-death risk to be deserving of one. Meanwhile, the new cult of Scientonomy upgrades initiates to ever-higher levels of character-perfection by providing personality enhancements for reasonable, standardised fees. Christian and other religious groups try in vain to combat the now almost entirely ubiquitous trend of ‘improving on God’s designs’.

It had all started with the general legalisation of performance-enhancing drugs. Most athletes found they needed to intensify their performance with a cornucopia of chemical concoctions simply to compete. Do-it-yourself hormone therapy compounded the trend; with women pumped up with testosterone, and men draining oestrogen from taps, gender distinctions in sport broke down and a strict female/male divide was no longer tenable. Rippling, heaving, muscular genderless beasts competed with each other in rowing, tennis, wrestling and weightlifting. This nitro-boosted evolutionary supercharge of drugs, cybernetic technology, genetic tampering and extreme surgery was unprecedented.

Just ten years previously, before bod mods in sport were common practice, Reynolds had sat before a stage in a packed lecture hall to watch Professors Winstanley-Barron and Hartleby debate bodily modification’s acceptability for the Olympics. Both had body modifications themselves. Winstanley-Barron’s perspex forehead revealed his beautiful brain, lit up like a flashing switchboard. Hartleby’s head narrowed rapidly from his broad brow into a tall antenna. Beside him a monitor showed his asteroid-sized brain, in orbit above them. Every so often his brain passed out of radio contact and his higher cognitive functions stalled.

Winstanley-Barron: Olympic events would be unfairly biased towards the bodily-modified athlete. It’s awfully unsporting.

Hartleby: Ah, but every athlete has the same opportunity, and can do whatever they want. That’s the beauty of it.

Winstanley-Barron: I had it in mind that the aesthetic virtues of sport were in seeing what one could achieve with one’s own person. BodMod has already found its way into the entertainments industry, space travel, academia, and warfare …I rather thought sport was the only thing of natural fairness left.

Hartleby: Well, well… Hmm. But surely some chap’s being naturally a wonderful swimmer is rather unfair also – swanning up to the pool with his magnificent genes, all gangly and double-jointed. Moreover, there’s no good reason to keep athleticism as boring as it is. I’m ready to see what human beings can achieve at the absolute limits – I mean, at the limits of their being human. Think of the enormous drive it takes to have your torso sewn onto the legs of a kangaroo, like an outback satyr. Think of that in a kick-boxing ring.

Winstanley-Barron: I should be sad to see the corruption of sport’s natural purity.

Hartleby: There’s nothing that is purely the human body! We are the products of millennia of interaction between our ancestors and their technology. Our modern digestive systems are the result of the kinds of food they farmed. If you’re born with any kind of machine assistance, you’re already half-machine.

Winstanley-Barron: That’s an exaggeration. Suppose that you were conceived with the aid of a PC to calculate ovulation: I don’t think it follows that you’re half machine.

Hartleby: Taking performance-enhancing drugs and replacing parts of the human body is what, having naturally evolved, we now do, so it’s natural, too. Just like beavers building dams.

Winstanley-Barron: But a line has been crossed. I think sport ought to be about how far you can push your body without artificial aid. There’s something special about competing just with the aid of food and drink.

Hartleby: There’s no clear distinction between natural and artificial resources. Losing weight, eating well, taking paracetamol, injecting steroids, stitching wounds, replacing missing limbs, motorising your legs, taking painkillers during competitions, swapping hearts with an ox, placing your brain in a cheetah’s body…there’s no clear, nonarbitrary way to draw the line between what’s natural and unnatural. So I say it’s all good.

Winstanley-Barron: And if it’s harmful to human health?

Hartleby: Shouldn’t the athletes themselves be allowed to decide what’s harmful? Shouldn’t we treat them like grown-ups?

Winstanley-Barron: Well, there should be safety guidelines. Otherwise it could end up being self-destructive, as the intensity of competition drives athletes to do things that will kill them: overdose, engine failure, organ rejection.

Hartleby: Many may die young, of course – but they will die free and excellent, and impressing us all.

Winstanley-Barron: But athletes need to be protected from the uncertainties of experimental medical procedures.

Hartleby: Well, maybe we could make a few concessions for the health of the athletes, such as advice and assistance with drug-taking. Clean needles and the like.

Winstanley-Barron: I’m sorry but I just don’t think the world is ready for it yet: there are too many old-school sports fans.

Hartleby: A few dyed-in-the-wool fools! They’ll die out soon anyway. Allow body modification and you’ll see athletics excite and inspire a vast new audience!

“Welcome back to our countdown of the greatest heroes of Body Modification!” A documentary brings Reynolds back from his reverie. “In at number fifty, David McKean!”

The clip opens with children playing in a suburban garden, with a panting and depressed-looking leopard watching on in the background. A disembodied voice pipes up: “This is no ordinary leopard. In fact, he’s not a leopard at all: he is a human being, and his name is David McKean. David had his brain transplanted into the body of a leopard three years ago, when the procedure was much more groundbreaking than the quotidian affair it is today. It seems bizarre to think that this was itself an improvement on the head transplantations, which saw the heads of athletes, soldiers and adventurers stitched onto the bodies of a variety of beasts, with various degrees of success. Unfortunately, complications in surgery meant that David’s vocal cords were put in upside down, and eventually had to be removed altogether. However, David’s family are able to converse with him by plugging a computer into his spine, as painful as that is to David.” Shots of kids playing around a sprinkler in the garden give way to Mrs Mckean sharing an intimate embrace with her new partner. David watches on, panting, eyes narrowing.

An interior wide shot establishes the family on the sofa, while David is seen slinking about outside the French doors behind. “He’s not allowed in the house, but he has free run of the garden,” Mrs McKean explains.

“What was it that drove David to these… extremes, Mrs McKean?” the interviewer asks.

“It was a big decision for us all. He was a world-class athlete, but once body modification was allowed, his competitors all adopted it and David was literally left behind.”

“Was it worth it?”

“Well, we live in greater comfort for David’s pains. Childcare was quite a problem. Sexually, things were very difficult too… he became excessively clawy. But these things didn’t matter as much to David as staying in the race. That was all he ever wanted. He was back on the international stage, and he was a superstar … Of course, biotechnology and genetic engineering have accelerated so rapidly that he’s already completely out-classed. But we still have the big TV, great holidays, and the money to put David in care for the time we’re away. Now he mostly spends his days visiting schools and making celebrity appearances.”

“And is David pleased with the way thing have turned out?”

“Undoubtedly, I’m sure…Well, we used to fix David’s brain up to the computer so we could ask him things like that. But now I’ve met Derrick, who’s like a father to the kids… and since it causes David such suffering to plug him in, we rarely do. We’re very happy.”

The documentary features other athletes such as Ian Cullen, who has all of his internal organs removed, including a partial lobotomy, to lighten himself for a messy but impressive 100 metre dash. Then there are the swimmers: Jon Aye, the Bod Mod Cod, half man, half fish – who competes against fish with human brains; and Jane Hamshaw, who underwent a revolutionary procedure to turn herself completely into water.

Unfortunately, Jane met with a tragic accident.

At the pool’s edge, before the firing pistol sounds, a bucket is poised ready to tip into the pool. The pistol fires, the bucket tips, a frantic race ensues. However, as the rest of competitors reach the finish line, the officials are unable to determine whether Hamshaw has finished. They wait for the rest of the day, scrutinising the finish line, clocks still running, poking about in the water with nets. Later safety guidelines insisted that future smart water contestants be dyed, but this made for horrific viewing, as the dyes dissolved the smart water’s unity, allowing the cameras to pick up the athletes’ looks of despair as their bodies disperse irreversibly throughout the pool.

The documentary is interrupted by a news bulletin, informing the world that David McKean has just been shot dead by police snipers after going berserk at a school fête. “Few other lives were lost,” the reporter says gravely. “The whole episode can be watched in super-slow-motion on our website.”

The receptionist looks up to call Reynolds in for his consultation, in time to see the waiting room door pulling shut. Outside, Reynolds’ face is enhanced by a look of pure relief.

© John Tillson 2012

John Tillson is shortly to take up a Philosophy of Education PhD scholarship at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University.

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