The Thin Line between Human and Machine – “Augment: Human Services” by Phil Elmore

Defining humanity is always a tricky subject, particularly as we begin to understand the definition is not always clear-cut. Science Fiction as a genre in general, and cyberpunk in particular as a sub-genre, have grappled with defining what makes us human since their inception. Cyberpunk in particular advanced the discourse through introducing transhumanism, the idea of altering the human body through technology. Augment: Human Services by Phil Elmore uses cyberpunk and transhumanism as a framework to portray a murder-mystery, a common storytelling device that is used within cyberpunk and other science fiction stories.

On the surface, Augment is a cyberpunk novella. In a setting where society is rigorously segmented and defined, the fringes are often where one can find “freedom”. But that freedom has its own costs, which is always the case. Similar to the anime franchise Ghost in the Shell, Augment allows Elmore the chance to use exceptional imagery, descriptive passages, and character traits to define where the human being ends and where the machine begins.

The lead character is David Chalmers, an agent for the setting’s government that is charged with protecting the “normal” society from the Oggies, a term used in-universe to define humans who have chosen to undergo severe cybernetic enhancement. In this way, the Oggies are not that dissimilar from other denizens of the cyberpunk genre. A similar example would the gang Maelstrom in the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077. Like the members of Maelstrom, Oggies are obsessed with transforming themselves through technology, shedding their base human template (so to speak) and instead opting to live outside the bubble of society. Because of the full body transformations undertaken by the Oggies, they live in their own society on the fringes of the mainstream culture. The descriptions used by Elmore elicit both fascination and revulsion (in some cases), showcasing some of the bestial transmogrifications many of these outsiders have gone through.

One thing that should be mentioned at this point is that this is an older novella, originally released back in 2014. In the short six years since this novella was released, the trans-movement has become a much-needed force for change in society. There have always been those who did not feel their body was right for them, that they were someone else trapped in this alien meatsack that shouldn’t define who or what they are. The transhumanism displayed in this novella could be seen as a condemnation of Trans individuals but that is not the message I read into the book. Instead, I see this as a cautionary tale for our increasing dependence on technology and what it can do to improve the human condition. As we move inexorably toward the point of human-technological synthesis, the ideas proposed in works such as Augment and other cyberpunk stories will no doubt be even more relevant.

The central thesis behind the story is to be wary of extremes. Body modification to suit one’s internal identity is and should be considered a laudable pursuit. What we see through the character of Chalmers and his interactions with the Oggies is what happens when the desire for separation from society and the chance to become something other than human takes hold in a person’s mind. The Oggies are not a representation of Trans-people. They are extremists, those who have considered what technology can do but, as Ian Malcolm stated in the original Jurassic Park “not what it should do”.

An additional point of praise for the novella is its handling of violence. Often times in fiction, violence is handled with kid gloves. We’re shown or told vivid sequences of violent behavior but the toll it can take on the body is left out or minimized to such a degree that it is meaningless. If you stop and think about it, how many times have you seen a fight scene in a film or read it in a book and thought, there’s no way anyone could walk away from that? Elmore avoids this completely, making sure to show the reader the physical and psychology toll that violence causes in a person. The details are gory and the author makes sure to convey that the protagonist’s aggression is necessary but extracts a heavy price.

At just shy of sixty-nine pages in e-book format, Augment: Human Services is a fast and easy read, one you could do comfortably in an afternoon. I found the piece to be an excellent entry in the cyberpunk sub-genre. Sadly, there has been no further exploration into this world since its release six years ago but for what it is, the book is a damn good read.

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