Book Review: The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan
by Chris T. Armstrong
An Epic Declaration of Transhumanist Values
Full disclosure: I LOVE this book…
If you want a dispassionate, unbiased, detached, “objective” examination of the book’s plot, character development, literary style, form, etc., look elsewhere. I will not give you a synopsis of the plot and describe all the main personalities and relationships between the characters. Many other reviewers have done this already. I AM going to tell you a bit of what I love about the story and characters, but MOSTLY I will help you to modulate your expectations so that you will be clear as to what this book IS and IS NOT. Armed with this information, you may be able to get more out of it than you would have, had you approached it with whatever set of expectations you would have brought to it prior to reading this “review.”
I am a serious transhumanist, so I am primed to like the point of view and content of the story. Each transhumanist will undoubtedly have “issues” with certain aspects of the plot and actions of some characters, but it will, nevertheless, provide them with plenty of food for thought and debate with other transhumanists. But this is largely beside the point. The author has said in interviews that this book was written primarily with a person unfamiliar with transhumanism in mind and this is why I am indulging in the GRAND PRESUMPTION to provide the uninitiated reader with a few things to look for that will make the challenge of “getting it” go much more smoothly.
No, I don’t think, condescendingly, that you are too dumb to grasp it all on your own. Rather, it is because transhumanist ideas tend to challenge many fundamental and intuitively held cultural beliefs about “life, the universe and EVERYTHING” and, because of certain plot elements, these ideas get presented in a very forceful and in-your-face sort of way, a bit of “conceptual foreplay” is in order before consenting to the full Transhumanist Wager “consummation”…as it were. It is better to think of this “review” as more of a “guide,” wherein I’ll point out the most interesting “conceptual landmarks” and emphasize certain contextual features that will enable you to traverse the terrain of this dense novel while avoiding certain foreseeable hazards of thought and interpretation.
The first thing to know about The Transhumanist Wager, is that this novel is, above ALL, a BOOK OF IDEAS…Yes, the ideas are embedded in a gripping story full of conflict, action, climaxes, (yes, the rumors you’ve heard about it being an addictive “page turner” are CERTAINLY true) but it is always the IDEAS that provide the fuel to propel the action forward.
Rather than presenting transhumanist ideas in a dry textbook, laden with detailed scientific and technological information and idiosyncratic futuristic philosophy, Zoltan Istvan has chosen to present these ideas in novel form whereby they have additional impact because of the human relationships that provide windows into the motivations behind the actions and convictions. Plot-tensions serve to test the limits and extremes of the ideas and the characters’ commitment to them.
Don’t complain about long speeches. Instead, stretch your attention span and pay close attention to the CONTENT rather than the WORD COUNT. There are certain places in the story where the action must pause and certain people need to be read the proverbial “Riot Act.” There are A LOT of ideas that need to be presented…did I mention that this is a book of IDEAS? If you are looking for a story with a lot of action but with little interruption in the form of challenging ideas, this is NOT the book for you. Novels with plenty of action that require a minimum exposure to uncomfortable new ideas are not hard to find. I dare say they are the RULE rather than the EXCEPTION.
Many people, myself included, have expressed misgivings, and MORE, about some of the actions taken by the lead character, Jethro Knights. The important thing to focus on is the context that drives those actions. The world in which this story takes place is a relatively near-future earth, but one in which many examples of push-back against transhumanism, that are just beginning to emerge today, have grown TREMENDOUSLY in response to future successes of transhumanist technologies and ideas.
Individuals and governments are using force of law and ACTUAL force to inhibit scientific progress, to the point of LITERALLY declaring war on transhumansts, who are being killed, imprisoned, assets seized and declared to be criminals simply for working in the field of transumanism. And don’t fail to note the most extreme incident that happens to Knights personally that colors his subsequent responses.
The Transhumanist Wager, has often been compared to Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. Among the several general similarities between the two stories, is the fact that both are set in a future time wherein there is great economic and cultural upheaval. The governments in both books go into an extreme fear-based, monkey-brained, tribalistic, them-or-us, fight-or-flight mode that engenders extreme responses from those who are on the receiving end of the governments’ mindless temper tantrums.
The point is NOT that every tactic that Knights employs in this war is therefore justified, but rather, his extremely strident and authoritarian attitude and actions are not indicative of the default modus operandi of transhumanists under “normal” circumstances. To the contrary, transhumanists merely want to be able to work on advancing the human condition through technology and new scientific discoveries to the future benefit of everyone who would like to partake of them.
This is a CAUTIONARY TALE about what COULD happen in the future if religious extremists and others who are very averse to change and even to the mere EXISTENCE of points of view that conflict with their own worldviews begin to take more forceful actions to stifle these changes and ideas.
The first goal of transhumanists is to extend their life as long as possible; to ensure the “continuity of their consciousness,” eventually, beyond the limitations of a biological body and into some other, more sturdy, medium when available. We are in a race against our dwindling lifespans, of which, we currently have little ability to extend very far at all. If we can live just long enough to make it to the next few major life-extension breakthroughs, we may be able to, as Ray Kurzweil proposes, “live long enough to live forever.”
In the book, the First Law of Transhumanism is: “A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.” This is the sine qua non of transhumanism and yes, it is the words “all else” that can conjure up extreme hypothetical ethical dilemmas in one’s mind and can strain the limits of each transhumanist’s willingness to consistently adhere to this principle.
It is this prime value that makes the stakes so high when others threaten it or even DELAY the next potential life/health-extending breakthrough. These kinds of shenanigans tend to cause transhumanists to become QUITE “cross” and Jethro Knights is putting the world ON NOTICE as to this fact.
One of the most overused criticisms, one that seems to be almost OBLIGATORY if a reviewer wants to appear sophisticated and discerning is that a character is, “one-dimensional.” And there has been no shortage of this criticism being leveled against Istvan’s novel. I would propose that all novels are not created equal, in that some are more character-driven; some are action-driven; and a few are idea-driven. I put it to you that the revealed details of a character’s life are on a “need to know basis.”
Take one of my favorite novels, William Styron’s, Sophie’s Choice, for example. This book is ALL ABOUT the tremendously quirky and complex characters and the way that they respond to events, both mundane and cataclysmic. Styron informs us about their histories, families, etc. in GREAT detail, not because all books MUST present multi-dimensional characters in all their fully fleshed-out human-esqe glory and complexity, but because this book is about the characters, PERIOD.
In Istvan’s novel, granted we don’t know Jethro’s favorite color, his mom’s name, and we’re not privy to ANY of his iTunes playlists, but we are given access to his IDEAS and books that reads and his attitudes about a great many things, because in THIS book, IDEAS ARE KING. The characters are vehicles for the actualization of the IDEAS. The plot is in service of creating tensions that will test the limits and extremes of the ideas and the degree to which the characters consistently embody the ideas under duress. Yes, Istvan could have included some details about Jethro’s formative years, but what is most important in this idea-driven story is that fact that Jethro IS what he IS. And there will be room in the inevitable sequels to explore more about WHY he is that way.
The function of Jethro’s love interest, nay, SOULMATE, Zoe Bach, is to show another side of Jethro…dare I say, “other dimensions?” Zoe is the Yin to his Yang. She challenges his ideas and instincts. And his EXTREME love and respect for her forces him to consider things that he might just brush aside as unworthy of consideration if they had come from anyone BUT Zoe.
Some would-be literary critics have even said that Jethro’s love for Zoe is contradictory to his character or hypocritical. After all, Jethro is a ROCK, an ISLAND UNTO HIMSELF. It makes no sense that he would care for someone like Zoe, ESPECIALLY given her proclivity for a more mystical worldview. But this is exactly that human dimension that people look for in their fictional characters. Zoe and Jethro share the same values and “sense of life.” The differing details of their worldviews based on their backgrounds only go to temper some readers’ view of Jethro as a heartless, rigid, transhumanist automaton.
Finally, a personal speculation about the effect this book has on a lot of people. I have an intuition or hunch that the majority of the negative feelings people have for Jethro just may be for his words more than his deeds. I have a suspicion that if all the same actions were taken, but with FAR FEWER explicit, in-your-face explanations, the negativity toward Jethro might be much less intense.
Just as in Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Roark/Galt make very long speeches that basically sum up to: “I don’t recognize your authority to judge or interfere with my ideas or actions because I completely reject nearly all that you hold dear and have replaced it all with my own ideas and values.” And particularly when quite a bit of what they are rejecting is the belief in, and submission to, no less than THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE, well, one just doesn’t say that kind of thing. People should respect other people’s beliefs, after all.
To the contrary, Knights/Roark/Galt hold these beliefs up to the scrutiny of reason and test their values as to their functionality and consequences just as they would any other ideas. This “arrogant blasphemy,” I believe, is their primary crime in the eyes of many.
As a result of my own passions and values, I love this book. It is my new favorite novel. I love Zoe’s spirit and grit and Jethro’s passion and strength. I would love nothing more than to hang out with all the scientists and engineers as they bring their world-changing creations to life. Yes, I am a serious nerd and transhumanist and these are MY PEOPLE. I am from their TRIBE. We are comrades in the same “struggle.” Not a “class struggle” but a struggle to take charge of human evolution and see it through to the next level. Not as a post-HUMAN, but as a post-BIOLOGICAL being, while retaining the human qualities we choose to and leaving our bio-limitations behind. All our resource-scarcity problems and our body’s ULTRA-FRAGILE-NESS are rooted in our biological “platforms” and their need for carbon-based food, water, oxygen. The sooner we can move past these limitations, the better…toward a SUBSTRATE INDEPENDENT, CONTINUITY OF CONSCIOUSNESS.
I have no doubt that this book will inspire many who didn’t even previously realize they WERE transhumanists to follow this path.
Transhumanists of the world, UNITE!!!
We’ve got some serious TRANSFORMING to do…