Book Review: The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

Finally, after two months of summer parenting duties, I’ve found time to review another independent author’s work. This time around I’ve chosen, “The Transhumanist Wager” by Zoltan Istvan. I had the pleasure of meeting Zoltan at a Transhumanism conference near Berkeley, CA. In general, he’s a staunch advocate of the Transhuman movement and his blogs on the Huffington Post often get a rise out of people. To put it simply, Zoltan is passionate about his work and he doesn’t mind stepping on a few toes to get his message out there. As a matter of fact, the more toes stepped upon, the more people discuss his blog, which in the end is a good thing when you’re trying to get people to think about the future.

The parallels between Zoltan and his main character, Jethro Knights, are not lost on anyone who’s followed him. Yet Jethro is indeed his own man in many, many ways. A young college co-ed at the beginning of the novel, Jethro Knights prides himself on his perfect ability to reason. His love and devotion to logic are obvious, to the point that any conclusion that considers human emotions is silly and meaningless to him. He views humanity through a lense that makes him an outcast at best. No one could possibly ever understand such a detached human being. Many have compared Istvan’s work to “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand but I would disagree. Jethro Knights is not John Gault at all. “The Fountainhead” would be the more appropriate Rand analogy to "The Transhumanist Wager"-- Jethro Knights is Howard Roark, purely devoted to his craft, without the sado-masochistic love relationship.

Disgusted by the religiously biased current in his curriculum, and the government as a whole, Jethro leaves the university, after pissing off some very important people, and makes his way around the world on a sailboat he’s rebuilt by hand. During his sojourn, the United States government invests in a War on Transhumanism, fighting against science and any gains it might make to improve human life.

While overseas, in a surprising moment of weakness for this otherwise emotionless man, Jethro meets Zoe Bach, and falls in love with her, despite his own war on irrationality that he’s been waging his entire life. Some have said this love story is unreasonable, for nothing is more irrational than falling in love, but I find Zoe, and her relationship with Jethro, to be one of the most delightful, and insightful story lines in the book. While her presence in the story is too short, her impact was lasting for me. It was Zoe’s take on life, which she accurately calls “Quantum Zen,” that showed the most obvious path to immortality. Much more than Jethro’s avid atheism, which is just as narrow-minded as the Christian doctrines his antagonists carry with them, Zoe’s outlook on life, aging and death were engaging, interesting and full of potential.

Which brings me to the narrow-minded Christian antagonists-- they’re developed slowly within the storyline, and we don’t actually get to see them in full action until Jethro returns to the US and takes up his mantle as the new face for the Transhuman Movement. At that point Jethro becomes Enemy Number 1 of the state, and enter Reverend Belinas, your typical sleazy televangelist. The kind of Christian that makes you go, “Yuck.” On many fronts, Istvan is accurate in describing the zealous nature that drives Belinas to commit crime in the name of the Lord. Belinas is exactly the reason we need the separation of Church and State—people like him often throw out Christ’s entire message of peace and love for the one line in the Bible where the prophet declared, “Only through me shall man enter the kingdom of heaven,” thus giving Christians the right to manipulate politics to their dogma, since that’s the only way to get to heaven.

“The Transhumanist Wager” tackles this aspect of our society in a scathingly honest way. I have no doubt that the reason our governments spends .65 of every tax dollar on the war machine rather than on infrastructure, technology and education, is to further zealous idealisms like the ones Reverend Belinas supports. This sort of intrusive thinking is also what limits technological research and fuels the anti-science movement we’re witnessing. From the tone in this novel, I can see that Istvan is very concerned about this religious-political environment and how it will affect his dreams of living forever. Jethro Knights likens it to genocide of sorts-- that denying people the right to radical life extensions due to religious fears is a form of murder on the part of those in power.

Overall, the technology in “The Transhumanist Wager” is fun to think about. Transhumania, the sea city Utopia Jethro is forced to build in order to invest in Transhuman technologies without government intrusion, is every libertarian's dream.

But there’s a glaring hypocrisy I simply cannot ignore-- Jethro Knight’s relentless belief that his way of life is the only way of life feels very similar to Reverend Belinas’ worldview. One places his belief in an unseen God while the other places his in an unproven science. It's ironic when atheists, or those who believe only in science, use the same language as a religious zealot to justify their choices. To be against any way of life other than yours is simply intolerance, whether religious, racial or technical. There’s a scene in the novel where the Reverend is torturing Jethro, ready to kill him, in order to protect the evolution he thinks humanity should take. In that moment I of course sided with Jethro; I don’t believe that killing others to support my way of life is justified. Yet only a few chapters later, when Jethro is released and back on his heavily armed floating city, he issues an ultimatum to the world that is so eerily similar in language as Belinas, I had to laugh at the hypocrisy.

True, Jethro wasn’t calling all Christians to evangelize the world. Instead, he was calling all of those who were willing to produce and work hard for an immortal future to evangelize the world. If you didn’t agree with him, or perhaps were just lazy, then you weren’t needed. You were expendable. Yes, perhaps even murderable. For in the future according to Jethro Knights, only the capable are needed. The rest are nothing to him and taking up resources. Best to simply kill them off.

To me, this is the polarization that has kept humanity back for centuries. As long as we look at one another as either with us or against us, we’ll be limited in our growth. As long as we see our technology as either evil or good, we’ll never make the next great leap. True, we’ll keep inventing interesting stuff to control or kill one another, but to great destruction and unnecessary expense.

In my opinion, “The Transhumanist Wager” let me down at the very end not because it’s written poorly, nor because I don’t agree with the fantastic vision that Istvan has for our future when it comes to technology, but because Jethro Knights is just another bully forcing his philosophy upon the inhabitants of the world. There’s nothing novel about a tyrant. We’ve been there, done that, over and over again.

Life shouldn’t have to be either/or anymore. We can rise up and be both/and. Philosophers call it, “neutralizing the binaries.” I like that idea. When we can move from a binary way of thinking, to a more quantum view of life, then anything becomes possible.

Alas, perhaps Istvan has hidden the key to our future in this book after all, in the form of Zoe Bach’s “Quantum Zen.” Follow her, rather than Jethro Knights, and the singularity, as well as world peace and tolerance, might just be around the corner.


starrdusk said...

Nice. I like your review. I have put off reading any more Transhumanist's novels other then yours because they felt stilted, forced. Your review makes me want to read it if only to further develop my own Christian/non-Christian views in a logical fashion. It sounds as though he should have given more air time to Zoe and I am interested in hearing her view points.

Mark Plus said...

In a way, "transhumanism" doesn't really exist. And you can't will it into existence by writing novels about it, blogging about the wonders of it or making movies about "transhuman" superheroes.

It will require doing some very hard and sustained work, along with "making your own luck," in doing real science and technology before a philosophy of that name has enough tangible referents that it can become a plausible world view that a lot of people can embrace.

We have just gotten nowhere near that point yet.

Nicole Sallak Anderson said...

Mark, while I'd agree that transhumanism as many would romanticize it doesn't exist right now, real science is being done in this area. In Russia there's money and effort being invested. Here in the US, Google (via Calico) and many others are hiring scientists to develop a wide variety of technologies to partner with humans and extend life in various ways. The products come in baby steps, and are embraced readily once people see it as useful. Is immortality even useful? To some. But not to all. But most would like to live as long and as healthy as possible and science has been providing solutions in that realm for a while. Only time will tell what is discovered in the next decade.

As for the storyteller's job, often an idea isn't embraced, even when the science is there, until enough people imagine it. Thus, imagining it and then telling tales about an idea spreads that idea across the human network, thus making it all the more accepted or desired. This is what marketing is. A storyteller isn't much different in his or her aim.

Regardless, it's true, much work and dedication are needed. That's the case in all invention.