Sci-Fi — 16 August 2013

Review: The Transhumanist Wager, by Zoltan Istvan.

When I was younger, there were books everywhere: on cosmology, politics, surgery, philosophy, religion, gold-leafed copies of Dante and Darwin, and not a few science fiction classics; Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein all found a space on our shelves. My conservative stepfather, at one point, offered me a deal: “read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and I will pay you $50.” OK, I thought, no problem. I was a voracious reader anyway, and was always looking for something new. So I started Rand’s novel, but found it stale, boring, its characters poorly drawn, the action slow. I gave up after 100 pages. It wasn’t the philosophy I had a problem with, I was well down the path to becoming a teenage libertarian anyway…I just found the novel dull, and I have never returned to it.

Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager is not dull. In fact, it is quite a page-turner. The novel takes place in the near future, a future where transhumanists are at odds with more conservative forces, namely the State and a charismatic Christian preacher, who aim to stop the godless boffins who would themselves seek godhood. Istvan’s transhumanist Overman is played by Jethro Knights, an idealist and rigid man who will stop at nothing, literally nothing to achieve immortality, even if it means killing (nearly) everyone on the planet. Without giving away too much of the plot, Knights seeks to establish a planetary regime, whereby the goals of transhumanism and his own philosophy, dubbed Teleological Egocentric Functionalism, hold dominion over the peoples of the world, their own cultures swept away by a tide of radical transhumanist ideology. And the great unwashed masses are given little choice in the matter: in Knights’ vision, people will either serve transhumanist goals or die (by the hand of time or killer robots, take your pick.)

Which can only remind me of another book on the shelves of my childhood home: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.* Hitler’s manifesto is a difficult read, and drips with a sort of vulgar hatefulness that is rare in literature. Written well before Hitler was to take power in Germany, it sets the tone for the political movement that would become Nazism and the Third Reich. He singles out his political opponents (Jews and Marxists who would become targets of his venom and violence) and outlines his support for eugenics, whereby the weak, and those unwilling to serve national socialism would be eliminated. He makes the case for German breathing room, or Lebensraum, and signals his intention to use violence to achieve it. “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live,” he writes.

The Transhumanist Wager, though fiction, contains some of the very same ideas (though in the novel, practitioners of all faiths, and not just Jews, will ultimately feel the wrath of our transhuman superhero.) This is a bit horrifying for an anti-authoritarian such as myself, who believes that good ideas will ultimately trump bad ones, without the need for the kind of ruthless violence depicted in the novel. Furthermore, as someone who is opposed to coercion of all kinds, Istvan’s bridging of libertarian political ideology (to which I am very sympathetic) with a kind of transhumanist totalitarianism (to which I am strongly opposed) is deeply disturbing.

It is often good to be so disturbed, however, and while I am strongly opposed to the authoritarian politics proposed in the book, I think it is certainly worth reading, despite its uneven writing and unconventional structure. I rather like it when “the bad guys” win, it’s all too rare in our feel-good soporific entertainments. The Transhumanist Wager, while not exactly the kind of statement many in the transhumanist community would prefer be made, lest possible adherents be scared off, will make you think, to Istvan’s credit. I would gladly (but warily) read more of his work.

*INB4: I am very well aware that I am in violation of Godwin’s Law, but the rule always struck me as anti-intellectual, a sort of a plea for an ahistorical perspective, an outlook that I unequivocally reject.


About Author


Trained in anthropology and the history of science at the University of Arkansas, MIT, and Harvard University, I am drawn to stories about emerging technologies and humanity's future. I am also a permaculture designer, and when I am not thinking about the Singularity, I like to pick berries and tend to my goats. Follow me on Twitter: @happydrones

  • Zoltan Istvan

    Dear Will, Thank you for the review. It was very well-written and interesting. Unfortunately, your striking title of the review and its content make this a difficult piece to share with my readers and potential readers. I’m already in enough hot water with the book as it is. However, I do want to thank you for reading my novel and for writing a powerful review. On my part, I’ve been telling people that “The Transhumanist Wager” can serve both as a source of inspiration and as a warning. Like many other transhumanists, I also hope we can transition to the future peacefully and expediently. Wishing you much success with your website! Cheers, Zoltan Istvan

    • the happy drone

      Hi Zoltan,

      For what it is worth, I must emphasize that I did enjoy reading your book, and I tried to steer away from assigning the ideas expressed in the book to you personally. Still, it was a disturbing read, perhaps because the spectre of coercive eugenics looms so large in the work. I’m sorry that you don’t feel that my review is appropriate to share with your readers, but you know the saying: “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Cheers, Will.

      • Zoltan Istvan

        Hi Will,
        Thanks for the note. I think your review is fine…it’s just challenging for me to share with my readers and people that already follow me. Social media allows for too many quick decisions and comparisons that don’t always turn out well for an author. However, you are right about no such thing as bad publicity. And I encourage you to share this review everywhere you like. Despite some of the risks, I will likely share this myself.

        I’m happy you reviewed my book, and I thank you for doing so. Cheers, Zoltan

  • Sean Orr

    I thought this review was thoughtful and I will certainly read Mr. Istvan’s book simply because of the provocative correlations that you draw, Will. As a Neurologist involved in the biohacking and grinding movements, I have a very open mind to Transhumanist ideas. The Transhumanist political movement started by Maria Konovalenko fascinates me, and I see the seeds being planted today that could someday blossom into a dystopia or utopia, depending on how it’s managed.

    So I congratulate both of you for getting involved. And I am curious to know if either of you see a role for autonomous, unregulated and unrestrained biohacking and grinding? How much can a future society prevent methods of self-enhancement from spreading like a meme? Do you think that our established institutions have enough control to constrain autologous enhancement?

    Sean Orr

    • the happy drone

      Hi Sean,

      I don’t have a problem with grinding or DIY enhancement, but I do think that unrestrained biohacking (and especially DIY genetic engineering) is potentially very dangerous. Already, scientists in the Netherlands and China have created airborne strains of H5N1, for example, and a tweaked mouse pox or ebola or flu could kill millions if it were ever released. And of course, synthetic biology and cheap sequencing will make this all possible, and it will be terribly difficult to regulate…if not impossible.

      But I don’t have a problem with body/mind modification. If someone wants to be a cyborg, inhabit a snowflake of computronium, live forever, grow horns, become a “wirehead”, or live as a cloud of smart dust, that doesn’t bother me and really it’s none of my business. But DIY genetic engineering has the potential to do great harm to others, by causing harm to the environment or by creating dangerous pathogens, with or without malicious intent. That being said, I think that the rise of biohacking is an inevitability and will be impossible to regulate.