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.