book review | The Transhumanist Wager

May 15, 2013 by Giulio Prisco

Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager is an epic story of radical libertarian ideas, their enemies, and the violent global conflict that ensues, painted in strong saturated colors with little room for intermediate shades and character development.

After reading cover to cover, and then reading it more carefully, I have mixed love/hate feelings about this novel.

It’s a page turner. Istvan — a former journalist for the National Geographic Channel and The New York Times, whose award-winning coverage of the war in Kashmir gained worldwide attention — knows how to tell a compelling story.

There are strong parallels with Atlas Shrugged. Jethro Knights, the main character of The Transhumanist Wager, is a modern John Galt — a transhumanist and even-more -radical version of Ayn Rand’s hero.

Jethro is obsessed with and focused on attaining personal immortality via biological life extension and especially mind uploading and eternal cybernetic life.

America is in a deep economic recession, with rising unemployment and domestic terrorism. Transhumanist ideas are in the limelight, violently opposed by a “politically correct” establishment, inept politicians, and a domineering, violent religious right movement, led by arch-villain Reverend Belinas.

In the first third of the book, partly autobiographic, we follow Jethro in his solo circumnavigation of the world in a sailboat that he built himself, working as a travel and war journalist on the side. On his boat, Jethro meditates on the big questions and issues. And when he returns to New York five years later, he is ready to fight Belinas and take over the world. And yes, there is a love story. It begins in a Kashmir war zone, and continues after Jethro’s return.

Militant libertarianism

Jethro’s philosophy is an extreme, militant version of the radically libertarian formulation of transhumanism championed by the Extropy Institute in the 90s. Attaining immortality is a prerequisite for becoming all-powerful “Omnipotenders” and moving on to dominate the universe. So life extension must have the highest priority, without letting unnecessary distractions like empathy, compassion, or love stand in the way.

Jethro is a two-dimensional icon in an epic story. From the (few) attempts to give him depth, we can see that there is probably a nice person at his core, but he is a fundamentalist like Reverend Belinas where his goals and philosophical outlook are concerned. In the final confrontation with Belinas, Jethro kills his enemy after a powerful clash of ideas, but not without Belinas scoring some points. Yes, Jethro would commit atrocities in pursuit of his objectives, and even kill the persons he loves most.

I’m a radical transhumanist, but I find Jethro’s approach alienating. I can find worthy elements in different worldviews, but I don’t think any worldview has all the answers. I think militant fundamentalism — the certainty of having all the answers, and the will to crush the unbelievers — is at the root of most evils. Religion can be good, but the Inquisition was an atrocity. Atheism can be good, but oppressive, authoritarian, militant atheism is not. Libertarianism is good, but indifference to the pain of others is not. Transhumanism is good, but I hope it will prevail without the violence described in the novel.

Toward the end of the book, Jethro’s missiles destroy the Vatican, killing the Pope and hundreds of believers in prayer in St. Peter’s square. Jethro would answer that violent acts of war were initiated by others (first the U.S. government, then an international coalition), and the transhumanists retaliated in self-defense, after warning the population to leave the targeted areas, to minimize collateral damage. But what I find much more difficult to accept is that Jethro considers other persons as expendable, and would not stop even at large-scale genocidal mass murder.

In contrast, transhumanist leader Preston Langmore is a nice soft-spoken guy, a visionary humanist who is happy enough thinking that perhaps his grandchildren will be immortal, without really hoping to see immortality in his lifetime. But he doesn’t have what it takes to defend transhumanists from more and more violent attacks. After a leading transhumanist scientist working on alternative substrates for mind uploading is savagely murdered and beheaded by Belinas’ thugs, with the silent complicity of the government, it’s Jethro who must take the lead.

Transhumania — the ultimate Galt’s Gulch

Jethro’s more and more popular Transhumanist Citizens movement trumps and exposes a terrorist attack against a cryonics facility. But Belinas’ religious right — this time with the full and open support of the government — in a now-dystopian police-state America, threatens massive violent repression against transhumanists.

Jethro escapes and creates the ultimate Galt’s Gulch: Transhumania, a high-tech floating seasteading community populated by the world’s best and brightest. The citizens of Transhumania develop amazingly advanced science and technology — and powerful weapons for the final confrontation that they know will come soon.

Of course the good guys win … but are they still good guys? They impose a strict “transhumanian” rule over the rest of the planet, with many good things like scientific education and opportunity for all. But also some fascist measures that don’t seem libertarian to me, not at all.

In The Artilect War, Hugo de Garis says that the transhumanist drive to develop technologies to transcend the human condition, in particular more-than-human artificial intelligences, is on an inescapable collision course with traditional morality, religion, and social organization. He believes a massive conflict with billions of deaths is bound to happen someday, perhaps in this century. The Transhumanist Wager is probably the first novel to address de Garis’ doomsday scenario (Jethro would annihilate the rest of humanity if he had to.)

I really hope Istvan’s fiction will remain fiction, but it seems disturbingly plausible. If transhumanists will need to defend themselves, a Jethro will probably emerge.

Quantum Zen

My favorite character is the delicious Zoe Bach, Jethro’s one and only love. With a mixed Western and Eastern heritage, Zoe is a spiritual transhumanist who shares Jethro’s enthusiasm for becoming immortal and transcending the human condition by means of advanced technology. But at the same time, she remains open to the more spiritual forms of transcendence found in Eastern mysticism.

In her “Quantum Zen” outlook, Zoe is not so focused on immortality: she imagines that future super-science will be able to resurrect the dead. Jethro agrees, but he considers far-future speculations as a distraction from his overpowering drive to launch his transhumanist revolution and attain immortality here and now. The tension between Jethro’s and Zoe’s philosophies is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the novel.

Pitching transhumanism

Zoltan told me that “the main goal with book was to create a powerful artistic statement for the current and younger generation of thinkers and readers, to pull young people away from fantasy genres into transhumanism. My novel is trying to tell them that transhumanism is every bit as exciting and rewarding as anything commercial Hollywood puts out there for them.

“I’m hoping that a young person who is in college or high school might read my book and decide that they would rather pursue a career in science and technology than, let’s say business, law, or advertising. If my novel will convince people to pursue science and reason in their daily lives instead of fantasy and commercialism, then I will be a happy, fulfilled person.”

I think The Transhumanist Wager is a very powerful artistic statement indeed, but one that promotes an interpretation of transhumanism that I find far too militant and devoid of compassion.

At the same time, while Zoltan and Jethro don’t have all the answers, they do ask important questions, and offer some valid answers. I find their libertarianism too militant and uncompromising, but at the same time, I think it’s important to affirm libertarian ideas loud and clear in today’s dull, politically correct, anti-libertarian cultural climate.

I don’t think science will advance as fast as Zoltan hopes, not even in a real-world Transhumania, but I think it’s important to offer younger generations compelling artistic visions of a solar, positive future powered by transhumanist science.

Zoltan’s book has the potential to become a cult book. I hope it will be widely read and discussed.