The Transhumanist Wager – Zoltan Istvan (2013)
I’m in two minds about this novel, stylistically and thematically.
Structurally, it suffers in the main from a wobbly beginning since we have in the first few chapters a severely unnecessary amount of infodumping, consisting of pages of personal biographies and descriptions of the major characters. I’ve never seen the need to know the colour of characters’ eyes for instance, and here we have complete descriptions of their bodies, clothing choices (down to their brand of underwear in one case) and personal histories. This is the sort of thing one should discover in the course of the narrative, if at all, since much of it is unnecessary. I suspect, to the average reader, much of it is soon forgotten.
However, having got that out of the way, the narrative picks up and rattles along at a fair pace.
So, Jethro Knights is a committed and dedicated Transhumanist who, almost singlehandedly, transforms the Transhumanist Party into a more radical beast.
This draws the attention of the deliciously evil Rev. Belinas, leader of The Redeem Church, a body dedicated it seems to the destruction of any science capable of improving on God’s handiwork. Belinas is grooming young Gregory Michaelson – an ex-classmate of Jethro’s – to be his puppet senator and sets him up as head of a new enforcement agency, the NSFA, specifically created to oppose and destroy any Transhuman initiatives in the US.
Jethro, while travelling the world working as an overseas journalist, met and fell in love with a feisty and intelligent young doctor, Zoe Bach. Jethro, who appears to exhibit Vulcan-like powers of sexual suppression is worried that the force of his feelings will interfere with his cause, which is to push Transhumanism to the point where Death is conquered, and beyond.
He leaves Zoe to pursue his dream of a Transhuman world.
Much, much later Zoe, finding that her new job is about to be targetted by one of the Rev Belinas’ terrorist cells, contacts Jethro. With the aid of spycams and WiFi the raid is transmitted live to newsrooms across the country and Jethro, hiding out alone, gives a running commentary on the action while the bombers, not realising they are live on TV, implicate Belinas in the attempt.
Belinas escapes any investigation but Jethro becomes a hero and Transhumanism develops into a presence in the public consciousness. The battle between what is essentially rational thought and entrenched religious and social dogma escalates. The NFSA (The National Future Security Agency), at the behest of an increasingly desperate and murderous Belinas, is given additional powers to make Transhumanism illegal and to arrest anyone connected with the movement and seize their assets.
The battle escalates and, with the aid of a Russian billionaire and a revolutionary architect, Knights builds a floating city, Transhumania, where the final battle between reason and superstitious belief will be fought.
Istvan is one of my Goodreads friends, and I hope he forgives me for being somewhat critical of his work. He himself once worked as a National Geographic journalist and it is clear that he is drawing obvious parallels between himself and Jethro Knights. I have watched some of his speeches which are entertaining, very inspiring but somewhat at odds, however, with the views of Knights in this novel.
Knights is a fascinating character, if a tad sociopathic, totally focused on his goal to kickstart the Transhuman revolution and gain himself immortality.
The question I need to ask is how much of Istvan’s psyche is contained in Jethro Knights? It’s an important question simply because I do believe that this is an important work, despite its flaws. Unlike most genre novels this is based on current reality, or at least on a real political movement. Istvan is the leader of the US Transhumanist Party, and a Presidential candidate in the last election.
I am a supporter, in principle, of Transhumanism, as well as being a somewhat militant atheist. One would imagine then that I would be on the side of Jethro Knights in this novel, and yet I am struggling to get there. I recently read ‘Nexus’ which is also a pro-transhumanism novel, and in both works there is a tendency to paint the mundane humans as evil Luddites, desperate to hold back the progress of technology at any cost. There have to be some shades of grey here. Not all atheists or Transhumanists are good people. Not all religious people are evil or stupid. A little balance goes a long way.
My mind, while reading this. kept drifting off to AE van Vogt, another author who pushed a philosophy – albeit somewhat obliquely – via his work, which was at that time Dianetics. The interesting thing about about this is that van Vogt’s heroes generally solved their problems with logic and non-violence. Dianetics subsequently became subsumed within L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology ‘religion’ and we all know how well that turned out.
Transhumanism – or at least Jethro – is unconcerned with solving problems in a non-violent way and Knights feels perfectly justified in bombing churches across America. If Istvan is attempting to sway the average reader to his cause then this is counter productive since one would assume that those wishing to evolve or transcend would surely wish to abandon irrational violent instincts. It also places them on the same level as those who mount attacks on abortion clinics and gay bars. It’s a childish act.
The Transhumanists take the world by force, having destroyed the NATO navy ships sent against them and taken control of all world banking and military systems, insisting that the population of the world adapt to the New World Order or face extermination. To make the point clear, they destroy a number of major religious and political sites around the world including the White House, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace (to be fair, the latter, a relatively modern and decidedly ugly building, would not be a great loss) which draws obvious parallels with the recent ISIS destruction of historical sites.
There are some good aspects to the new rules. Education is free but compulsory, with citizens being required to learn something new throughout their lives. Religion is outlawed and the population strictly controlled.
However, this is nothing less than an enforced dictatorship and, I would suggest, unmanageable. The Soviet Union sought to eradicate religion but following its fall saw religion flower again like weeds in an untended garden.
It’s a wish fulfillment fantasy that fails to address many issues and is, as many of these political systems are, predicated on a policy of freeing people while denying them a good many of the freedoms they had enjoyed under the previous regime.
However, if we look at this as merely a work of fiction, it’s an enjoyable journey somewhat flawed by a good deal of unnecessary text.
If Istvan chose to revise this novel and make the movement seem more of an enlightened organisation rather than a terrorist group it would go a long way toward getting readers to identify with his aims.
It is, having said all that, an important piece of work given the author’s place in US society and in a sense refreshingly honest. Writing this review within a week of Donald Trump’s election as US President somewhat takes the edge off my criticism. One wonders whether a Transhumanist President might, after all, not be a bad thing.