The following is a short interview I conducted with Zoltan Istvan, author of the philosophical novel The Transhumanist Wager. Have some more questions for Zoltan? He will be appearing this Wednesday in San Jose California. See http://hplusmagazine.com/2013/07/24/event-humanity-zero1-garage/ for additional information.
1. What is the Transhumanist Wager and why should we risk it?
The “Transhumanist Wager” is summed up best in my novel:
If a reasoning human being loves and values life, they will
want to live as long as possible—the desire to be immortal.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to know if they’re going to be
immortal once they die. To do nothing doesn’t help the odds
of attaining immortality—since it seems evident that everyone
will die someday and possibly cease to exist. To try to do
something scientifically constructive towards ensuring
immortality beforehand is the most logical conclusion.
That’s the essence of the wager. In the 21st Century, with so much science and technology at our disposal, we must do something constructive towards ensuring our ongoing lives and defeating death. Each one of us must do this. I believe we should each risk everything in order to preserve our lives. Anything else falls short of our love and appreciation of life.
2. How did you learn about transhumanism and when did you become a transhumanist?
I was reading a Time Magazine article about cryonics and life extension for a college class. As I read the story, the ideas of transhumanism began to strike me in the form of a powerful revelation. By the time I finished the article, I knew I was a transhumanist and wanted to dedicate my life to promoting life extension science and technology.
3. You were a reporter for National Geographic and had various adventures around the world including volcano sledding. How did your life as an adventurer inform your views on transhumanism?
Many young reporters (as I was ten years ago) start off covering stories that are dangerous and eye-catching. It’s often the quickest way to break into the very competitive field journalism. Most of my stories, especially for the National Geographic Channel, were abroad in dangerous places. It was exciting work, but it was also nerve-wracking. A lot of my specific articles and film pieces, especially from warzones, left me desiring more than ever to become permanently healthy, safeguarded, and alive. When you’re in a conflict zone, all you think about is being safe again. Then once you’re finally safe again, all you think about it is staying safe. Hence, my ever-growing love of transhumanism and life extension science.
4. Your book is controversial in part because it paints a very black and white picture of the future. But in reality we see many shades of grey. However we see many transhumanists pursuing a very black and white approach similar to that of the characters in your book. I wonder how effective this extreme approach is in achieving our objectives which must be life extension and human enhancement, not the victory or success of a specific movement or idealistic system. Can you comment? I spend a good deal of time thinking about how I should communicate with non-transhumanists and I feel that your protagonist’s binary approach would be quite ineffective in practice.
Let me first say that I very much understand your point of view. And that there are many valid points of view to take to support transhumanism and life extension science. I think it’s a personal decision on which path each of us pursues.
My novel has been criticized for being black and white. Nonetheless, I purposely wrote it that way, even though I know that much of life takes place in shades of grey. I believe art is most powerful when it comes in the form of a revelation—when it strikes us in the face, when it creates disruption to our normal thinking patterns. I see my novel as a canon-ball plunge into icy waters. That plunge does not allow for shades of grey. It allows for a jolt of uncultured and untainted promise (and perhaps warning) about the future.
While I appreciate that much of the life extension and transhuman community has read my novel, it was never intended just for them. It was especially written for those that know little of our movement and its ideas. Some have said my novel is a terrible introduction to transhumanism, but I disagree. I see the story and ambition of Jethro Knights leaving a lasting mark on those that read it. That mark may be fear and emphatic disagreement with the story and the protagonist. But that mark may also be one of great promise—of unlimited ambition—dangerous and antisocial as that may seem. For people coming to terms with the technological reality of the 21st Century, I believe the novel serves as a wake-up call and a warning for where we are all headed.
5. You are working on a sequel? Can you say a bit about the next book?I’m currently working on the sequel’s outline. The first book does contain a stand-alone philosophy in its own right. However, in the sequel, I will likely address more of my real concerns about transhumanism and the future. But that’s natural, since at the end of The Transhumanist Wager, death has been mostly conquered for people. Now the issues will revolve around power, greed, and the difference between the moral values of machines and humans. And which will win. And which should win the evolutionary race to omnipotence.
6. Fiction and science fiction in particular are popular tools of transhumanist thinkers, however fiction is problematic in that our imaginations exceed reality and of course many possible futures can be imagined. Many writers focus on stories full of conflict or dystopian scenarios because these make better stories not because they are necessarily more probable scenarios in reality. What is the right way to use fiction as a tool? How can we misuse it?
Fiction has been such a powerful tool in revolutions and civil rights conflicts throughout history. Literally, every revolution always had one book at the forefront. Therefore, I want to be careful not to say there is a right or wrong way to use fiction. It is art, and therefore it’s beyond many of our concepts of what’s right and what’s wrong. Chaining it down and putting it into a well-fitted box would only enslave the artist, which is the last thing we want to do in a free society. We rely on new ideas for our evolutionary development, even extreme and explosive ones that can be found in The Transhumanist Wager.
Of course, this means art and fiction can be easily misused. And that is problematic and also dangerous. People can take their art too far or down dark insane paths—and this may inspire many others to pursue unhealthy or fruitless lives. My book, perhaps above all things, advocates reason. I think if everyone used reason to their utmost capabilities, then they would be able to tell what art is worthwhile, and what is not.
7. What’s next for Zoltan Istvan beyond writing fiction?
I’m spending nearly all my time trying to get The Transhumanist Wager out to new audiences—to people who don’t know much about transhumanism. I’m trying to line up more speaking engagements, go to conferences, do public readings, and engage in any sort of activism that promotes transhumanism and its ideas to the public. I’m also actively supporting other transhuman-inspired artists that need exposure to do the same task. Our community and scientists need more funding and resources to take transhumanism to the next level—to eliminating human death. The first task is just introducing society to such ideas. The next task is to get the layperson to enthusiastically support and fund transhumanism and life extension science.