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Review: Transcendence — The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity


Transcendence: The Disinformation Encyclopedia of Transhumanism and the Singularity is a new book by former h+ Magazine editor R.U. Sirius and Jay Cornell that will bring transhumanism to the masses. The title might be confusing; this isn’t just a book about spirituality, but is an encyclopedia of short articles on a wide range of topics related to transhumanism. The book clearly reflects R.U.’s personal take on the topic, which is brimming with cynical and somehow still fun optimism, and which is clearly influenced by the psychedelic side of the house. R.U.’s vision for a future transhuman world is a freaky party and we’re all invited.

The book is organized around a list of words similarly to an encyclopedia or dictionary, and therefore each of the topics is presented in alphabetical order. This makes it relatively easy to find a topic of interest, or return to an old favorite, but the book is still fun to read linearly as well. In addition, each chapter includes one or more links to other chapter titles at the outset, a crude hypertext feature that sort of works. You will find some well known topics of interest like artificial general intelligence, cryonics, and nanotechnology that will be familiar to h+ Magazine reader,  as well as some somewhat less well known ideas such as “The Methuselarity”.

My main quibble with this book is the title. The use of the title Transcendence seems like a decision from an SEO consultant looking to scarf hits from the movie release, and it has less to do with the content than the secondary title. It’s set up like an encyclopedia.

But still, while this work is a fun and easy introduction to transhumanism, calling it an “encyclopedia” is a bit of an exaggeration. The book is neither large enough nor complete enough to earn this description I think, but perhaps a future version will be expanded to move in that direction.

I would expect an encyclopedia to be more comprehensive and technical than this book, which is to say “encyclopedic”, but for now, this encyclopedia is fun but certainly not complete.

Nevertheless, I expect that transhumanists will call this book simply “The Encyclopedia” and it will be widely read and enjoyed. Move over Ray Kurzweil.

Of course any “encyclopedia” about transhumanism printed on paper is destined to be outdated rapidly or arguably immediately in the modern world. An annual update would be welcomed in addition to expanded and more technical coverage of some topics. The use of the wiki like text features here also suggests the benefits of an electronic version. But I like books too.

The Encyclopedia includes a variety of short interviews or comments from well known, and some less well known, transhumanists which add a lot of expert knowledge and narrative flavor to what could have been a monologue. Readers of h+ Magazine will recognize many of them of course.

Some of the best parts of The Encyclopedia are these commentaries. However some of it also diverges into what might be called “industry gossip”. I don’t think most readers are interested in transhumanist micropolitics or will even get most of these references. While perhaps of historical interest, I would have left this sort of thing out.

Each section introduces and focuses on a topic, e.g. the NBIC technologies, but many also include a critical reality check of the idea presented and the entries are not simply promotional puff pieces.  R.U. reports real progress in numerous areas, but he also isn’t afraid to point out those areas where our projects remain mostly or entirely dreams.

Despite the lean treatment of some topics, there are some real gems here. If you are looking for a holiday gift for someone that is a transhumanist or might be interested in transhumanism, they probably will enjoy this book. This isn’t an academic text, but it is a fun introduction that will leave them laughing. And there are some unique pieces here that are not available elsewhere which I think will be referenced widely.

I have to here proclaim my fan boy status. I am and have been for some time a huge fan of R.U. and his writing dating back to Mondo 2000 and even High Frontiers. I like R.U’s humor and style and that shines through here especially in some specific articles.

I imagine some transhumanists organizing to buy a large number of copies of The Encyclopedia and placing them in hotel room drawers or distributing them in airports and train stations. If this is you, go for it!