“The Transhumanist Wager” by Zoltan Istvan — review by Ben Goertzel




Zoltan Istvan’s recent SF novel “The Transhumanist Wager” is a fascinating exploration of a reasonably plausible near-term future in which transhumanist technologies become prevalent and impactful — but in a highly politically controversial way.

If you haven’t read the book yet…

… you should … it’s definitely worth reading, for anyone seriously interested in the future social and political implications of transhumanist technology. It fleshes out a possible future in which transhumanist technology rises, together with a transhumanist movement and a religious anti-transhumanist movement … and complex sociopolitical dynamics ensue, with lots of ups and downs along the way.    And it’s entertainingly written,  more in the style of classic SF than literary SF.

The author’s understanding of the current challenges faced by the transhumanist movement, and the sort of events that could help overcome them, seems spot-on to me based on my own ample experience with such matter.  And the author’s understanding of near to mid term future transhumanist technologies seems accurate. This is not the sort of hard SF book that’s full of new scientific ideas; its innovations are more in the political and social sphere, but the science and tech are handled with accuracy and integrity.

I wouldn’t accuse the book of literary perfection.  Some passages where the book’s protagonist, Jethro Knight, explicitly espouses his philosophy felt a bit too long and rambling for me.   But this just places “Transhumanist Wager” in the vein of books like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” or Robert Pirsig’s “Lila” — i.e. works of philosophy that are cast in novelistic form, and function pretty well as novels as well as philosophical diatribes….  Certainly the plot is more than just window dressing for the philosophy; there’s an emotionally mature/realistic, genuinely moving love story, plus a non-cheesily, interestingly inserted spiritual angle, alongside the Singularitarian SF.

Now on to some more interesting points…

(if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t read on unless you’re OK with knowing the plot before you read the book…)

OK…. First off, a quick semi-summary….  Basically, the lead character Jethro Knights is a bold young transhumanist who favors a Nietzschean/transhumanist (perhaps in some ways almost Ayn Randian?) philosophy of “omnipotending”, i.e. aiming to achieve the maximal personal power possible, and seeks immortality as a consequence. He attempts to push toward his goals via forming a transhumanist organization but doesn’t have much success. But then a religious-conservative anti-transhumanist organization (a la the movie Transcendence, or Hugo DeGaris’s projected Cosmist movement) starts killing scientists doing transhumanist research, which galvanizes financial support for the transhumanist movement — and after some entertaining media cleverness involving cryonics and terrorism, Jethro’s real career begins. The US government declares a War on Transhumanism, which nearly wipes out Jethro’s fledgling organization, but a Russian billionaire intervenes and donates billions, and then Jethro moves into high gear. Using these billions he creates a super high tech seastead and offers the world’s best scientists big salaries and signing bonuses to join. Predictably, the seastead develops amazing technologies and becomes a center for medical tourism and every kind of sci-tech advancement…..

The above — leaving out the love-story and personal-development and other human-interest-type aspects of the book — brings us about 75% of the way through the book. And I think that part of the book is done with impressive realism. It seems like the kind of thing that could actually happen.

Some of the exact mechanisms by which it all unfolds in the book seem a little too glib to me (e.g. the precise details of Jethro getting the billions in funding), but that’s not critical. There are enough billionaires in the world that one really could decide to fund a lavish transhumanist seastead at some point in the near future.

And there are enough religious conservatives in the US, with enough political pull, that a War on Transhumanism, analogous to the hopeless War on Drugs that now seems to finally be beginning to end, is not implausible either. The religious conservatives on their own couldn’t do it, but what if they were allied with industries threatened by new technological developments? I doubt that’s how things are going to unfold, but it doesn’t strike me as beyond the pale.

The next part of the book is where the author sorta starts to lose me. The governments of the world demand the seastead to submit to international monitoring and control; Jethro refuses; and then war breaks out. Of course the seastead, Transhumania, wins the war with its superior weapons technology. OK, this seems reasonably plausible too, so far.

Then the scientist citizens of Transhumania disperse throughout the world and become the new mid-level administrators, and the world becomes a transhumanist state with Jethro as the benevolent dictator. (I note that this is in line with recently fashionable neo-Reactionary thinking that monarchy, done properly, is way better than democracy.) …. But this part is rushed through in a few dozen pages, and I wasn’t really convinced that such a takeover could proceed so smoothly. History shows pretty clearly that military conquest is a lot easier than maintaining control of the regions one has conquered. The book makes it seems like bombing the world’s religious monuments to smithereens, forcing everyone to learn advanced science and math under threat of hard labor, and providing increasing abundance via advanced tech — would be enough to get the world’s population to, after a decade or so, peacefully give up their superstitious and religious ways and get with the transhumanist program.

Maybe real-world events COULD unfold like that — I’d certainly like to think so — but the book doesn’t tell this part of the story in nearly enough detail to feel convincing. I wish the author had made the book a series of at least 2 books, with the first one ending 75% of the way through the current book, and the second one dealing with Transhumania’s world takeover. The military conquest aspect isn’t so interesting to me, though it would play well cinematically, but rather the sociological and psychological aspect of the posited deterioration of traditional belief systems in favor of transhumanism.

Is So Much Egocentricity Really Necessary?

As a slightly digressive point, I also have to add that I’m not sure the purely egocentric, Will to Power oriented philosophy of the protagonist does transhumanism any favors. That is: I suspect that the association of transhumanism with this sort of philosophy could well, if it becomes prominent enough, help to fan anti-transhumanist sentiment.

It also doesn’t seem quite feasible to me that a community of people embracing this sort of egocentric omnipotending philosophy could work together as well as the citizens of the fictional Transhumanian nation seem to. If everyone wants to become omnipotent, wouldn’t there be more struggles for power? Sure, in theory, if all the omnipotenders were sufficiently rational and observed roughly the same information, they could rationally conclude that agreeably accepting their respective places in the social order is the optimal thing to do. But humanity tends not to operate that way, and the characters in Transhumania are still recognizably very human in spite of their transhumanist philosophies.

I’m actually a fan of Nietzsche’s Will to Power type analysis of the Cosmos, but I don’t think it should be interpreted as advocating each individual human seeking maximum power. If one interprets the Will to Power as advocating each pattern or system in the universe seeking to extend/expand itself, then one has to think in terms of overlapping systems on multiple levels each seeking their own kind of power, which brings one into the Extended Mind Hypothesis, the Global Brain, and way beyond. But I sure do digress….

Anyhow, my own philosophical views, while wholly transhumanist and in many ways strongly Nietzsche-inspired, lack the egocentrism that Jethro Knights places at the center of his transhumanist thinking. Of course, from the view of a hard-ass religious conservative, the difference between me and Jethro Knights is approximately zero — we’re just different forms of Antichrist or whatever. But from the point of view of a non-transhumanist with less extreme views, some species of transhumanism are more friendly than others, and Jethro’s view, at the center of Transhumanist Wager, is an especially unfriendly one. This fact does lend the book some of its spice, and may be a wise literary choice; but the choice also has its drawbacks.

This philosophical digression brings up another point about the book: Overall, one thing it doesn’t bother with is a nuanced presentation of the diversity of views within transhumanism. There certainly are plenty of pure egocentric rationalists like Jethro Knight in the transhumanist world, but there are also technoprogressives like James Hughes, and Cosmists of various shades like Giulio Prisco, Phillippe van Nedervelde and Martine Rothblatt and myself, and many more. I understand that the author wanted to focus on presenting the egocentric rationalist transhumanist view as clearly as possible, and I think he did a great job of that — as well as of dramatizing the transhumanist vs. religious-conservative conflict. But the transhumanist sphere has a lot more different flavors in it, which could perhaps have been conveyed without diluting the main points of the book.

Onward Ever Onward…

In any case, despite these quibbles I’ve expressed here, I think the first 75% of the book is fleshed out extremely well, and deserves reading by anyone seriously interested in the practical future of transhumanist technologies. It’s a fun read as well as an intriguing one! The themes of the book stuck in my mind enough to motivate me to write this review essay, which obviously speaks in the book’s favor….

I hope Zoltan Istvan’s book will attract many readers, and inspire these readers to think about the future for themselves, and outline their own visions of what a transhuman-tech-ful future of abundance might look like.

What kinds of changes might we see? What kind of conflicts might occur? Think about it and write your own novel, or short story, or essay or graphic novel or epic poem or whatever. The more creative thinking we have in this direction, from as many sources as possible, the better. In large part it’s our collective visions of the future that will shape what occurs. As ideas from fiction feed into actual science and technology, and scientific and technological progress feed into fiction writers’ imaginations, artistic imagination and practical discovery achievement fuse into a single creative process, which can be viewed as part of the cognition of the emerging Global Brain of which we all form parts….



  1. Re “the transhumanist sphere has a lot more different flavors in it, which could perhaps have been conveyed without diluting the main points of the book.”

    Well, there is Zoe Back (my favorite character). She is not an ” egocentric rationalists,” but a Cosmist like you and I. See my essay:
    Zoe Bach’s ‘Quantum Zen’ as a ‘Third Way’ scientific religion

  2. I agree with much of what you say here, Ben.

    “As a slightly digressive point, I also have to add that I’m not sure the purely egocentric, Will to Power oriented philosophy of the protagonist does transhumanism any favours” – not only through acceptance barriers, but also in terms of coherence. In my own review (http://goo.gl/9MLimk) i have tried to take it to its conclusion:

    “The immediate question raised in my mind by the ‘egocentric’ component is: what if your individual desire conflicts with mine, a highly likely event ? This can be resolved only by the one who is further ahead on the trajectory toward omnipotence overpowering and eliminating the other. And this process is likely to continue to ripple through existence until there is only one left standing. As even Jethro appears to conceive of TH as a social force, this is an unreasonable and absurd scenario.”

    I share your doubt about “providing increasing abundance via advanced tech — would be enough to get the world’s population to, after a decade or so, peacefully give up their superstitious and religious ways and get with the transhumanist program”, but this remains to be tested. The doubt seemed to be confirmed by the almost immediate reversion after the soviet collapse, but ‘increasing abundance’ was never achieved, and may turn out to make the crucial difference. After all the main power of religion consists in offering a comforting fantasy to allow mental escape from an unsatisfactory reality. Making reality more appealing, one of the main drivers of transhumanism, may well eliminate the motivation behind clinging to religion.

    “Some of the exact mechanisms by which it all unfolds in the book seem a little too glib to me (e.g. the precise details of Jethro getting the billions in funding), but that’s not critical” – here too i agree. Not critical to me either, because people often do the right thing for the wrong reason, so the scenario is not that improbable. But again i see a coherency problem. It is surprising to see the lord of rationality make a u-turn and base his life’s work on his and his partner’s being driven by the ultimate emotions of love and loss. Admittedly he does it reluctantly, and the issue is not resolved. It will be interesting to see if and how Zoltan picks up the theme in his sequel(s).

    “(I note that this is in line with recently fashionable neo-Reactionary thinking that monarchy, done properly, is way better than democracy.)” – this issue deserves a somewhat deeper discussion. Monarchy, in its classic definition, is based on hereditary ownership, while Jethro favours meritocracy. And i also see democracy, which has never been achieved in its literal meaning, as we see it now, as an extremely unsatisfactory and obstructive system. Hruy, you say that it is a mistake to think “that one can force another to be free”, and i agree on a fundamental level in that linguistically the concepts of being forced and being free are mutually exclusive. But my own focus has somewhat shifted over the years, and despite, as a thelemite, accepting choice as my paramount value, it may have to be weighed against culturally derived existential risk. It does not seem realistic to expect ideologues and the mindset currently controlling public affairs to spontaneously begin to see the light.

    Possibilities i see are, in order of preference, positive effects of the above addressed achievement of abundance, delegation to machine intelligence of all decision making in regard to policy, and as a last resort, enforced cognitive and moral enhancement. It all comes down to how things will play out over the next few decades, and income inequality, caused largely by increasing systemic redundancy of the ‘labour market’, and its consequences, will come to a head much sooner than that.

    And like you Ben, i welcome the book and its rapid spread. While it may cause some resistance, it already has contributed to deepening and widening of the discussion.

  3. While I think Transhumanism need not be guided by an instinct toward Uberman, such an approach makes sense. Jethro, the hero in the book, definitely seems guided by the egoist (and some would say selfish) urge to dominate. What I wish was that stories wouldn’t sugar coat such dominance/submission as somehow morally justified, because the Will to Power ought not be subjected to dominance by the weak, in the name or morality.

    Too many times I see people trying to justify a minimal state on the grounds that you aren’t bending others to your will. So what? Whatever works. This is Darwinian issue, not some exercise in moral thinking.

    I personally think that the Abrahamic religions will be used by “righteous” individuals as a target, but that the effort will be irrelevant as the superior strategy of augmentation allows domination of that superstitious faith based group.

  4. Ben, I had one question and I think your review should have addressed it also.

    Can we force one to be free? This concept [forcing one to be free] is entertained in a most detailed (and somehow confusing) fashion in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

    To obey to an authority or rule by one’s accord is very different from to conform to an authority or rule after suffering a serious of bombardments.

    In your review you write, “The book makes it seems like bombing the world’s religious monuments to smithereens, forcing everyone to learn advanced science and math… would be enough to get the world’s population to, after a decade or so, peacefully give up their superstitious and religious ways and get with the transhumanist program”. Then, you state, “I wasn’t really convinced that such a takeover could proceed so smoothly”.

    I am pretty sure that your statement is understated, and such approach isn’t even acceptable or functional. A takeover like this will always fail- eventually.

    If a real-life Transhuamnists, like the egocentric protagonist of the book, think that one can force another to be free, it is a classic mistake. Indeed, it was, is, and will be the Achilles heel of all thinkers’ and dreamers’ [idealist] whose believe lies on the notion that the true elite can change the world into a better place by forcing the multitude into freedom.

    Man may have many natures but the one that persists above all is his strong will to live by the laws he wishes to live by! This is the engine that makes all these changes of attitudes, social and economic systems, and even religious views shift from one point to another in our history.

    Rousseau or Jethro may think there might be such a thing as ‘necessary force’ in the path to freedom but our world is a witness to the practical truth that such a thing, so far, doesn’t exist and a freedom that is gained through such path will eventually perish. And the book, should be critically viewed on the specific point that a Transhumanist’s answer to the question: “how does the general will arise from a diversity of interests?” is “maybe bombing religious centres and forcing folks to take a science lesson might work”.

    Furthermore, in the Transhumanist Wager “Forcing one to be free” is not the only issue which your review dogged to address but how about conservatism? For me there is no difference between a religious zealot who thinks that his idea should be forcefully taught and a Transhumanist who forcefully teach science; they are both Goddamn conservatives! A war on religion is no different than a war on Transhumanism.

    I think, the future technology will enable Transhumanists to answer such questions with a better approach but in the mean while it would be nice to see some of the transhumanist’s answers to such questions are also futuristic.

    • Hruy —

      One obvious retort to your (astute as usual) comment is: With sufficiently advanced technology, one will be able to modify peoples’ brains, potentially in such a way as to make them “more free.” For instance, suppose that someone is paralyzed from taking actions they would deeply like to take, via various fears in their mind. If one could technologically intervene in their brains to remove those fears (ignoring any fear they may have regarding having the fear removed — i.e. just forcibly doing it), then one would arguably be FORCING them to become MORE FREE….. So yeah, it’s possible, for sure…

      On the other hand, without advanced brain-modifying technology, it seems generally easier to *seduce* people into becoming more free, or otherwise changing their beliefs/ideas/tendencies, than to *force* them. Given human nature, obvious attempts at forcing are often met with active resistance, and nasty conflicts ensue. In the context of Transhumanist Wager, my guess is that some transhumanists obliterating the world’s religious monuments and holy buildings etc. would lead to a lot of widespread hatred against said transhumanists, rather than to a gradual embrace over 10-15 years of transhumanist ideas…..

      As an obvious (though controverial to some) example, the US military’s ham-handed attempts to force Western culture/thinking on the Middle East are often violently rejected, and probably actually help stoke fundamentalist Islamic sentiment. OTOH US popular culture seems to be inexorably seducing Middle Eastern youth, and probably is having a more pervasive and critical long-term effect than all the military fuck-ups and force attempts. And many of the fundamentalist Islamists realize this too….

      So in a Transhumanist Wager context, I think Transhumania would do way better to leave the religious monuments and shrines alone — but seduce the younger generation with amazing new toys, and pills that make you feel better than healthy, and the ability to gain new knowledge via brain implants and so forth…. This would win over the younger generation to transhumanism pretty well…. Then in time the older generation who believes immortality in human or robot or compute-cloud form is pointless and there is eternity in heaven awaiting, will gradually die off (either going to heaven or not…), and transhumanism will dominate…. That’s more how I think it will actually happen…

      — Ben

      • Reminds me of the story of a man and his coat, the sun and the wind. The wind tries to forcefully blow the man’s coat off and fails. The sun just gradually turns up the heat. 😉

  5. Excellent review, Ben! Couldn’t agree more. I, too, was inspired to write my own story after reading The Transhumanist Wager, as you suggest to others in your final paragraph of this review. It went into the form of an epic 3-part poem, called “A Cosmist’s Tale.” http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Bj-murphy-a-cosmists-tale-annotated

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