Zoltan Istvan’s new novel The Transhumanist Wager has been compared to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. (See, for instance, Giulio Prisco’s review.) But to what extent are the books alike, and in what respects? To be sure, the story and the writing style are gripping, the characters are vivid, and the universe created by Istvan gave me an experience highly reminiscent of my reading of Atlas Shrugged more than a decade ago. Even this alone allows me to highly recommend The Transhumanist Wager as a work of literary art – a philosophical thriller. Moreover, the didactic purpose of the novel, its interplay of clearly identified good and evil forces, and its culmination in an extensive speech where the protagonist elaborates on his philosophical principles (as well as its punctuation by multiple smaller speeches throughout) provide clear parallels to Atlas Shrugged.
Giulio Prisco calls the philosophy of The Transhumanist Wager’s protagonist, Jethro Knights, “an extreme, militant version of the radically libertarian formulation of transhumanism”. However, this is the area where I perceive the most significant departure from the parallels to Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism (which she did not like to be called “libertarian”, though it was in essence) has the principle of individual rights and the rejection of the initiation of force at its ethical core. Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged was formed by a withdrawal of the great thinkers and creators from the world of those who exploited and enslaved them. However, there was no active conquest of that world by Rand’s heroes; rather, without the men of the mind, the power structures of the world simply fell apart on their own accord.
Jethro Knights creates his own seasteading nation, Transhumania, a fascinating haven for innovation and a refuge for transhumanist scientists oppressed by their governments and targeted by religious fundamentalist terrorism. The concept of an autonomous bastion of innovation is timely and promising; it was echoed by the recent statements from Larry Page of Google in favor of setting aside a part of the world to allow for unbridled experimentation. Transhumania, due to its technological superiority, spectacularly beats back a hostile invasion by the combined navies of the world. It is when the Transhumanians go on the offensive that the parallels to Galt’s Gulch cease. Instead of letting the non-transhumanist world crumble or embrace transhumanism on its own accord, Jethro Knights conquers it, destroys all of its political, religious, and cultural centerpieces, and establishes a worldwide dictatorship – including some highly non-libertarian elements, such as compulsory education, restrictions on reproduction, and an espousal of the view that even some human beings who have not initiated force may not have an inviolate right to their lives, but are rather judged on their “usefulness” – however defined (perhaps, in the case of Transhumania, usefulness in advancing the transhumanist vision as understood by Jethro Knights). Jethro Knights permits a certain degree of freedom – enough to sustain technological progress, high standards of living, and due process in the resolution of everyday disputes – but, ultimately, all of the liberties in Transhumania are contingent on their compatibility with Jethro’s own philosophy; they are not recognized as absolute rights even for those who disagree. John Galt would have been gentler. He would have simply withdrawn his support from those who would not deal with him as honest creators of value, but he would have left them to their own devices otherwise, unless they initiated force against him and against other rational creators of value.
The outcome of The Transhumanist Wager is complicated by the fact that Jethro’s militancy is the direct response to the horrific acts of terrorism committed by religious fundamentalists at the behest of Reverend Belinas, who also has considerable behind-the-scenes influence on the US government in the novel. Clearly, the anti-transhumanists were the initiators of force for the majority of the novel, and, so long as they perpetrated acts of violence against pro-technology scientists and philosophers, they were valid targets for retaliation and neutralization – just like all terrorists and murderers are. For the majority of the book, I was, without question, on Jethro’s side when it came to his practice, though not always his theory – but it was upon reading about the offensive phase of his war that I came to differ in both, especially since Transhumania had the technological capacity to surgically eliminate only those who directly attacked it or masterminded such attacks, thereafter leaving the rest of the world powerless to destroy Transhumania, but also free to come to recognize the merits of radical life extension and general technological progress on its own in a less jarring, perhaps more gradual process. An alternative scenario to the novel’s ending could have been a series of political upheavals in the old nations of the world, where the leaders who had targeted transhumanist scientists were recognized to be thoroughly wasteful and destructive, and were replaced by neutral or techno-progressive politicians who, partly for pragmatic reasons and partly arising out of their own attraction to technology, decided to trade with Transhumania instead of waging war on it.
Jethro’s concept of the “omnipotender” is a vision of the individual seeking as much power as he can get, ultimately aiming to achieve power over the entire universe. It is not clear whether power in this vision means simply the ability to achieve one’s objectives, or control in a hierarchical sense, which necessarily involves the subordination of other intelligent beings. I support power in the sense of the taming of the wilderness and the empowerment of the self for the sake of life’s betterment, but not in the sense of depriving others of a similar prerogative. Ayn Rand’s vision of the proper rationally egoistic outlook is extremely clear on the point that one must neither sacrifice oneself to others nor sacrifice others to oneself. Istvan’s numerous critical references to altruism and collectivism clearly express his agreement with the first half of that maxim – but what about the second? Jethro’s statements that he would be ready to sacrifice the lives of even those closest to him in order to achieve his transhumanist vision certainly suggest that the character of Jethro might not give others the same sphere of inviolate action that he would seek for himself. Of course, Jethro also dismisses as a contrived hypothetical the suggestion that such sacrifice would be necessary (at least, in Jethro’s view, for the time being), and I agree. Yet a more satisfying response would have been not that he is ready to make such a sacrifice, but that the sacrifice itself is absolutely not required for individual advancement by the laws of reality, and therefore it is nonsensical to even acknowledge its possibility. Jethro gave his archenemy, Belinas, far too much of a philosophical concession by even picking sides in the false dichotomy between self-sacrifice to others and the subjugation of others to oneself.
Perhaps the best way to view The Transhumanist Wager is as a cautionary tale of what might happen if the enemies of technological progress and radical life extension begin to forcefully clamp down on the scientists who try to make these breakthroughs happen. A climate of violence and terror, rather than civil discourse and an embrace of life-enhancing progress, will breed societal interactions that follow entirely different rules, and produce entirely different incentives, from those which allow a civilized society to smoothly function and advance. I hope that we, at least in the Western world, can avoid a scenario where those different rules and incentives take hold.
I am a transhumanist, but I am also a humanist, in the sense that I see the advancement of humanity and the improvement of the human condition as the desired aims of technological progress. In this sense, I am fond of the reference to the goal of transhumanists as the achievement of a “humanity plus”. Transhumanism is and ought to be, fundamentally, a continuation of the melioristic drive of the 18th-century Enlightenment, ridding man of the limitations and terrible sufferings which have historically been considered part of necessary “human nature” but which are, in reality, the outcome of the contingent material shortcomings with which our species happened to be burdened from its inception. Will it be possible to entice and persuade enough people to embrace the transhumanist vision voluntarily? I certainly hope so, since even a sizable minority of individuals would suffice to drive forward the technological advances which the rest of humanity would embrace for other, non-philosophical reasons.
In the absence of a full-fledged embrace of this humanistic vision of transhumanism, at the very least I hope that it would be possible to “sneak around” the common objections and restrictions and achieve a technological fait accompli through the dissemination of philosophically neutral tools, such as the Internet and mobile devices, that enhance individual opportunities and alter the balance of power between individuals and institutions. In this possible future, some of the old “cultural baggage” – as Jethro would refer to it – would most likely remain – including religions, which are among the hardest cultural elements for people to give up. However, this “baggage” itself would gradually evolve in its essential outlook and impact upon the world, much like Western Christianity today is far gentler than the Christianity of the 3rd, 11th, or 17th centuries. Perhaps, instead of fighting transhumanism, some representatives of old cultural labels will attempt to preserve their own relevance amidst transhuman-oriented developments. This will require reinterpreting doctrines, and will certainly engender fierce debate within many religious, political, and societal circles. However, there may yet be hope that the progressive wings of each of these old institutions and ideologies (“progressive” in the sense of being open to progress, not to be mistaken for any current partisan affiliation) will do the equivalent work to that entailed in a transhumanist revolution, except in a gradual, peaceful, seamless manner.
Yet, on the other hand, the immense urgency of achieving life extension is, without question, a sentiment I strongly identify with. Jethro’s experience, early in the novel, of stepping on a defective mine has autobiographical parallels to Istvan’s own experience in Vietnam. A brush with death certainly highlights the fragility of life and the urgency of pursuing its continuation. Pausing to contemplate that, were it not for a stroke of luck at some prior moment, one could be dead now – and all of the vivid and precious experiences one is having could one day be snuffed out, with not even a memory remaining – certainly motivates one to think about what the most direct, the most effective means of averting such a horrific outcome would be. Will a gradual, humane, humanistic transition to a world of indefinite life extension work out in time for us? What can we do to make it happen sooner? Can we do it within the framework of the principles of libertarianism in addition to those of transhumanism? Which approaches are the most promising at present, and which, on the other hand, could be counterproductive? How do we attempt to enlist the help of the “mainstream” world while avoiding or overcoming its opposition? For me, reading The Transhumanist Wager provided further impetus to keep asking these important, open, and as of yet unresolved questions – in the hopes that someday the ambition to achieve indefinite life extension in our lifetimes will give rise to a clear ultra-effective strategy that can put this most precious of all goals in sight.