Zoltan Istvan’s 2013 science-fiction novel The Transhumanist Wager portrays how a combination of business enterprises, united to achieve a philosophical goal, can transform the world. The novel’s protagonist, Jethro Knights, develops a wide-ranging business enterprise that simultaneously operates as its own country – Transhumania – and withstands a military offensive from the combined navies of the world powers. Transhumania then serves as the platform from which Jethro’s vision of transhumanism – the transcendence of age-old human limitations through science and technology – can spread throughout the world and become universally adopted.
The Transhumanist Wager takes place in a near-future world where economic malaise, resurgent Luddite sentiments, and labyrinthine political barriers to technological innovation have resulted in a climate of stagnation. Jethro Knights endeavors to change all this, knowing that the status quo will eventually result in his own death. He takes a highly principled, completely uncompromising, and often militant approach toward achieving his goal: indefinite life extension through science and technology. Jethro endeavors to avoid death through any rational means possible, while simultaneously striving to become the “omnipotender” – “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience” (Istvan 2013, 33). As a college student, Jethro formulates his philosophical system of Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF), which he later explains to an audience of fellow transhumanists:
Teleological—because it is every advanced individual’s inherent design and desired destiny to evolve. Egocentric—because it is based on each of our selfish individual desires, which are of the foremost importance. Functional—because it will only be rational and consequential. And not fair, nor humanitarian, nor altruistic, nor muddled with unreachable mammalian niceties. The philosophy is essential because it doesn’t allow for passive failure. It doesn’t allow transhumanists to live in delusion while our precious years of existence pass. (Istvan 2013, 84)
Jethro circumnavigates the world on his sailboat and works as a journalist in conflict-ridden areas, with the aim of learning as much as possible about the world. Upon returning to the United States, Jethro founds the activist organization Transhuman Citizen, which aims to promote emerging technologies – particularly biotechnological research into indefinite life extension. He must also to foil the increasingly violent and destructive attacks against cutting-edge scientists and research centers by Christian fundamentalist terrorists spearheaded by the Neo-Luddite Reverend Belinas. The Redeem Church, headed by Belinas, has no qualms about hiring thugs to brutally murder transhumanist scientists. At the same time, Belinas maintains a façade of public respectability and functions as a high-profile “moral leader.” He influences public opinion and prominent politicians – including Jethro’s former college classmate Senator Gregory Michaelson – to despise radical technological progress and crack down on transhumanist research through prohibitions and force. After Jethro’s wife and unborn child are murdered by Belinas’s henchmen and Transhuman Citizen rapidly loses support due to Belinas’s political and public-relations war, Jethro’s dream seems to be on the verge of total collapse. Jethro’s only opportunity for a turnaround arrives in the form of the Russian oil tycoon Frederich Vilimich.
Vilimich is not the ideal rights-respecting free-market capitalist; his rise to power during the chaotic post-Soviet era is marred by the suspicious death of a general with whom he illegally seized a large number of bankrupt oil companies. Vilimich has high business acumen and recognizes the benefits of using the best technology available: “Against the opinion of many people—including the general—Vilimich used every ruble of the company’s booming earnings to acquire the most technologically advanced oil extraction equipment available. Within a few years, the company quadrupled its oil output and became a dominant player in the worldwide energy field” (Istvan 2013, 174). Vilimich can be capricious and tyrannical but understands economic incentives and is ruthless about harnessing them to fulfill his objectives:
He was loathed by his own people for never giving one ruble to charity. He treated his workers poorly compared with other large oil companies, but paid them better. Governments feared him for his habit of impetuously shutting down his oil pipeline for days at a time, thus creating worldwide spikes in energy prices. Some said he did it just to amuse himself; others insisted he just wanted higher oil prices; still others grumbled that he just wanted to remind people who was in control. (Istvan 2013, 175).
Vilimich is a tragic figure; all joy had left his life when his wife and son were murdered by terrorists two decades earlier. Vilimich dedicates his time and his vast oil fortune to repeated, unsuccessful attempts to bring them back from the dead. Vilimich’s redeeming quality is his understanding and embrace of the necessity of radical technological progress: “Vilimich was a believer in change via technology. It had always been a natural instinct for him” (Istvan 2013, 176). Upon learning of the concerted worldwide crackdown against Transhuman Citizen, Vilimich’s reaction is to sympathize with Jethro: “The world was afraid of evolution, Vilimich told himself, shaking his head in frustration. His grueling but successful battle against colon cancer reminded him that life was not open-ended” (Istvan 2013, 175). Vilimich realizes that some of his previous, mystical attempts to revive his family could not possibly have worked; “however, advanced scientific technology, hard work, and wits most certainly could. They were the exact same things he had used to create his sprawling oil empire.” (Istvan 2013, 176).
Vilimich initially approaches Jethro with the aim to redirect Jethro’s quest for biological immortality toward bringing back the dead instead. He tells Jethro, “I can give you billions of dollars for exactly that mission. We can build a nation of scientists to accomplish it. It may not follow the pure transhuman and immortality quests you wanted, but it’s close enough” (Istvan 2013, 179). Not even Vilimich’s billions, however, can redirect Jethro from his overarching plan for transforming the world in the pursuit of indefinite life extension, as outlined in his TEF Manifesto. Jethro points out that biological life extension for the living is a far more realistic and proximately achievable goal than reviving the dead. He replies to Vilimich, “What you want is just not even on the transhuman timeline right now. And it would be irresponsible to dedicate more than only a fraction of transhuman resources to it at a moment when the real goals of the movement are, literally, on the verge of collapse; when the longevity of our own lifespans are so immediately threatened” (Istvan 2013, 180). A clash of personalities ensues. Jethro attempts to reason with Vilimich: “But your money could be used for more practical and possible goals, for near-term successes like your own immediate health and longevity. Then, at some later point, you could consider tackling the monumental task of bringing back the dead. What you want is not even reasonable just yet” (Istvan 2013, 180). To this Vilimich responds, “I didn’t get to be so successful because I was always reasonable” (Istvan 2013, 180). Both Vilimich and Jethro have lost their families to violence. However, unlike Jethro, who seeks to base his decisions on an overarching “machine-like” rationality, Vilimich is driven by his passionate obsession with bringing back his loved ones above all. Both men are stubborn and unyielding, and their initial meeting ends in an impasse.
However, four days later, Vilimich becomes swayed to give Jethro 10 billion dollars – half of Vilimich’s stake in Calico Oil – unconditionally. Vilimich sees much of himself in Jethro’s intransigence and single-mindedness, and his reversal makes all the difference for Jethro. Immediately, Jethro undertakes an elaborate scheme to conceal the money from the world’s governments, which would have expropriated it:
The next morning, in a rented private jet, Jethro flew around the world to Vanuatu, Singapore, Lebanon, Panama, Maldives, Djibouti, and Switzerland. He spent two weeks establishing bank accounts for various pop-up companies and corporations in out-of-the-way places, acting as the sole manager. He made up odd business names like Antidy Enterprises, Amerigon LLC, and Dumcros Inc. The money was wired in small, varying portions to all his hidden accounts belonging to the companies so it could never be frozen, tracked, or calculated by the NFSA [National Future Security Agency – a US federal agency established to crack down on transhumanist research] or anyone else on the planet. Even the Phoenix Bank president wasn’t aware of the account names or numbers, as third-party escrow accounts were used to hide and deflect all traceable sources. Jethro sent secondary codes and addresses to Mr. Vilimich, as the only other person capable of locating the money. But even he wasn’t allowed to know everything or control anything. On every account, there was a different company, a different address, a different identification number, a different mission statement. The ten billion dollars was split in a hundred different ways, all with digital tentacles that led only to Jethro Knights.
When the money was safe, he emailed Vilimich:
Dear Mr. Vilimich,
Thank you. The money is safe and being put to good use for the right reasons. I’ll be in touch as the transhuman mission progresses. Furthermore, you have my pledge that I will not forget that picture in your pocket.
Jethro Knights (Istvan 2013, 184)
What Jethro does with Vilimich’s money is nothing short of revolutionary. He endeavors to construct an independent community of cutting-edge scientists – Transhumania – on a floating platform – a seastead – in international waters, away from any country’s jurisdiction. Jethro fabricates the appearance of Transhuman Citizen’s continued decline, so as to trick the anti-transhumanist politicians and religious leaders into thinking that their victory against Jethro is imminent. In secret, Jethro reaches out to architect Rachel Burton, who pioneered many concepts for futuristic structures but is frustrated at the lack of interest in ambitious architectural projects due to the ongoing economic and technological stagnation in mainstream societies. Although the acerbic Burton is initially wary of Jethro, she becomes elated when he explains his vision to her:
“A floating city should shield transhumanists and the people I need away from those forces, giving me certain worldwide legal protections. The city will have to be built to house approximately 10,000 scientists and their immediate families. You’ll have to build up, because I want most of the city open for creating green spaces, jungles, and parks—so people like living there. Actually, so they love living there. These will be very picky people, some of the smartest in the world. They’ll want the best of everything, and they deserve it. I want them to be enthralled with every bit of their new home. I want the city big enough to have an airport for passenger jets, but small enough to comfortably ride a bike around in twenty minutes. I want to build the most modern metropolis on the planet, a utopia for transhumanists and their research.” (Istvan 2013, 192)
Unlike Vilimich, who pays his workers well but treats them poorly, Jethro is more focused on the quality of his employees’ lives. He understands the importance of employee motivation and creating a rewarding work environment and the opportunity for fulfilling personal lives outside of the workplace. Because Jethro must attract the best and brightest in order to have a hope of realizing his goal of living indefinitely, he needs to give these creative minds the best possible quality of life in order to entice them to come to Transhumania.
The platform and infrastructure for Transhumania – dominated by three towering skyscrapers – are assembled in Liberia at Burton’s recommendation. She outlines the geopolitical and economic considerations behind this choice: “West Africa is far off the radar screen for the rest of the world, so hopefully, there won’t be any troublesome interruptions by the media or the NFSA. Besides, Liberia has cheap labor, good weather, and lots of beach space to launch this puppy. It’s going to be at least ten soccer fields long, you know. We’re going to need lots and lots of space.” (Istvan 2013, 193) The construction effort is a massive project – requiring an “army of 15,000 workers” to labor for five months (Istvan 2013, 193). Jethro is a hands-on project manager who spends much time at the construction site and gets involved in the details of the plan for the seastead, as well as the means by which it is assembled. Jethro hires an international team of workers and, with the help of a multilingual foreman, sets up a work rotation to facilitate uninterrupted construction: “The work was endless: Twenty-four hours a day, there was a symphony of hammering, drilling, welding, grinding, and shouting. There was no break from the movement; sprawling bodies and their machines zipped tirelessly around the platform. The sheer creation process was a marvel to behold” (Istvan 2013, 195).
As Transhumania nears completion, Jethro travels throughout the world to clandestinely invite leading scientists to live there. Jethro becomes an expert presenter:
Jethro mastered his task of pitching the spectacular possibilities of the transhuman nation to his chosen candidates. His invitation to share in the rebirth of the transhuman mission and its life extension goals was compelling, exciting, and novel. Part of his presentation was done in 3D modeling on a holographic screen that shot out of his laptop computer. The state-of-the-art technology Burton’s company provided was impressively futuristic. (Istvan 2013, 196).
Jethro promises the candidate scientists that they will live in “The most modern buildings in the world. Every luxury and convenience you can imagine: spas, five-star restaurants, botanical gardens, farmers’ markets, an entertainment plaza, a world-class performing arts center. Then over there would be your offices and laboratories. No expense spared on your research equipment. The most sophisticated on the planet—I guarantee it.” (Istvan 2013, 196-197). Furthermore, Jethro emphasizes the tremendous freedom that scientists would have to pursue their research in the absence of political restraints: “Once scientists arrived there, he promised hassle-free lives from bossy governments and others that disapprove of transhumanist ways. The United Nations decreed three decades ago that rules and ownership 200 miles away from any land masses on the planet do not exist” (Istvan 2013, 197). Jethro grasps the essential harmony of interests between a well-run business and its employees, and therefore does not forget about providing generous pay and benefits, as well as creating a family-friendly living environment on Transhumania:
Additionally, he promised the scientists amazing salaries, stellar healthcare, and citizenship to Transhumania if people desired. For their children, there would be competitive schools, sports groups, piano tutors, French classes, tennis lessons, and swim teams. Dozens of varied restaurants and cafes would serve organic, sustainable, and cruelty-free foods. Coffee shops, juice bars, and drinking pubs would be ubiquitous. Movie theaters, art galleries, fitness centers, libraries, science and technology museums, and shopping centers would dot the city. Innovative designers would set up furniture and clothing outlets, including those that created products and garments with the latest intelligent materials capable of bio-monitoring the body. Whatever you wanted or needed, no matter how far-fetched; it would all be there. Jethro laid out the promise of an ideal, advanced society, the chance to belong to a country with everything going for it. (Istvan 2013, 197).
Jethro’s hiring policy is enlightened and meritocratic with regard to avoiding any prejudice based on attributes irrelevant to a person’s ability to get the job done. However, Jethro is also unforgiving of sub-optimal performance and ruthless about preventing or suppressing any possible behavior or institution that would get in the way of the fulfillment of his overarching vision for Transhumania. Moreover, Jethro – unlike a principled libertarian – does not brook significant ideological dissent in his country:
His hiring policy was simple. He didn’t give a damn where you came from, or what color you were, or with whom you had sex, or what gender you were, or if you had disabilities, or whether you were a criminal or not. But if you were hired for a position, and you failed to meet the goals assigned to you, or if you hindered other hires from meeting the goals assigned to them, then you would be fired and forced off Transhumania at once. There were no labor unions allowed. No workers’ compensation. No welfare. No freebies. In short, there was no pity, or even pretense at pity. There was just usefulness—or not. And if you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania. Every contract of every scientist who wanted to join bore this severe language, as well as their consensual agreement to uphold the [tenets] of the TEF Manifesto and the core mission of transhumanism. (Istvan 2013, 197)
Because Jethro acts not only as the head of a vast business but also as the leader of a de facto independent city-state, it is not clear whether his behavior is consistent with respect for individual rights. On the one hand, every arrangement into which Transhumania’s residents enter is a freely chosen contract. On the other hand, they lose every association with Transhumania if they fail to adhere to Jethro’s demanding terms. They not merely lose their jobs, but they may no longer live or own property on Transhumania. Ultimately, Jethro facilitates comfortable lifestyles and offers abundant economic incentives not out of a devotion to individual freedom per se, but out of a recognition that a considerable allowance for economic liberty (though constrained by Jethro’s overarching purpose) would be the most conducive to rapid technological innovation and the eventual discovery of a means to reverse biological senescence and live indefinitely.
In spite of the severity of some of Jethro’s terms, the scientists who come to work on Transhumania know what they are getting into. Many come willingly after being inspired by a speech filled with Jethro’s characteristic militant, uncompromising rhetoric:
After so many years of being professionally stifled, intellectually muted, and socially ostracized, many transhuman entrepreneurs and scientists of the world cheered. While the speech was worded stronger than they themselves would have delivered, they respected Jethro Knights’ unwillingness to compromise the transhuman mission. They valued his promotion of the determined and accomplished individual. They applauded his hero’s journey to reverse the falling fortunes of the immortality quest. They especially appreciated the face-slapping of religion, human mediocrity, and overbearing government. Modern society was at a tipping point of such cowardly self-delusion and democratic self-sacrifice that someone needed to stand up and fight for what everyone wanted and admitted secretly to themselves: I want to reach a place of true power and security that can’t be snatched from me at the world’s whim. (Istvan 2013, 203)
Vilimich is pleased with his investment and sends Jethro a one-line note, “Thanks for punching the world for me” – to which Jethro replies, “Thanks for giving me muscles to do so” (Istvan 2013, 203). Through this exchange, Istvan illustrates the indispensability of these two visionary, intransigent men’s business partnership to making Transhumania possible.
Jethro raises the incentives for coming to Transhumania by offering each researcher “a tax-free million dollar signing bonus. It was more money than many had accumulated in decades of work. If they brought approved colleagues from their fields with them, an additional hundred thousand dollars was given. The main obligations of those who joined the transhuman nation included staying their full five-year term and reaching reasonable performance goals in their work” (Istvan 2013, 203). Jethro also creates the possibility of owning real estate: “One-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom residences were sold at enticing prices. Jethro made it cheaper to own than to rent, and most people opted to buy upon arriving. It replenished the cash Transhumania needed for actual research and city operations” (Istvan 2013, 204). Jethro understands that ownership of private property (limited though it may be by the requirement to adhere to the TEF Manifesto) gives the owner a powerful incentive to strive for the economic progress of the community where the property is located. By turning his employees into stakeholders of Transhumania, he not only enhances Transhumania’s revenue stream but also turns his scientists into more motivated, dedicated producers and innovators. Essentially, Jethro utilizes the principles of running a successful start-up technology firm and applies them to an entire small country: “Jethro ran the entire nation as if it were an aggressive, expanding technology company racing to bring an incredible invention to market. Every scientist had stock in its success, in the urgency of its mission. The result was a hiring domino effect. Soon, hundreds of scientists were showing up weekly to make tours of Transhumania and to sign contracts” (Istvan 2013, 204).
Jethro succeeds in cultivating a motivated, even inspired, workforce, with a prevailing “can-do” ethos:
Problems occurred, but they were quickly worked out for the most part. These were not people who complained about a broken hot shower or a bad Internet connection. These were professionals of the highest order, and they were all building the nation together. They fixed things themselves, went out of their way to improve operations, and helped one another when they could. These citizens were people of action, of doing—and doing it right. (Istvan 2013, 205).
Jethro is also able to vastly improve his scientists’ quality of life by restoring their sense that an amazing future can be created through their own work:
Many scientists commented they felt like graduate students again—when the world was something miraculous to believe in, when anything was still possible, when the next great discovery or the next great technological leap was perhaps just months away. […]At night, many of them looked at the stars from the windows of their skyscrapers and felt as if they had arrived on a remarkable new planet. They were never happier or more productive, or bound with a greater sense of drive. (Istvan 2013, 205).
In his discussion of the incentives and outcomes found in Transhumania, Istvan illustrates that the best-run businesses will not only generate economic value but will also inspire employees with the prospect of improving the human condition and creating a better world. Even though Jethro’s methods of sweeping aside all opposition are questionable, his goals of overcoming disease, lengthening lifespans without limit, and producing life-improving technological advances on all fronts are clearly some of the most admirable aims for any enterprise.
Five years after Transhumania’s founding, a major breakthrough enables the goal of indefinite lifespans to approach fruition. Jethro’s colleague, the scientist Preston Langmore announces that “The new cell-like substance that we’ve developed has so many applications. The manipulation of its DNA, controlled by our nanobots, will bring unprecedented changes to human life in the next decade, perhaps even in the next few years. We will begin our ascent to a truly immortal life form, full of all the benefits of what it means to be a transhuman being” (Istvan 2013, 222).
But the obstacles to the realization of Jethro’s dream do not cease once Transhumania becomes economically and scientifically successful. Jethro recognizes that anti-transhumanist organizations and governments will not simply allow Transhumanian research to continue in peace. Therefore, he devotes a third of Transhumania’s budget to defense. Transhumania’s vast revenues enable the construction of a missile shield, four megasonic airplanes, and ten combat robots, as well as the world’s most advanced cyber-warfare infrastructure. Shortly after Transhumania’s defensive capabilities are deployed, Belinas orchestrates Jethro’s kidnapping and torture. However, Jethro’s colleagues manage to locate the compound where he is held hostage, and one of the Transhumanian combat robots destroys Belinas’s thugs and kills Belinas himself. Jethro is freed, and Belinas’s crimes are broadly publicized, to the shame of the world’s governments. However, too many politicians and military leaders have become personally vested in attempting to seize Transhumania’s scientific and economic production for themselves, and it is too late to stop them from mobilizing their combined navies in an assault on Transhumania. Jethro’s hackers manage to cripple most of the invaders’ missile-guidance systems, causing the nations’ fleets to destroy one another. Only some extremely obsolete Russian missiles, whose use Jethro did not anticipate, manage to inflict moderate damage. Within twenty-four hours, the ingenuity of Transhumania’s scientists enables them to anticipate these missiles and effectively defend against them as well. By establishing the framework for the world’s freest and most innovative economy, Jethro enables the emergence of the ample resources needed to resist those who would stand in the way of his ambition.
Having defeated the combined might of the world’s navies, Jethro considers it impossible for Transhumania to peacefully coexist with the political status quo. Now that he possesses the technological means to easily outmaneuver and foil any nation’s military, Jethro is able to occupy much of the world after destroying all of the major religious and political monuments of traditional human societies. This is where Jethro crosses the line from justifiable self-defense of his society and into aggression against the rest of humanity – becoming an authoritarian world dictator in his quest to be the omnipotender. What distinguishes Jethro’s rule from historical totalitarianism is his instrumental use of free-market policies and incentives to facilitate technological and economic growth – but, again, only insofar as this serves his overarching goal of transforming the human condition along the path outlined in the TEF Manifesto. Jethro’s approach to the population of Earth is more utilitarian than based on any absolute, inviolate concept of individual rights; Jethro will recognize a semblance of personal freedom, but only for those who are useful to his broad ambition of turning humanity into a rapidly advancing, transhuman species. Those who cast their lot with Jethro during the early days of Transhumania are, on the other hand, rewarded with unprecedented power. Jethro urges his Transhumanian colleagues to renew their contracts and oversee vast swaths of the transhumanist-dominated Earth:
“You will have a choice, of course, to do as you desire and go where you like, and take the wealth you’ve earned. Nevertheless, in the best interest of the transhuman mission, I feel it expedient to appoint you as interim leaders of your birth nations and its major cities. Many of you will also oversee massive new science projects that only the resources of individual continents can foster. Others of you will be asked to found and build new universities and educational institutes, some of which will become the largest, most populated learning centers in the world.
“It is my hope that in your new appointments, you will seed and cultivate a surplus of amazing new transhuman projects to fruition for us all. As incentive to accept these new duties asked of you, your compensation packages will be staggering. I aim to make each and every one of you—as well as all other citizens on Transhumania—some of the richest and most powerful people in the world.” (Istvan 2013, 231)
In effect, Jethro takes the meritocracy he established in Transhumania and transposes it onto the wider world, turning the best and brightest into world leaders and fulfilling the age-old dream of some thinkers to put enlightened “philosopher-kings” in charge of human society. Jethro explicitly announces that the entire world will become Transhumania writ large:
“Earth, and human habitation of it, will be redesigned. It will no longer be many different countries with different cultures on different continents, but one committed transhuman alliance. It will be transformed into one global civilization bound to advancing science—one great transhuman planet. There will be no more sovereign nations, only Transhumania. Our transhuman goals will be the same as before; there will just be a lot more people working towards them, and a lot more resources to help us achieve success.” (Istvan 2013, 231)
With all of the Earth’s resources at his disposal, Jethro continues his quest to overcome disease and death, and by the novel’s end it appears that he is successful. Jethro is even able to be cryonically frozen and subsequently revived. He begins to venture into the possibility raised by Vilimich of eventually recovering deceased loved ones – but this quest remains unconcluded, and Istvan leaves the question of its feasibility as open-ended.
The Transhumanist Wager is a story about the clever use of a vast business structure and carefully crafted economic incentives to achieve the most revolutionary transformation of humankind conceivable: a revolution against contemporary societies and in favor of a global culture committed to rapid technological progress and the defeat of death above all. Jethro Knights is more of a utilitarian than a libertarian, and his choice of means eventually departs starkly from principled libertarianism, since a consistent respect for the individual rights of all people, including those whom one considers deeply hostile to one’s vision of progress, must ultimately clash with the desire to become an “omnipotender” and achieve as much power as possible. However, during the stage in which Jethro uses free-market policies and innovative business management as instruments toward the attainment of his vision, he is able to create an admirable and inspiring model for human progress.
Istvan, Zoltan. 2013. The Transhumanist Wager. San Bernardino: Futurity Imagine Media LLC.