The #1 bestseller in the Philosophy and Sci-Fi Visionary categories on Amazon.com is a novel called, “The Transhumanist Wager” written by former National Geographic Channel journalist Zoltan Istvan. The following is a recent interview I conducted with Zoltan Istvan about his novel.
Q. Your novel is titled, “The Transhumanist Wager,” what exactly is transhumanism?
“Transhumanism means beyond human. Its primary goal is to use science and technology to improve the lives of people — to improve the human condition. People everywhere are overwhelmed with diseases, biological imperfections, and the drudgeries of daily life on an often hostile planet. While sentient life might be full of amazing possibilities, every human is ultimately sentenced to suffering and death. Transhumanism does not accept that. Transhumanism is a broad movement steeped in reason and science that aims to cure all maladies and hardships. Many transhumanists believe our most significant goal is to eliminate death, which is something I personally feel is achievable in the next 20-30 years with enough funding. My novel, “The Transhumanist Wager,” is the story of one man realizing that science and technology can help him overcome death and achieve perfection.”
Q. This story centers on the growing conflict between science and religion; were there any particular news stories that inspired aspects of the book?
“I’ve been thinking about my novel for 20 years, but there was one news story that profoundly affected me. It was when George W. Bush limited stem cell research in America, right at a time when stem cells were showing amazing scientific promise. He did this because of his backwards pro-life hang-up and how stem cells were acquired at the time (via abortions). I was appalled by how he could value an embryo over a quadriplegic in a wheelchair who might be able to walk again through stem cell research. That was the day I became a transhuman activist — and not just a supporter. My novel says the government is criminally negligent in how it dictates our lives and spends trillions on wars without spending even a fraction of that amount on direct transhuman research. Our government and religious leaders are actively killing us because they think there’s some gleeful afterlife with God in the clouds. It’s absurd. The Pope and other major religious leaders should be criminally prosecuted and incarcerated for the obvious elimination of millions of life hours they’re causing to the human race with their archaic, pro-death policies. Sign me up for jury duty.”
Q. Would it be fair to say that this book is sort of like the “Atlas Shrugged” for transhumanism?
“You know, the novel has now been compared many times to Atlas Shrugged. Hmm. In a way, the publicity is great since Atlas Shrugged is a classic and longtime bestseller. But Ayn Rand would likely disagree with the extreme ideas in my novel. In fact, she might not understand many of them since her ideas were conceived in the 1950s. The Transhumanist Wager and its philosophy were written for the 21st Century. It goes much further in moral complexity and politically incorrect radicalism than Atlas Shrugged goes. It has to. We now have suitcase-sized dirty bombs, unmanned missile-laden drones watching us all over the world, and super computers the size of basketballs that can compute thousands of times faster than humans. Then there are things like sexbots, artificial organs, performance-enhancing drugs, and tweeting. The Transhumanist Wager says let’s have a new morality for a new era. That said, clearly there are parallels in some of the storyline to Atlas Shrugged, especially when the true innovators on the planet withdraw from society to pursue their own interests.”
Q. While your book has gotten some great reviews, one criticism has been that the hero of the story, Jethro Knights, might not be the ideal humanist. What are your thoughts on that?
“I admit that Jethro Knights, while inspiring and brilliant, can go too far. But in the context of his wife being murdered, his life being repeatedly threatened, and his passion to overcome death, we find a man who no longer values people over his own path towards immortality. This is an essential truth of The Transhumanist Wager — that morality changes based on a sliding scale of how much time we have left to live. And each one of us must make a choice in that wager — how far are we willing to go to live, to be an immortal transhuman. Jethro may not be the ideal humanist, but he might be the ideal transhumanist.”
Q. What about this character do you think atheists and humanists within the greater community of reason will identify with?
“Jethro Knights is a steadfast atheist. In fact, he’s an apatheist — one who doesn’t even care to think about the concept of God anymore. It’s just a waste of his valuable time. I think many atheists and humanists can understand and indentify with this. 95% of our planet is religious. Trillions of dollars are spent every year on religion. In case your readers don’t know, most life extension scientists out there will tell you that a trillion dollars spent towards transhuman research would guarantee the medical overcoming of human death in a decade or two. Thinking about that fact drives me nuts. We are such a foolhardy species for not immediately pursuing that goal with utter conviction. We have the tools to make not only perfect beings, but to make a much better civilization. Jethro Knights wants this. He wants to rid the world of its irrationality and cultural baggage to live in a secular, prosperous, disease and death-free world.”
Q. While this is obviously a philosophical thriller, do you need to be a philosopher in order to enjoy it?
“No, you definitely don’t need to be a philosopher to enjoy it. There are some long-winded speeches that contain philosophy, but the majority of the story is action and drama. And there’s a poignant love story in it. The novel suits all types of readers.”
Q. What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?
“I hope readers will realize that each one of us on this planet is facing our own transhumanist wager — that we all must aggressively commit to a world that is more pro-science and far less conservatively religious. People don’t realize how 3000 years of dogmatized religious culture is handicapping societies all around the planet. Do we really still celebrate Christmas and Easter? Do we really still print “In God We Trust” on our money? Do US Presidents really still attend church? The Transhumanist Wager’s central aim is to get a new generation of atheist, secular, and transhuman activists out there — changing the world, rising up against the irrational ignorance of past generations, and discarding the heavy cloak of religiosity that engulfs billions. It’s about time atheists, secularists, and transhumanists got serious about fighting those that have squandered our precious time on this planet and our ability to use science to become perfect beings. I say rise up and make waves. Get your voice heard and your actions felt. The wager in the 21st century is immortal life or death. It’s up to each one of us to make a choice and follow through with it.”
Q. Are you working on a sequel?