The topic of this shortlisted book didn’t particularly appeal to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy it. Transhumanism is about using technology to help us overcome human limitations and radically extend our lifespan. Many of the strategies O’Connell, a Dublin-based freelance writer with a literature background, profiles are on the verge of science fiction. Are we looking at liberation from the rules of biology, or enslavement to technology? His travels take him to the heart of this very American, and very male, movement.
Cryogenic freezing: The first person was cryogenically frozen in 1966. Max More’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona offers whole-body or head-only (“neuro”) options for $200,000 or $80,000. More argues that the residents of Alcor are somewhere between living and dead. These entities are held in suspension in the belief that technology will one day allow us to upload the contents of the mind into a new vessel.
- This approach seems to conceive of the human mind/consciousness as pure information to be computed.
Cyborgs: Grindhouse Wetware, near Pittsburgh, aims to turn people into literal cyborgs. Tim Cannon had a Circadia device the size of a deck of cards implanted in his arm for three months to take biometric measurements. Other colleagues have implanted RFID chips. He intends to have his arms amputated and replaced by superior prostheses as soon as the technology is available.
- That may seem extreme, but think how bound people already are to machines: O’Connell calls his smartphone a “mnemonic prosthesis” during his research travels.
Mortality as the enemy: Many transhumanists O’Connell meets speak of aging and death as an affront to human dignity. We mustn’t be complacent, they argue, but must oppose these processes with all we’re worth. One of the key people involved in that fight is Aubrey de Grey of SENS (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and Google has also gotten in on it with their “Calico” project.
- O’Connell recounts explaining aging and death to his three-year-old son; his wife chipped in that – according to “Dada’s book” – perhaps by the time the boy is grown up death will no longer be a problem.
The Singularity: Posited by Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the future point at which artificial intelligence will surpass humanity. O’Connell likens it to the Christian idea of the Rapture, itself a moment of transcendence. At a conference on transhumanism and religion in Piedmont, California, he encounters Terasem, a religion founded recently by a transhumanist and transgender person.
- To my surprise, To Be a Machine makes frequent reference to religious ideas: O’Connell thinks of transhumanism as an attempt to reverse the Fall and become godlike, and he often describes the people he meets as zealots or saints, driven by the extremity of their beliefs. Both religion and transhumanism could be seen as a way of combating nihilism and insisting on the meaning of human life.
O’Connell’s outsider position helped me to engage with the science; he’s at least as interested, if not more so, in the deeper philosophical questions that transhumanism raises. I would caution that a grounding in religion and philosophy could be useful, as the points of reference used here range from the Gnostic gospels and St. Augustine to materialism and Nietzsche. But anyone who’s preoccupied with human nature should find the book intriguing.
You could also enjoy this purely as a zany travelogue along the lines of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck. The slapstick antics of the robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge and the road trip in Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign Immortality Bus are particularly amusing. O’Connell’s Dickensian/Wildean delight in language is evident, and I also appreciated his passing references to William Butler Yeats.
It could be argued, however, that O’Connell was not the ideal author of this book. He is not naturally sympathetic to transhumanism; he’s pessimistic and skeptical, often wondering whether the proponents he meets are literally insane (e.g., to think that they are in imminent danger of being killed by robots). Most of the relevant research, even when conducted by Europeans, is going on in the USA, particularly in the Bay Area. So why would an Irish literary critic choose transhumanism as the subject for his debut? It’s a question I asked myself more than once, though it never stopped me from enjoying the book.
The title (from an Andy Warhol quote) may reference machines, but really this is about what it means to be human. O’Connell even ends with a few pages on his own cancer scare, a reminder that our bodies are flawed machines. I encourage you to give this a try even if you think you have no particular interest in technology or science fiction. It could also give a book club a lot to discuss.
“We exist, we humans, in the wreckage of an imagined splendor. It was not supposed to be this way: we weren’t supposed to be weak, to be ashamed, to suffer, to die. We have always had higher notions of ourselves. … The frailty is the thing, the vulnerability. This infirmity, this doubtful convalescence we refer to, for want of a better term, as the human condition.”
See what the rest of the shadow panel has to say about this book:
Annabel’s review: “I loved this book from the front cover to the back, starting with its title. … He writes with empathy and a good deal of humour which makes the text always readable and entertaining, while provoking his readers to think deeply about their own beliefs.”
Clare’s review: “O’Connell’s prose style is wordy and ironic. He is pleasingly sceptical about many aspects of transhumanism. … It is an entertaining book which provides a lot of food for thought for a layperson like myself.”
Laura’s review: “Often, I found that his description of his own internal questions would mirror mine. This is a really fantastic book, and for me, a clear front runner for the Wellcome Book Prize.”
Paul’s review: “An interesting book that hopefully will provoke further discussion as we embrace technology and it envelops us.”
My gut feeling: Though they highlight opposite approaches to death – transcending it versus accepting it – this and Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind seem to me the two shortlisted books of the most pressing importance. I’d be happy to see either of them win. To Be a Machine is an awful lot of fun to read, and it seems like a current favorite for our panel.
- I’m coming close to the end of my skim of The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman.
- I’m still awaiting a review copy of Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing, which I’ll be featuring as part of the official Wellcome Book Prize shortlist blog tour.
I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.
Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.
The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.
Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.
Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.
There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.
Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.
I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”
In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:
I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.
I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.
Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.
(See also this brief Guardian interview with Julavits.)
The Folded Clock: A Diary was published by Bloomsbury Circus on March 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.
Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.
Whereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.
Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)
Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.
In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).
A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.
The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.
The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.
(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)
With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.