Six Degrees of Separation: From Ruth Ozeki to Ruth Padel
This month we begin with The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It happens to be my least favourite of her books that I’ve read so far, but I was pleased to see her work recognised nonetheless. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 One of the peripheral characters in Ozeki’s novel is an Eastern European philosopher who goes by “The Bottleman.” I had to wonder if he was based on avant-garde Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Back in 2010, when I was working at a university library in London and had access to nearly any book I could think of – and was still committed to trying to read the sorts of books I thought I should enjoy rather than what I actually did – I skimmed a couple of Žižek’s works, including First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), which arose from 9/11 and the global financial crisis and questions whether we can ever stop history repeating itself without undermining capitalism.
#2 In searching my archives for farces I’ve read, I came across one I took notes on but never wrote up back in 2013: Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed (1993), an academic comedy set at “Jack London College” in Oakland, California. The novel satirizes almost every ideology prevalent in the 1960s–80s: multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feminism, affirmative action and various literary critical methods. Reed sets up exaggerated and polarized groups and opinions. (You know it’s not to be taken entirely seriously when you see character names like Chappie Puttbutt, President Stool and Professor Poop, short for Poopovich.) The college is sold off to the Japanese and Ishmael Reed himself becomes a character. There are some amusing lines but I ended up concluding that Reed wasn’t for me. If you’ve enjoyed work by Paul Beatty and Percival Everett, he might be up your street.
#3 “Call me Ishmael” – even if, like me, you have never gotten through Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851), you probably know that famous opening line. I took an entire course on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville as an undergraduate and still didn’t manage to read the whole thing! Even my professor acknowledged that Melville could have done with a really good editor to rein in his ideas and cut out some of his digressions.
#4 A favourite that I can recommend instead is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011). It’s just the kind of random, wide-ranging nonfiction I love: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical musing on human culture and our impact on the environment. In 1992 a pallet of “Friendly Floatees” bath toys fell off a container ship in a storm in the North Pacific. Over the next two decades those thousands of plastic animals made their way around the world, informing oceanographic theory and delighting children. Hohn’s obsessive quest for the origin of the bath toys and the details of their high seas journey takes on the momentousness of his literary antecedent. He visits a Chinese factory and sees plastics being made; he volunteers on a beach-cleaning mission in Alaska. (I’d not seen the Ozeki cover that appears in Kate’s post, but how pleasing to note that it also has a rubber duck on it!)
#5 Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir, it’s about a trip to Nepal in 1973, with Matthiessen joining a zoologist to study Himalayan blue sheep – and hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. He had recently lost his partner to cancer, and relied on his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance and transience.
#6 Ruth Padel is one of my favourite contemporary poets and a fixture at the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year. She has a collection named The Soho Leopard (2004), whose title sequence is about urban foxes. The natural world and her travels are always a major element of her books. From one Ruth to another, then, by way of philosophy, farce, whaling, rubber ducks and mountain adventuring.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is a wildcard: use the book you finished with this month (or, if you haven’t done an August chain, the last book you’ve read).
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell
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.