War, slavery, rule by élites – all were made easier by another new technology of control: writing. “It is virtually impossible to conceive of even the earliest states without a systematic technology of numerical record keeping,” Scott maintains. All the good things we associate with writing – its use for culture and entertainment and communication and collective memory – were some distance in the future. For half a thousand years after its invention, in Mesopotamia, writing was used exclusively for bookkeeping: “the massive effort through a system of notation to make a society, its manpower, and its production legible to its rulers and temple officials, and to extract grain and labor from it.” Early tablets consist of “lists, lists and lists,” Scott says, and the subjects of that record-keeping are, in order of frequency, “barley (as rations and taxes), war captives, male and female slaves.” Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish cultural critic, who committed suicide while trying to escape Nazi-controlled Europe, said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity ever made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. As a matter of plain historical fact, that seems right. It was a long and traumatic journey from the invention of writing to your book club’s discussion of Jodi Picoult’s latest.
Poetry is rare and banality rules the world. Whiteread will never convert anyone to sensitivity or imagination by talking. She’s probably better off keeping quiet and casting. Her art has a silent power that rises high above the chatter and chanting of our time. It will be remembered when our arguments are forgotten.
“Transhumanism doesn’t have much to say about social questions. To the extent that they see the world changing, it’s nearly always in a business-as-usual way – techno-capitalism continues to deliver its excellent bounties, and the people who benefit from the current social arrangement continue to benefit from it,” says Mark O’Connell, the author of To be a Machine, who followed various transhumanists in Los Angeles.”You basically can’t separate transhumanism from capitalism. An idea that’s so enthusiastically pursued by Musk and Peter Thiel, and by the founders of Google, is one that needs to be seen as a mutation of capitalism, not a cure for it.”
Silicon Valley is characterised by a blind belief in technological progress, a disregard for social acceptability and an emphasis on individual success. It’s no surprise, then, that it is here that the idea of living forever seems most desirable.
Musk has publicly declared that we have to merge with artificially intelligent machines that overtake humanity in order to survive. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who pioneered the Singularity, is now an engineer at Google. O’Connell points out that “you’d have to be coming from a particularly rarefied privilege to look at the world today and make the assessment, as someone like Thiel does, that the biggest problem we face as a species is the fact that people die of old age”.
It would be remiss to tar all transhumanists with one brush. In 2014, Istvan claimed in The Huffington Post that the membership of transhumanist societies and Facebook groups has started to expand in number and in diversity, drawing in young and old people of all political persuasions and nationalities.
There are some prominent transhumanists who don’t fit into the Silicon Valley mould. Natasha Vita-More, the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Humanity+ , the global transhumanist organisation, has spoken about the potential for a posthuman society to address issues of economic justice. Other academics and philosophers have even spoken about the need to explicitly ground diversity and tolerance within posthumanism, such as Nick Bostrom, the head of the Future of Humanity institute and one of the original modern transhumanist thinkers.
It remains the case, though, that the majority of the money invested in making transhumanism a reality comes from rich, white men. As the descendants of a species with a tendency to exploit the downtrodden, any posthumans must guard against replicating those same biases in a new society. For some, potentially in the near future, death might become optional. For others, death will remain inevitable.
Rapturous longings start with the powerless and spread outward like a virus: despair leads to denial and fantasy, to an attitude of “I’ll just wait this out”. In response to a dark new reality, the weary go underground, retreating into homes, hiding behind screens, using stories as a salve and an opiate. They become watchful, delirious, stunned and effectively paralysed as they wait, refugees in their own land. They eat cake, go to sleep, and hope to wake up in a better reality.
But why fictionalise this history? Surely what we need in the age of “post-truth” is a bit of good old-fashioned truth? For one, fiction can fly under the radar of those who would manipulate the past (for non-fictional ends); it comes out with its hands up, confessing its falsity.
More importantly, fiction sidesteps identity politics – that monstrous but inevitable byproduct of “free” news. When the news is “free” what’s really on sale is us, the audience (to the advertisers), and for that sale to work, our demographic identity has to be tied, predictably, to all our behaviour; not just our purchasing habits but our affiliations and sympathies. Fiction is one of the few things that allows us to completely uncouple our sympathies from our sense of personal identity. We can sympathise with those we don’t identify with; we can connect with the unfamiliar, we can take the other’s side.
The second trick is to leave the house. The writing life is full of contradictions. It depends on hours at a desk, but requires the author to be connected to the world. Setting out into the day like a useful member of society, helps.
The writing itself is hard to relate. It is a process of adding and taking away; deep thought and waking dreams; hard technical graft and the occasional leap of realisation. I drink lots of tea, chew gum and occasionally stand up and stretch. When I feel stuck, I put my head on the desk and try to reach that place between dreams and awareness, where the unconscious lives.
Whitehead said that landing the £2,017 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – was wonderful, and that The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature”. A Guardian review of the novel said that “it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America”.
“Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”