Transhumanists! Singularitarians! Listen up! You who harbor a fervent faith in science’s imminent transformation of our frail, fleshy selves. The conquest of all our physical and mental ailments, cancer, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression, senescence—death itself. You who exult over every “breakthrough” in nanotech, biotech, neuro-prostheses, artificial intelligence bearing you closer to eternal life.
You must read Super Sad True Love Story (Random House, 2010) by Gary Shteyngart. Normal people should, too, but believers in immortality have the most to gain, because Shteyngart’s novel is a marvelous, black-comedy send-up of their dreams.
I recently slammed Inception for being a technical blockbuster and emotional dud. Super Sad True Love Story hooks you on all levels, emotionally as well as aesthetically, intellectually, even politically. Shteyngart is the real thing, a tragicomic wise guy incapable of writing a dull sentence. He’s Bellow souped-up with sci-fi and with a sharper satiric edge. Or Nabokov, another Russian immigrant (Shteyngart was born in Russia in 1972 and brought to the U.S. when he was seven) repulsed and seduced by America’s vulgar vitality.
And like Joyce (why stop now with the over-the-top comparisons?), Shteyngart can shape-shift into wildly different characters. He surely didn’t labor to create his protagonist Lenny Abramov, a death-obsessed, 39-year-old Russian-born schlub. Much more impressive is Shteyngart’s channeling of Eunice Park, the 24-year-old vixen and compulsive shopper for whom poor Lenny falls. Lenny and Eunice evoke Leopold Bloom, the hapless protagonist of Joyce’s gobbledygookian magnum opus Ulysses, and his sexy-bitchy wife Molly.
Lenny and Eunice inhabit a dystopia extrapolated from all-too-familiar features of our flawed world. Young Americans have become fanatical consumers and self-promoters. They are less concerned with reality, whatever that is, than with the data streaming through their apparats, super–smart phones that instantly calculate your financial and sexual status relative to others and provide advice on boosting your ranking. (Girls, guys dig when you giggle at their jokes but hate when you’re funnier than them.) Only a few nostalgic losers like Lenny still read books, which are too long, boring and smelly.
China has become the dominant global superpower, whereas the U.S. has degenerated into a paranoid, near-bankrupt police state scrutinizing foreigners and even its own citizens for signs of subversion. (Hmm. Hasn’t this already happened?) Things are really run by Staatling–Wapachung, a conglomerate with tentacles wrapped around every corner of the economy. Imagine Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, Eli Lilly, Google and Blackwater Security fused into one ruthless megafirm.
So where does immortality come in? Lenny is a salesman, or “Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G),” for Staatling-Wapachung’s Post Human Services division, which peddles life-extension treatments to HNWIs, “High Net Worth Individuals.” “Dechronification” methods range from organ transplants to infusion of “smart blood” swarming with nanobots that supposedly rejuvenate cells. Lenny’s boss Joshie Goldmann is a living advertisement for Post Human Services. Joshie looks, especially at a distance, like a buff 25-year-old old stud. Actually, he’s over 60, and the only clues to his actual age are those weird spidery veins throbbing from his temples.
Lenny can’t afford real dechronification yet, so he buys time by drinking green tea and alkalinized water. His faith in immortality is a bit bipolar. Sometimes he believes—really believes!—that he will live forever, longer than the Earth and even the entire cosmos. “When our universe decides to fold in on itself,” he exults, “my personality will jump through a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders.” But deep down Lenny suspects that immortality is a scam. “We hoard our yuan,” he broods, “we take our nutritionals, we prick ourselves and measure that dark-blue liquid in a thousand different ways, but in the end we are still marked for death.”
In his acknowledgements, Shteyngart says he was inspired by the writings of the Singularity-immortality prophets Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Shteyngart obviously—and correctly, in this humble pundit’s opinion—views the proclamations of Kurzweil and de Grey not as scientific treatises but as expressions of fear. Fear of death, decrepitude, loneliness, heartbreak.
I share these fears. Who doesn’t? Many scientifically inclined folks—myself among them—cannot find solace in atavistic mumbo jumbo like Christianity’s heaven or Buddhism’s nirvana. Some nonreligious types—myself not among them—seize upon science as a possible solution to the human condition. Hence, Transhumanism and the Singularity, which are just the latest, most extreme iteration of a long line of pseudoscientific cults. They are really just eugenics plus computers.
If you’re tempted by these childish, escapist, sci-fi fantasies, read Super Sad True Love Story. It may help you realize that there are worse things than being a mortal, flesh-and-blood creature with a heart that can be broken.