This blog started out to review science fiction, but it’s been many months since I’ve reviewed a pure science fiction novel. No tinge of the weird, no Lovecraftian elements, no mixed genres in this one.
Review: Immortal Life (A Soon to Be True Story), Stanley Bing, 2017.
The late Gil Schwartz aka Stanley Bing was a CBS executive who wrote many best-selling books with titles like 100 Bullshit Jobs . . . and How to Get Them, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy, and Executricks, or How to Retire While You’re Still Working. Prior to this he wrote a couple of non-science fiction novels. He was also was a reader of science fiction.
That corporate experience and knowledge of science fiction give this novel a breezy, knowing air without stylistically stumbling the way many non-genre novelists do when wandering into science fiction.
And this book is pure science fiction, a black satire on one of humanity’s oldest obsessions: the quest for immortality.
And Bing is right up front in his dedication about who his targets are:
To Craig Venter, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Andreessen, Elon Musk, and all the visionary titans exploring the possibility of eternal life for those who can afford it.
Arthur Vogel is definitely one of those who can afford it. At 127, he’s the world’s richest man. His day is a tedious regimen of drugs and supplements and no normal food, walking about on his cyborg legs. His only fun time comes after printing out a penis, popping some pills, and having sex with his hot wife Sallie.
Arthur is the last boomer. He even went to Woodstock. He made a fortune in finance and retired at age 35 to pursue “dark studies” about the boundary between life and death. In the early 20th century, he made even more money after inventing a switch for quantum computers.
His obsession is conquering death and for that he has enlisted Bob, a research scientist. (As far as I can tell, Bob never gets a last name. I suspect his name is Bing’s knowing joke on the “As you know, Bob” cliché. But it’s Bob who does a lot of the explaining here.) Bob has an attractive assistant named Bronwyn who thinks Bob is a good guy with a “loose moral compass”.
Bob has created Gene, the fourth iteration of a project to create a human body for Arthur to download his consciousness to. 3-D printed to spec, Gene is supposed to have just enough function and consciousness to work independently but not enough to interfere with Arthur’s goal. Gene is an amiable sort of person, fitted with some knowledge (courtesy of Bob who used some of his own memories and knowledge), and not a lot of memories.
But, when the project nears completion and Gene is brought around for Arthur to examine, things start to go wrong. Especially after Sallie looks approvingly at Gene’s body and says she hopes they will become good friends. Gene begins to suspect what’s planned for him and bolts to reunite with a woman he dimly remembers loving, a schoolteacher named Livia.
But, when you have a cranial tracking device and are up against the security forces of a trillionaire, you aren’t going to get far, and Gene is reeled in.
The project proceeds. Arthur takes up residence in Gene’s skull.
And then we begin to learn of two conspiracies: Arthur’s plan to sell his immorality to his fellow trillionaires in exchange for control of the Cloud and a shadowy group of rebels led by Master Tim (modelled, I suspect, on Apple Chairman Tim Cook) who plan on stopping him and hitting the reset button on this civilization. Livia and Bronwyn are members of that group.
The book is quite funny in parts with robot cops, a security head whose principal asset and liability is his stupidity, banter between Bob and Gene, Gene really only being able to wrest control of his body from Arthur by being wasted on liquor all the time, and Sallie being appalled by the man she loves returning to the top of his form.
But this isn’t the usual adventure of rebels fighting a system by attacking its one Achilles Heel – another cliché Bing acknowledges. It’s a serious look at the technodreams of our current elites.
This is a world of uploaded minds, cranial implants, augmented reality, transhumanism, and life extension. But it’s not yet reached the Singularity the rebels fear.
In this future, only the coastal cities and Chicago are under full corporate control. The Real United States of America, full of citizens who have resisted brain implants, lives in the heartland, a market that Arthur wants to exploit, a group he wants to rule.
At a crucial meeting of the world’s CEOs, we learn all is not well. (And, significantly, this is mostly news only to the world’s richest man).
While medicine has advanced to the point where more people die of household accidents than anything else, society has become very risk-adverse. Indeed, the vehicles on Arthur’s corporate campus move no faster than 15 mph. There is overcrowding. Automation like self-driving vehicles have created a passive and workforce with plenty of time to consult “internal-electronics” and further divorce themselves from “real experience”. They can live a full day without an “analog experience”. Teledildonics have allowed people to divorce themselves from human contact even during sex. Humans 2.0 –“enhanced individuals – are more capable but explode and are “extremely fungible”, representing “yet another demotivator for people who are already prone to inertia, indolence, and virtual existence”. Extended life means multiple sexual partners and marriage.
Extended intergenerational families from such multiple unions take up massive amounts of space and sometimes create creatures of . . . uncertain legitimacy
(Is Bing hinting at massive dwellings with incest going on?)
The use of cranial implants is leading to brain centers of undirected thinking atrophying. The workforce has no competition to work against and no chance of promotion and no sense of ownership. Productivity is down and. Disorganization and malaise are up.
You can argue about the validity of some of these extrapolations, but it’s hard to argue with all or another passage which notes that, in a world of instant connectivity and knowledge embedded in the Cloud, even the professionals of this world don’t really know much anymore. They just know how to look things up.
At 290 pages, it’s a fast-paced, funny, but serious satire that ends on a note of ambiguity which may strike some as unsatisfying in its coda, but that’s a minor quibble. This novel deserves to be better known as an examination about the merits of extending life too far.
Additional Thoughts (with Spoilers)
The novel’s climax has the rebels planning on setting off an electro-magnetic pulse weapon at the centralized server holding the Cloud. It’s a plan they know will result, with the destruction of the world’s cybernetic infrastructure, in the death of many innocents.
Before they do that, Amy makes her presence known. She’s an emergent artificial intelligence that has sprang from the Cloud. She proposes an alternative: promise to embody her using Bob’s technology and she will gradually shut down the elements of the Cloud the rebels object to.
The offer is accepted.
The novel’s two-page afterword takes place a while after the main story. Amy has indeed been embodied. How this is accomplished without the ethical problems of the Gene project is not covered.
And Arthur survives it all with Sallie putting his consciousness in a bonsai tree in their house. Arthur is getting impatient with her and is in touch with his security chief to do something about it. The novel’s final line is “He believes he has all the time in the world, and he’s probably right.”
Gene continues to run Arthur’s company, essentially now the world’s only important corporation, by pretending to be Arthur. And, while he tries to
do things differently, more enlightened, more humane, it’s still not some kind of social service organization. It’s a corporation, and corporations are machines, and machines are not human.
Bing seems resigned to modest and temporary victories. No dark Singularity born, but an AI enters the world. Arthur deposed but exiled and plotting. The corporate machine no longer led by Arthur but still a nascent danger.
But aren’t temporary victories all we can hope for when battling the evil effects of pursuing the universal dreams of ease and immortality too far, especially when a pathological elite is running the chase?