Are you a deathist? A deathist is someone who accepts the fact of death, who thinks the ongoing massacre of us all by ageing is not a scandal. A deathist even insists that death is valuable: that the only thing that gives life meaning is the fact that it ends — an idea not necessarily embraced by someone about to be murdered on video by an Isis fanatic.
But what is the alternative? There has never been one, which is why until recently no one needed to coin the term ‘deathist’. But now many tech entrepreneurs and scientists take a different view: death, they say, is simply an engineering challenge. Biotechnology should, in principle, be able to reverse the wear-and-tear on cellular machinery in our bodies and keep us in our prime indefinitely, barring violent accident. Consider how many lives this would save. If you think such research should not be pursued, then you are a throwback, a deathist, a morose Luddite thanatophile.
Anti-deathism is one of the main strands of a set of sci-fi dreams that come under the umbrella term ‘transhumanism’, the subject of the Irish literary critic Mark O’Connell’s engaging tour. He visits a cryonics facility in the desert outside Phoenix, where customers have paid to have their whole bodies or just their heads (called, Greekly, ‘cephalons’ in the facility’s distancing jargon) preserved by freezing, in the hope that science will one day figure out how to revive them. He goes to a robotics fair where the audience gasps at humanoid robots that can operate door handles or ‘egress’ successfully from a car. He hangs out with a gang of ‘grinder’ cyborgs, that like to implant boxes of electronics under their skin in order to, say, be able to sense the presence of an electromagnetic field. He interviews people working on the idea of ‘uploading’ human minds to computers, and those — like the philosopher Nick Bostrom — who fear that one day soon they, and we, might be killed by an omnipotent artificial intelligence of our own creation.