Quite by chance (or was it?), I found myself reading Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (London: Granta, 2017) and Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel Frankissstein (London: Penguin, 2019), one after the other. They make interesting companion pieces.
O’Connell investigates the transhumanist movement in its various forms. Here humans are viewed as constituting suboptimal systems, imperfect structures that can be enhanced through life extension projects such as cognitive augmentation with the aim of transcending the biological body and mind. O’Connell references certain procedures (e.g. cryopreservation of whole bodies and/or skulls only) and companies (e.g. Alcor in Arizona) that resurface in Winterson’s novel – it is as if they have been on the same trip but take somewhat different narrative approaches to exploring the same phenomenon: how to defeat death (or not) and live longer, ideally forever.
Winterson interweaves the tale of Mary Shelley’s production of Frankenstein into a contemporary narrative of technology-enhanced sociality (the world of sexbots, cryopreservation – again -, technocapitalism) where the issue of man defeating ‘nature’/biology/death through technology is replayed in a significantly more humorous and hence absurdist fashion than O’Connell manages.
Techno-optimism or techno-pessimism – is that the question? O’Connell’s exploration leads him into a world that is, as he repeatedly puts it, overwhelmingly male – men implanting devices into themselves, running cryofacilities, lecturing, or is that preaching, around the western, mainly anglophone world. Winterson’s world is less male-dominated but the fantasies of transcending human-ness through technology are, on the optimistic side, mostly displayed by males, on the pessimistic side queried by females. Different worlds?