Unbound, by Christopher Osborn
Arcadia Books, 2017
The dream of immortality is an ancient one, but it is only in comparatively recent times that the means of its realisation has shifted from a religious and spiritual concern to a secular and technological ambition. Its current incarnation is transhumanism, a broad term covering the various ongoing attempts to free humanity from its mortal limitations through scientific innovation. These range from the relatively plausible (altering DNA through genetic engineering), to the more conjectural (cryogenic ‘freezing’ of brain/body for future scientists to resurrect), to the frankly outlandish (‘mind-uploading’ of your digitally scanned brain states to a computer).
That Christopher Osborn’s Unbound focuses on the more conservative of these possibilities, however, makes it no less a work of science fiction, for we are arguably no closer to ‘fixing’ the tendency of our cells to degenerate overtime than we are to curing cancer. In fact, as pointed out by molecular biologist Dr Victor Zimmerman (Osborn’s narrator), the two quests may be closely interrelated. The obstacles to biological immortality relate to telomeres, the structures that cap off the end of our chromosomes rather as those little plastic tips stop our shoelaces from unravelling (to borrow Osborn’s neat simile). As our cells die and are replaced, these telomeres shorten, until eventually they start to break down, and, like old shoelaces, the composite threads of our DNA start to fray, giving rise to errors in cell replication that cause genetic malfunction, disease, and ultimately death. The key to reversing this is telomerase, an enzyme that regulates the length of telomeres. If this could be ‘switched on’ in normal cells, then the little plastic tips would forever be maintained in pristine condition, and our shoelaces need never fray; we would be biologically immortal. The problem, however, is that telomerase is also a key enzyme in cancer cells, where it is by default switched on (which is what makes cancer cells such efficient self-replicators). The problem, therefore, is to switch on immortality in healthy cells, but not to encourage cancer. Tricky.
Although still currently unfeasible, the relative plausibility of this solution to the problem of mortality makes for a strong premise, allowing Osborn to bring a subtle, literary focus to what is most interesting to him about this scenario without the distractions of the more far-fetched trappings common to other sci-fi. In doing this, Osborn engages with that which transhumanists and sci-fi writers alike often struggle with, and some even completely ignore: namely, how such fundamental changes would impact on our psychological and emotional life, our day to day relationships, and our sense of identity.
In many respects, Osborn’s doctor is the stereotypical ‘mad scientist’, driven by his own egotism, professional ambition and zeal beyond the boundaries of morality and social convention. In this, its exploration of life and death, and the confessional memoir format of its narrative, there is no little debt owed to what many would cite as the first sci-fi novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a link perhaps explicitly acknowledged by the shared forename of the two novels’ protagonists, as well as suggested by the title itself, referencing the myth of the Greek titan Prometheus, whom Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe, famously liberated in his verse drama Prometheus Unbound. Sentenced by Zeus to be punished for all eternity for stealing fire from Olympus as a gift to humanity, Prometheus was the great human benefactor, and may therefore stand for science, technology and human knowledge in general. As the poet Shelley envisaged him set free from the yoke of divine punishment (for which, read ‘science and humanism turning its back on orthodox religion’), rejuvenated by his drug telo, Osborn’s Victor finds himself similarly ‘unbound’ from traditional religious and moral restrictions. However, in addition to this liberation, Victor notices that he is ‘unbound’ in a more subtle and disquieting sense, from the very ties that bind us together as human beings.
It is this, I think, that represents the most intriguing aspect of Unbound. In losing his fear of ageing and death, Victor also suffers the decay of empathy, compassion and moral conscience. What is it that makes us treat others as ends in themselves, and not means to our own satisfaction? As Hume argued (and Kant later disagreed), the basis of morality is not respect for another’s reason or autonomy, or any other rational standard, but the mere fact that we feel. It is our recognition of our fellow human beings’ capacity for suffering or happiness, a mirroring of our own, that ultimately underpins all moral judgements. As such, what we feel in recognising our common mortality is the most fundamental bond we can have with another human being; but remove this, and what are we left with?
Victor’s new self is therefore curiously adrift, as the promise of eternal youth begins to cast a fresh light on his relationships and values: his marriage begins to break down, old friendships sour, even his professional integrity is jettisoned. And so, a battle ensues between the old, compassionate, sentimental Victor, and the new, unbound Victor, a Nietzschean Übermensch that wants only to delight in strength, vigour and mastery. Love becomes weakness, as like frightened children holding hands we seek companionship only to assuage our terror of our inevitable advance towards decrepitude and death. Illness, old age and disease no longer invite his pity or empathy but rather repulsion and contempt, for Victor is now of another order of being entirely. And yet it is this very difference (as he sees it) that now creates distrust in others and fosters his isolation. Ironically, as his youthful libido returns, and he is driven to seek out casual sex at a swinger’s club, the ageing attendees shun him, preferring their comfortable habitual couplings from the advances of the haughty stranger who seems more concerned with admiring his rejuvenated reflection in the mirror. His new detachment also leads him to seemingly arbitrary acts of cruelty: sharing a train journey with a travelling student, they enjoy a convivial conversation, but while the young man sleeps, Victor hides his shoes, then pretends to aid the student’s panicked search before leaving him to disembark in his socks.
Yet the superior coldness and cruelty depicted here is a caricature of Nietzsche’s ideal—whether the author’s or the narrator’s is difficult to tell, for it is a distortion that remains prevalent in popular culture. It is true that Nietzsche emphasises ‘cruelty’ as a necessary ingredient of spiritual and cultural growth, but it is a quality that he turns as much against himself as others: it is by hardening ourselves against the buffetings of life, by accepting and not seeking to ameliorate their effects, even celebrating them, that we ultimately become ‘more’ than human. The sort of transhumanism that Nietzsche advocates is therefore not one that tries to escape mortality, nor even to make life more comfortable, but one that celebrates life in spite of death and suffering—it is the conquest of self, not of death, that makes us stronger. In fact, it is this temptation to escape suffering that he sees as the root of delusion. In this sense, Victor’s desire to live forever—for ‘Victory’ over death (the nickname a scientific colleague gives him)—is no less a consolation than the belief in reincarnation that he mocks in his colleague.
And here, I think, is another important point (one repeatedly made by the philosopher John Gray): in the hands of transhumanists, science unwittingly fulfils the same function that used to be served by religion. The notions of progress, salvation and liberation that seem to drive the transhumanist agenda are not inherent in the scientific worldview—in fact, a number of philosophers and scientists question whether progress is an objective value, whether we can have a coherent notion of personal identity, or a definition of free will that is compatible with scientific knowledge. Whether or not religion provides false consolation is a separate question, but either way transhumanists seem largely unaware that their agenda is fuelled by the same spiritual urges and inherits many of the same problems.
Though relatively short, there are many other points of interest in the book. As the effects of telo progress, Victor begins to lose his love for music, and consequently, for his wife (who, like Osborn himself, is a concert pianist), recalling perhaps Nietzsche’s own view of music as an emotional, irrational release from the isolated life of conscious suffering that fosters a sense of belonging. There is also of course the problem of altruism, an ongoing controversy in evolutionary theory concerning the question of whether (as Richard Dawkins argues) all apparent acts of kindness must ultimately be interpreted in the light of the dictates of our ‘selfish genes’; or, on the other hand, whether examples of natural cooperation, or the existence of mirror neurons in the brains of both humans and animals, suggest that we are in fact hard-wired for empathy. This is a battle that Victor’s transformation itself embodies—which wins, I’ll leave you to find out.
In summary, Unbound is a subtle, skilful engagement with issues raised by the transhumanist agenda from a personal perspective, and a meditation on what this means for both our inner and social lives. Ultimately, it suggests, in losing our mortality, we also risk losing our humanity; that, in effect, because we are the only creatures that are conscious of this mortality, it is this consciousness, and the emotional and psychological bonds that it facilitates, that provide the basis of identity, community, meaning and moral conscience. Take away that limit—even if that were possible—and we perhaps risk unmooring ourselves in more radical ways than transhumanism recognises.
[The above review was based on a complimentary review copy from Arcadia Books]