15.30: Marcel Theroux with John Gray
John Gray introduced Marcel Theroux’s novel Strange Bodies as a ‘speculative thriller’ that explores transhumanism, i.e. the possibility of escaping death through technology. Gray was an ideal chair as his 2011 book The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death was used during Theroux’s research. A short reading introduced the enigma at the heart of Strange Bodies. Nicholas Slopen, an expert on Samuel Johnson, has been dead for months. One day he appears on his former girlfriend’s doorstep. Theroux and Gray, however, were more content to discuss the history of transhumanism.
The legacy of this strange project can be traced to the 19th century Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who dreamt of using science to resurrect all previous generations of humans. His successors in the 20th century include the Society for Psychical Research, an Edwardian organisation founded to communicate with the dead through Automatic Writing. The Soviet Scientific Establishment (SSE) developed technologies with the aim of extending human life and resurrecting the dead. In Strange Bodies the SSE develop the Malevin Procedure, an attempt to decode a person’s consciousness from their writings. The most recent quest for immortality can be found in the work of Ray Kurzweil, a man recently appointed as Chief Scientific Officer of Google. His plans involve an attempt to upload human consciousness into cyberspace.
Theroux and Gray stated the importance of not merely laughing-off transhumanism. Behind the transhumanists’ bizarre claims lies a profound and intractable problem: humans have no sufficient way to cope with mortality. The knowledge that you and your loved ones will die is a sadness at the heart of Kurzweil’s attempt to create a digitalised version of his dead father. To simply mock Kurzweil is to ignore human tragedy.
Theroux was an eloquent speaker and demonstrated his ability to grapple with complex philosophical problems concerning the nature of consciousness and mortality. He conjured quotations from the likes of Milton and Larkin to illuminate his thoughts. A question from the audience on the corporeal afterlife prompted him to explain that there already exists a simple technology which is a type of embodied consciousness. It is called a book and it lives on long after an individual dies. Books ‘allow us to share ideas…transcend the limitations of being a single consciousness and connect with others…they start wars, they make people fall in love.’ What Theroux wanted to do by writing Strange Bodies was ‘to write a book that celebrated books’.