Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition

In Who Got Einstein’s Office?, Ed Regis told us about the dark and private grotesqueries of Genius At Work, or, as it happened, more often not at work, or not there at all, inside the rooms of Princeton’s illustrious Institute for Advanced Study. This time he has flown out of the Institute to glide above the open fields and broad meadows of leading-edge science and late-century technological crackpottery. Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition joins together no end of antedotes, tales, tit-bits and trivia about the world of transhuman marvels conjured by what its author clearly thinks of as hubristic maniacs; that is, the bunch of prophets, gurus, merchants, boosters, visionaries, machine-heads, luminaries, eccentrics and empowered lunatics out there inventing and promoting tomorrow’s techno-land.

Regis is a skilled journalist with a reader-friendly style; he obviously does the research for his interviews himself, explains technical issues in as easy way, has a nose for the telling detail, doesn’t obtrude into his story, knows what to tell you and what not; and, like any effective science-fiction thriller writer, has a way of giving just enough information, disorientation and puzzlement to make you turn the page for more. The result is a fact and incident-filled book which is bound to be widely read. Who can resist reading about rocketry, for example, as told through the zany compulsions of Bob Truax; a man whose almost religious enjoyment at the high-pitched whine of a good jet-engine burn and non-stop dedication to shooting everything upwards has led him from designing ocean-liner-sized space rockets (ignored then taken seriously, too late, it seems by NASA) to propelling Evel Knievel across the Snake River canyon. Of course, Evel Knievel in the 1960s is hardly fin-de-siècle and Truax somehow falls short of anything as grand as hubris, but he is part of the gang wanting to populate the planets and shoot out to the stars and they certainly fit Regis’s formula. Out of space research comes the Great Mambo Chicken itself, the idea being that since muscles waste away in zero gravity why not reverse the effect: rear chickens in gravity-producing centrifuges. The birds, it seems from the preliminary tests, are none the worse for their high-speed spins, and bingo: more meat, less waste for the dollar.

But powering out to the stars and rearing giant snack-food is pretty low on Regis’s hubris scale. The real thing is to get rid of dying; or at least, dying as we know it. And eventually getting rid of death itself. First, cryonics. Freeze the corpse (better still: the pre-corpse – but that is illegal) and wake it up when science has advanced, as it obviously will, to be able to cure whatever it was you died from. Expensive and not an option for most of us. No need to despair, however: the good news is that you only really need have a “neuro” (neurological suspension), ie sever and freeze the head – a new body can be grown for it on the spot. Twenty heads can be stored for the price of one corpse, so having a “neuro” is surprisingly affordable and takes the sting out of dying. But it is only a partial solution. You will still have a body, which could disintegrate or fall off a cliff, and you won’t really be immortal. Enter Hans Moravec, professor of computer science and advanced thinker about the body and how to do without it. Moravec’s solution is to separate the mind, which after all is only information, from its messy bodily hardware and download it into a computer. That way it could be copied as many times as you like, transmitted across space, unloaded at any time into whatever robotic silicon-driven form was preferred, downloaded again, and so on, and forth for ever.

One could, and Regis does, go on and on in like vein. There is Eric Drexler, professor of engineering and inventor of nanotechnology – which involves designing and building submicrobe sized robots, armies of which would be able to alter the molecular structure of anything whatsoever in any way we choose. There are physicists who think you can travel back in time if only you have fast enough rotating cylinders, others who see science reaching into a distant future – the omega point – when Man and/or his downloaded descendants have converted all matter in the universe into one vast living creature. This, as you can imagine, really has Regis reaching for his hubris meter.

Regis’s book is entertaining. My problem with it, and I surely won’t be alone, is that not only does constant sport wear thin, but I was left wanting a great deal more in the way of response to the ideas and figures paraded before us than the iteration of “hubris” and the tone of relentless, tongue-in-cheek amusement. Even fun, after all, has its price. Unexamined, yesterday’s manias – hubristic or otherwise – become tomorrow’s realities. The history of nuclear power (limitless energy for ever!) ought to alert us to what skillful promotion and rigged evidence can accomplish. By completely ignoring the whole issue of technology’s implementation – how, by whom, for whose benefit, and why – Regis only helps perpetuate the very unthinking shallowness and idiocy his book so enthusiastically records for us.


TLS January 10, 1992

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