An ancient mogul has bought the power to live forever, but the strong young body he plans to inhabit has other ideas. The battle for immortal life begins.
Immortal Life. A fantasy. An impossible dream. For now, maybe. But as we speak the moguls of Big Tech are pouring their mountain of wealth into finding a cure for death. Don’t tell them they won’t succeed.
None of these titans is richer than Arthur Vogel. This inventor, tech tycoon, and all-round monster has amassed trillions (with a T) and rules over a corporate empire stretching all the way to Mars. The newest—and most expensive—life extension technology has allowed him to live to 127 years, but time is running out. His last hope to escape the inevitable lies with Gene, a human being specifically created for the purpose of housing Arthur’s consciousness. The plan is to discard his used-up old carcass and come to a second life in a young, strong body with all appropriate working parts. But there’s a problem: Gene. He may be artificial, but he is a person. And he has other ideas.
As Arthur sets off to achieve his goal of world domination, Gene hatches a risky plan of his own. The forces against him are very, very rich, extremely determined, and used to getting what they pay for. The battle between creator and creation is joined as the two minds wrestle for control of one body.
This story is real. The tech is in development. The sponsors are the titans of industry well known to you. Eternal life may very soon be at the fingertips of those who can afford it. Mixing brisk action, humor, and wicked social commentary, Immortal Life imagines a day just around the corner. Welcome to a brave new world that is too familiar for comfort—and watch the struggle for humanity play out to the bitter end.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Stanley Bing is a bestselling fiction and nonfiction writer, and a longtime columnist for Esquire, Fortune, and many other national publications. He is the author of almost a dozen books that explore the boundaries of hard-nosed, practical business strategy and satire. These include Crazy Bosses, which, in mapping the relationship between pathology and power, predicted so much of the current political climate; What Would Machiavelli Do, which addressed why mean people often do better than nice ones; and most recently a comprehensive replacement for the traditional MBA program, The Curriculum. His three novels are Lloyd: What Happened, You Look Nice Today, and Immortal Life.
Read an Excerpt
The room was kept dark on purpose, a soft pin spot here and there, because at the age of 127, the creature that had once been Arthur Vogel couldn’t stand bright light. It hurt his eyes, his skin, the tiny blisters that had formed at the top of his skull. Also, he couldn’t tolerate being seen clearly by anybody but Sallie, not even by himself. Hence the absence of mirrors, the proscription against implements that had the capacity to record video.
A while back, at the age of 103 or so, Arthur had retired from public view almost entirely. There he nestled on his vast estate in the pastoral heart of the urban sprawl that stretched from Santa Barbara to San Diego: by day, on his vast outside patio soaking in the vitamin D that he believed would keep him alive forever; after sunset, retreating to his private study to feed the lizards, toads, and spiders that inhabited his massive assemblage of terrariums; and throughout, at all hours, constantly, incessantly doing business through the wireless communications implant that ran beneath the wafer-thin layer of his skull.
Yet as powerful a digital presence as he still might be, he had for some time not actually been seen by human or inhuman eyes; he who had once been the most visible mogul in his coterie of behemoths, the center of a prodigious entourage whose dissolute hijinks had become the stuff of legend, the subject of more ridiculous scandal than Emperor Tiberius in his prime. Orgies! Bottomless onslaughts of willing, wily gold diggers! More ex-wives than the sultan of Brunei! Yachts! Private islands steeped in unpardonable sins! And now—nothing. This absence led to some speculation about his whereabouts, his health overall, and his ability to manage the enormous empire that was currently valued at $63.1 trillion in global operations alone—and that didn’t count the growing hydroponic farm now being built under the surface of the planet of Musk, formerly known as Mars, where he had been first to strike water back in 2034.
Physically, he was all right, as far as it went. But it couldn’t go on like this for much longer. Arthur himself knew that. There were limits to the art of life extension, and he had reached them.
He began every day the same way. At three thirty in the morning, his eyes popped open as if a starting gun had gone off inside his head, and there was no more sleep after that. This was the hard time. The vast beyond beckoned to him then: the possibility that he would not exist; that this magnificent edifice he had built would have the temerity to go on without him. It was then that he was most human; the least fortified with the armature of fame and wealth and technology. It was then that he felt the terror of what most certainly lay ahead if his plan did not succeed and he did not find a permanent solution to the problem of death.
A solution was clearly called for, that was for fucking sure.
So Arthur, who had once been known to friends and enemies alike as the “Mighty Vog,” faced up to the darkness that gripped his heart like a vise in the dead middle of each night and did what he had done since he was a little boy back in the lost, long-ago twentieth century: he got busy.
There was always a lot to do. First, he had to put himself together, which was no inconsiderable task. For more than a year, even Sallie had not seen him in his raw self—what he was before the application of implants, cyberware, and wetware, which were brought to bear each day upon the desiccated nugget of flesh that remained of his original body.
First came the eye, which was the beginning of all things. The eye was loaded with hardware and software that interfaced directly with all the original neurostructure that lay behind it and was the link between his brain and the rest of the intelligent objects that would be added on and expected to obey his unspoken commands. The communications hookups were already loaded into his head, of course, as they were with the superelite that had gotten tired, some twenty years before, of carrying around all those stupid smartphones and, without much trouble, given the limitless human and financial assets at their disposal, figured out a way to place all the necessary electronics into the hard bone that sat right behind the earlobe. Put the eye and the implant together, and you had a pretty fair operating platform suitable for just about any support function.
The thing about the eye, though, was that it was very, very delicate. The least little jostle of the tiny gelatinous orb brought down the whole mechanism. Since each new one took months to build, program, and field-test, this was a verifiable fucking pain in the neck for sure. Not that cost was any real issue, but he still got a little pang when he was forced to shell out more than $2.5 million for a backup that he knew would work 100 percent without fail, hopefully. The thing itself was pretty disgusting, too, he thought as he gently inserted it in its socket and heard the soft click that indicated it was seated correctly in position. Like tenderly placing two fingers of frog guts into your head. He would be glad when he didn’t have to do it anymore. That day was coming.
The rest was a little easier. Propped by the side of his bed was the hip-and-leg assembly that made his limited mobility possible. It was very strong and supple, a welcome addition since—What was it? Six? Ten years ago?—they had pretty much written off the right side of his body completely. Fine, he said. Then he invented the fucking thing himself. Made the sketches. Called in Bob. Had the entire assembly printed—bones, muscles, veins, arteries and capillaries, the knee and all its delicate cartilage, the joints, whatever. That was no big deal; they had been able to print just about anything for years. Implementing an installation process he could accomplish by himself—now, that had been a real bear. That was when a guy like Bob really came in handy. Patient. Brilliant in his own way. Willing to do anything if the science of it presented a challenge to him. Very valuable guy, Bob. Key guy, really. Now more than ever. Had to watch him, though. Motherfucker could get the idea in his head that it was he who was running things.
Arthur put the $6 billion leg in place and felt the pulse kick in on the cyborg ankle. He rose to his feet and carefully walked to the door of his bedroom, which whispered open as he approached.
“Diego,” he said into the murky dark that lay outside his threshold.
In a beat or two, there was a small rustling not far off and then a pleasant hum, which grew modestly in volume until its source materialized in the doorway. The object in question was a circular, Frisbee-sized platter, perhaps eight inches thick, glowing about its edges, that could be described as a cross between a nineteenth-generation Roomba and a late-century Hoverboard. It floated in midair about chest high. This was Diego, Arthur’s virtual manservant. Imbued with modest AI, Diego was capable of performing many household functions: carrying messages, making simple reservations and appointments and audio/video calls, and, of course, cleaning carpets and doing some light dusting. The original human Diego, who had served Arthur for more than thirty years, had expired due to old age some years prior. Arthur, missing his amanuensis and friend, had downloaded a wide variety of messages and responses into the little android that the original Diego had been kind enough to record in advance of his demise. And so Diego, in a sense, lived on—not in his own consciousness, because he was dead—but in that of his master. It was insufficient as a source of comfort and companionship that the real Diego had provided. But it was something.
“Good morning, Diego,” said Arthur to the floating Roomba. “I’m up. I know it’s early. I hope I didn’t disturb your slumber.”
“Not at all,” said Diego. “I’m always awake at this hour. Come to think of it, I’m awake at every hour.”
Arthur recognized that this was not one of the prerecorded responses the nonvirtual Diego had provided to the database. It was clear that the machine was learning as it went along, adding to its trove of potential replies with new rejoinders assembled by its rudimentary artificial intelligence. This was either amusing or not, Arthur thought. With originality of thought came a host of other possibilities, not all of them congenial to servitude.
“I’ll have my breakfast now,” said Arthur.
“What will you have, sir?” asked Diego, hovering in the air before his face, but tilting a little bit, as a dog will do when it strikes a position of inquiry.
“I want a big fat steak,” said Arthur truculently.
“I will bring you a bowl of berries and a small portion of synthetic yogurt.”
“Okay, goddamn it,” said Arthur. It was true that the massive T-bone in his imagination, if he ate even a small portion of its crusty, salty, fatty magnificence, would kill him: stick in his ancient craw and choke him to death. He also felt very strongly that it was more than worth dying for. Steak! God, to eat a steak! Chew it with a strong, working set of teeth and feel its delectable juices slide down his powerful, muscular gullet and into a resilient stomach that could process a tin can if such was required. But no. Those days were over. Anything more dense than a raspberry or a bowl of gruel was to him as potentially lethal as a schuss down one of the black diamond slopes he used to run with ease at Gstaad. This was no life, no life at all. He would not tolerate it one second longer than was required. Call Bob, he thought. Nail down the timetable. “And tell Sallie she can come in now,” Arthur added, slipping his day teeth into his mouth.
“Thank you, sir,” said Diego. “And may I say you look your best today,” he added, and left. What did a compliment mean from a floating Roomba? When he was a boy, the talking elevator had made its appearance. He remembered the first time one had told him to “Have a nice day.” Well-wishing mechanical entities had proliferated since then. He still didn’t find them convincing, but the penalty for failure to embrace what was defined as progress was severe—not just socially but economically as well. So he had chosen to lead the parade rather than resist it. And now he would do so again.
The defeat of death was no small achievement, after all. It could be considered the crowning achievement of a life, particularly if that life were established to be of a very high quality—and without end.
There was much to do. While even the earliest birds were still huddled in their cold, dark nests at this hour on the verge of the continent, it was a bright day on the East Coast, late morning in London, and tomorrow in Mumbai and Macao. And in all these locations, there were his people, hard at work doing whatever it was they were supposed to do in pursuit of corporate profit, each of them trembling with fear at the possibility that if Arthur got it in his mind to call them, they would not be on hand to greet him with shiny noses and bushy tails. So he did what he always did to fend off the despair that comes with early wakefulness. He contacted people at every corner of the globe and frightened them to death.
Arthur didn’t have to scream and yell anymore to give them a hot blast of motivation. His low, almost imperceptible rasp was enough to throw even the heartiest two-star general into anal rictus. “Are you aware, Mr. Georgikashvili, that it is almost February, and the pylons have yet to be put into place?” he would whisper to the manager of a project designed to redefine the function of the Black Sea, which was now all but empty. “I’m hoping I interpreted the launch schedule wrong, Dick,” he barked very quietly at the engineer in charge of the interplanetary space station shuttle. Quiet barking was a skill one developed over time, particularly when it became a necessity. It was hard to achieve volume when the sound was being generated by artificial vocal cords, even very good ones. A final call was made to a small island off the coast of Vanuatu, in the South Seas, which he had owned since his early seventies, when his wealth had grown so extreme that it shocked even him.
How in the world could one person get so rich? He wondered about it every day. It seemed to him that his life had been an unending pageant of relatively ordinary events, each of them taking up time, but, in the end, he had been granted no time at all. Where had it all gone? For instance, back in the day (as they used to say back in the day), Arthur had attended something called Woodstock: a concert that had, at the time, embodied the chaotic hopes and ideals of his peers. Jettisoning those as soon as he reached manhood, he plunged with his customary focus into his true calling: making money. He had been in finance for about a decade, made a plump bundle, and retired by the time he was thirty-five to tinker around in a small laboratory he maintained in his garage. There he pursued dark studies, working for weeks at a time without food or sleep, delving deep into the practical applications on the leading edge of science. Synthetic viruses, for example, were then all the rage, along with other entities that bridged the gap between organic and inorganic. The gray area between life and death—that was his hobby, his obsession. At one point, he had a wife and a couple of children, but at about this time, they fell away from him, and nothing had been heard of them for many years. They were not part of the necessary database.
In the early part of the current century, Arthur had invented a tiny nanomagnetic switch based on quantum electronics that was capable of being both on and off at the same time. Nobody could think of a use for it until it was discovered to be essential in constructing the first generation of machines that could truly think in a meaningful, human sense of the term. The ability to sustain two conflicting thoughts simultaneously appeared to be a fundamental part of genuine cognition. The nanomag relay made this possible. It had yet to be supplanted by any subsequent design, and Arthur was now worth several trillion dollars—an amount that seemed large but, in truth, didn’t go as far as it used to. There were at least a dozen trillionaires on the Forbes list, although he was the leading one. Virtually limitless resources were at his disposal. There was nothing he couldn’t afford or do if he got the idea into his head. Now he had gotten it into his head to call Vanuatu.
“Hello, Eddie,” he said into the air in front of his face. His utterance was picked up by the infinitely tiny wire that ran up his mandible and into the wireless pod that nestled in the mastoid bone behind his right ear. “Tell me about the sunrise,” he said wistfully. Of course, Arthur could pick up a live hologram of the rising sun itself from the setup he had installed on the island, but this was better: one real, nonvirtual human being to another. There is no better sight than that which is provided by your mind’s eye, properly stimulated. Eddie was surprisingly good at that.
Eddie had been born on the island when there were people there. Now there was just him—all four hundred pounds of him, usually in a sarong, because that was all that would fit him. He was accompanied by six dogs and a giant Komodo dragon that might have been one of the original residents of the place. His job was to take care of things on Vanuatu in anticipation of the day when Arthur would arrive and greet the sunset of his life. Eddie would do so until he died and then would be replaced by a new Eddie. He was fine with the solitude. He was a poet by nature and had a trove of the best weed in the world. His descriptions of the sun, the moon, the rain, the stars, were a little different every day, but, then, so was nature. He spoke to Arthur about that for a while. Arthur sat there, watching his terrariums, and listened.
After some time, there was a change in the density of the air in the room, and a very mild scent of something ineffably beautiful crept in, and Arthur knew that quietly, in the darkness, Sallie had arrived.
“Hi, Artie,” she said. He turned off his head and felt her presence.
“Where the fuck have you been?” he said, not impolitely.
“Asleep,” said Sallie. “Like most normal people.”
She came close and sat on the bed. She was in her morning caftan, which was bright orange and very roomy. Her hair was tousled high on her head, tied into a giant exclamation point by a ribbon. Sallie appeared to be a rather youngish forty, but that could mean anything. Tall—way taller than Arthur. High cheekbones. Lovely bottom. Not a big nose for the size of her face, but not a small one, either. A little bit of a button on the end. A few freckles, if you looked close.
“I missed you, teacup,” said Arthur.
“Take your medicine?” asked Sallie.
She disappeared into the massive bathroom suite that lay beyond the bedroom.
“I want you,” he said quietly.
“We can have a very good time if you take all your meds,” came the voice from the dark beyond.
“Fuck,” said Arthur. “I hate this shit.”
Sallie came back with a tray that held a variety of bottles, tubes, and poultices, and a big glass of water. She handed him a large brown pill, scored in two. “Your Denamarin Chewable for your liver.” He took it. She presented another: this one small and light yellow. “Now your Renagel, for your phosphorus.” He took that, too. “Eat this little water cracker,” she said, offering him a pale wafer. “You’re supposed to take the Renagel with a little food and water.” He took it and munched on it for a few moments with an expression of mild disgust.
“It’s dry,” he said, with a little tang of complaint in his voice.
“I’m sorry, Snooks,” said Sallie. “Put out your palm.” He did so. From a weekly medication organizer, she removed a fistful of tablets and capsules. “Heart . . . kidneys . . . lungs . . . arthritis . . . vitamins,” she intoned as she extracted pills from the med strip, each of its compartments embossed with an initial for its name of the week. Then she placed each into his waiting hand.
“Tumil-K,” she said. “Furosemide. Vetmedin. Enacard. A half tab of spironolactone. Half tab of Rimadyl. One tab Welactin.” He took each without comment but with a little bit of water. At the end, he said, “Pathetic,” to nobody in particular.
“Put your head back,” said Sallie. He did so. From her little tray, she selected a succession of very small plastic bottles, dispensing one drop of each into Arthur’s original working eye. “Dexasporin,” she said, “one drop . . . cyclosporine, one drop . . . tacrolimus once daily . . . one, two . . . and your Opticare. There.”
She put away the bottles on the tray and placed the tray on the night table. “Okay, now, Artie. Roll over.”
“Goddamn it,” he said. “Motherfucker.”
She gently lifted Arthur’s bathrobe and pulled his silken jammies down a little bit, exposing one very elderly cheek. She kissed it. Then she removed a small pneumatic hypo from her caftan and expertly administered an infusion. “Stay still, Artie. Daily subcutaneous fluids. You know.”
“I want you to call Bob. Call this morning. I don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Artie. You can’t rush this. They say he won’t be ready for another month, maybe two.”
“Oh,” said Arthur. “Right. Right.” But he had stopped listening, because he had made a decision, and once you’ve made a decision, that’s the time you stop listening. After a while, he rolled over again and looked at her. She accepted his gaze.
“You look very juicy, Buttercup,” he said, feasting both his analog and cybernetic eye at her with tremendous appreciation. “You are so beautiful. I can’t believe how beautiful you are.”
She had put away all the paraphernalia of old age now, and she leaned over him as he lay in bed, his tiny, slightly artificial head resting lightly on the pillow. “I love you the way you are, Artie, you know that, I hope,” she said, quite serious now. “All this stuff you’re going to do to yourself, it’s for you, honey. It’s not for me.”
“That’s nice,” said Arthur, “but you’re deluded.”
“It’s the human condition, Artie. There’s something okay about just being human, you know? Going with that flow.”
“Fuck that,” said Arthur. He put his arms around her and kissed her, and she kissed him back.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Print one out.”
Sallie patted the top of his mottled, shiny head. “You are one horndog,” she added, moving over to the dresser, where she addressed a small printer that rested unobtrusively next to a houseplant. She made sure the readouts were appropriate, and then she pressed a button and went into the bathroom. Turned on the shower. A bit of humming.
Arthur lay back on the bed, his hands behind his head. Profits were good. His businesses enjoyed a 78 percent market share in every single space in which they operated. That was not particularly unusual. Amazon and its subsidiaries controlled 87 percent of all online retail. The global conglomerate that was once Facebook now held a 92 percent market share of all online advertising. He listened to the sound of Sallie in the shower. Gonna get laid soon, he thought. That’s one thing that never gets old.
Sallie came in, still wearing her flowing caftan. “Ah, here we go,” she said. She gently removed the brand-new penis from the 3-D printer and placed it on the little plate of bone-white china that rested on the night table by the side of his bed. “Now I’ll leave you for a minute,” she said demurely, and once again went into the bathroom, the sound of running water coming from the sink.
On the way out, she had dimmed the lights. It was nice in the room. The shades were closed but the sunlight was streaming in; it was still early! Lots of time for all the great things you could do in a day if you weren’t dead. Arthur looked at the freshly created penis. It was a decent size, but not ridiculous. Quite attractive, actually. Much nicer than what had become of his original, when he considered it.
She came back in just a few minutes later, without the caftan. “You ready?” she said, smiling.
“Baby,” said Arthur, snapping the new appendage into place with a soft and reassuring click. “I’m always ready.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Immortal Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with authorStanley Bing. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the not-so-distant future, business tycoon Arthur Vogel appears to be finally nearing death at the advanced age of 127. Yet while he may have run out of available resources to rejuvenate his body, his intact and prodigious mind may have other options. One of his doctors has finally discovered a way to download an individual’s consciousness—which the multinational conglomerate currently in power has long been capable of uploading to the Cloud—back into a newly minted body. If his transformation is successful, he will have the key to life immortal, which just might give him enough leverage with the beyond-geriatric board of directors capable of giving him exclusive power over the Cloud.
But Vogel’s would-be host, Gene, has been using his baseline intelligence to form an alliance with the Skells, a group of offline revolutionaries gathering in opposition to digital control over their psyches. And it is looking more and more likely that Vogel and Gene will have to battle within the same brain to determine the fate of society, as their joint body follows the newly armed Skells from Silicon Valley toward Vancouver—and the brainstem of the Cloud’s servers.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Bing has constructed an elaborate political history in Immortal Life to explain the coming consolidation of power in the hands of a few Silicon Valley tech moguls. To what degree do you absorb forecasts like “the radioactive area that was once Korea” as satirical indictments of the current political climate? To what degree do you consider them serious risks for our future?
2. The technologies in Bing’s speculative future also take root in advancements the real-world commercial and defense industries have recently achieved. Some features of this future, such as drone surveillance, are already a reality. Are there technologies included in the book that you feel less certain will develop?
3. The novel includes numerous mentions of real-life technology executives, such as Elon Musk and Larry Ellison. How do mentions of the workings of prominent tech companies contribute to the overall narrative strategy of Immortal Life?
4. Sallie notes on page 95 how Vogel is able to romanticize his “wild youth” during the Woodstock era while remaining ruthless as a businessman. Compare how different characters in the novel think about hippies and how they view the Skells, embodied in outdoor music festivals at the Gorge Amphitheater or “the arpeggios of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ being practiced, badly.” How do you think Vogel is able to so thoroughly avoid empathizing with these newer idealists?
5. On page 119 readers see only one half of a conversation between Bronwyn and Bob. The doctor at one point references former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous answer to a question in a 2002 news briefing, in which Rumsfeld states that there are “unknown unknowns—[things] we don’t know we don’t know.” How do you relate the phrase “unknown unknowns” to Bob’s work with transferring consciousness? Why do you think Bing chose to limit perspective to Bronwyn’s half of the dialogue in this scene?
6. Although the character Mortimer is often shown to be limited in his thinking beyond his responses to direct orders, he offers an interesting description of “intercranial shaming” on page 155. In it, he summons “contempt and hatred
[ . . . ] from the online community” that mirrors the real-world phenomenon of internet shaming. What might Bing’s reimagination of social media as a policing tool be saying about the internet as we experience it today?
7. As he faces his own mortality, Tim mentions both his own spirit (page 220) and the “holy spirit [that] made men and women in [its] own image” (page 242). In a world of downloadable consciousness, how do you interpret the idea of a spirit? Do you believe there is room for religion in such a world?
8. Early on in the narrative, the fact that Gene develops a relationship anew with Liv every time he is reprogrammed presents an interesting argument for the essential self and the power of love (page 81). Where else do you see selfhood in conflict with technology in the novel? In light of Gene and Liv’s relationship, how do you interpret Bob’s fear of being able to fall in love again with Bronwyn when her consciousness is reprogrammed (page 245)?
9. When Liz continues to question whether she should destroy or preserve the Cloud, Amy speaks up in her own defense, citing both the joy she brings to people and way in which they collectively hold her ownership (page 272). The two ultimately find resolution in the offline storage of her massive knowledge-data. Do you agree with this as a long-term solution?
10. By reprogramming the Cloud so that her infinite capacity for knowledge resides in a body, Bob is able to transform Amy’s consciousness into a tangible life. Do you find that this transformation carries with it hope? Or does Amy’s vast potential leave too much room for the manipulation of mass data to resume?
11. The science fiction genre is filled with questions of whether or not robots and other technologies can achieve self-actualization, and Bing alludes to this concept when Officer O’Brien hopes there will soon be rights for artificial life (page 94) and when Tim expresses his convictions about the Singularity (page 220). Do you think the new society set forth at the end of Immortal Life will allow for artificial life to eventually think and act independently?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bob’s pride in being Gene’s father (page 190) follows in a long tradition of fiction about engineering life that reaches back as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Identify another classic science fiction theme imbedded in this story of man’s obsession with the creation and extension of life, then choose another novel sharing that theme as your next book club pick and compare it to Immortal Life.
2. Immortal Life is a unique work in that it offers tangible solutions to the problems of the speculative future it presents. Compare Bing’s tone and vision for the business economy in this novel with those presented in one of his nonfiction works. Do you see any similarity between his fiction and his arguments in What Would Machievelli Do? or Sun Tzu Was a Sissy? Discuss.
3. Artificial intelligence has long captured the imaginations of writers on both big and small screens, from Blade Runner to Westworld. Arrange for your book club to have a viewing party of one of your favorite shows or movie about robots, cloning, immortality, or dystopia. Then discuss its similarities and dissimilarities to Immortal Life.
A Conversation with Stanley Bing
Immortal Life is peppered with references to real-life figures and events from the tech world and the political stage. Which twenty-first-century event or innovation do you feel most influenced you while writing the novel?
I am amazed by the power of the digital to overwhelm the human. It rewards those who are most comfortable aggregating in anonymous groups to attack those who threaten the hive’s assumptions about itself. I suppose the thing that most concerns me is the specter of large groups of people—in Starbucks, at the airport, walking down the street, going to and fro with their noses in their tiny screens. We are a short step away from those devices being internalized via implant and then we begin the next iteration of Homo sapiens—without the sapiens part. Humanity without the thinking, the wisdom—a species capable of communicating with one another superbly but incapable of independent, non-prompted thought. Like bees. Or ants. Is that something we want? Unless you’re the queen that runs the hive, that evolution seems pretty grim to me.
I’m also annoyed by the idea that somebody is going to take my right to drive away and give it to an artificial intelligence that controls our transportation entirely. I don’t think I want Siri driving my car.
Politically, you don’t have to be a visionary to imagine the total consolidation of capitalism and the decay of the great United States of America into a bunch of warring entities—an armed red zone in the center, a group of scared and geographically disparate blue zones on the coasts and in the major cities, and a bunch of anti-tech green zones dedicated to human life as it existed before the Cloud.
So the short answer is that I looked at where we are today and took it out thirty years or so—and that’s the world of this book. With a few laughs embedded in just about every chapter, I hope. Many a truth is spoken in jest.
Between your columns, books, and executive work, you must find yourself always juggling a lot at once. What strategy helps you most to carve out a writing routine?
Insomnia. When I have something to write, I sleep badly, working out leads to the pieces or the chapters almost in my sleep, and then I get up at dawn when my resistance to work is at its nadir and start typing. Two or three hours of writing a day can produce an amazing amount of work if you’re a writer, particularly if you don’t have the disease of perfectionism. It’s amazing how many things you write thinking “this is terrible,” only to find out later it was actually either quite good, good enough, or capable of being good with a little bit of work. More writers are destroyed by their own little negative troll inside than by rejection from the outside world.
Arthur Vogel’s goals may seem outlandish to some readers, but his thinking mirrors that of transhumanists and others who take immortality very seriously. Do you think extreme life-extension technologies and eventual mind uploading are viable futures for the human race? Should they be?
For myself? I’m all for it. I want to live as long as life is enjoyable and full of love and work, as Freud might say. For society? It’s a terrible idea. It forces the young into small cubicles and cements the hold that geezers have on the corner offices. It extends families to the breaking point and eventually creates mega-family units where you never get rid of your responsibilities to the previous generation. Imagine being in a marriage—even a happy one—for one hundred years! You’d either have a lot more divorce or a deplorable increase in the murder rate.
Bottom line, an obsession with life extension focuses technology on extending the lives of people who should die and get out of the way. We live in a culture that points every human being toward narcissism and selfishness. We worship the individual above all else. Young people don’t even root for their football teams anymore; they root for the individuals who make up their fantasy teams. The extension of life is the ultimate expression of this narcissism. We are given the power to transcend the ultimate expression of what it means to be human—the cycle of birth, life, old age, wisdom, death. We do away with grief. We do away with so much that defines what it means to be human beings and replace it with creatures that are threatened only by the death of the Cloud that maintains their permanent consciousness.
I will also say that this eternal life will be available only to the ruling class, the mega-rich that control the world through their corporate institutions and the governments that serve them. Think of that. Fabulously wealthy old creepazoids whose immortal pets live longer than you do.
You have found success writing in many different genres. When did you first decide that you wanted to tackle the subject of immortality using the novel form?
I read a lot of science. I subscribe to Ray Kurzweil’s newsletter every day—he’s the sort of mad futurist that works for Google; I read the news from several other transhumanist blogs and stuff like that. And I’m fascinated by the assumptions of those who are so gaga about artificial intelligence and infatuated with the Cloud, social media, without a thought for the implications on our lives as we know it. My assumption is and always has been that AI will advance until it is impossible to tell a machine or other artificial life form from a “real” person—which means that this AI will be every bit as ill-prepared for actual existence and stupid in certain situations as that real person. Why should we believe that an entity capable of “thinking” and responding to real-life situations will be any more “intelligent” than an organic human being? There’s going to be a ton of artificially intelligent entities, and they will be fallible and moronic as your obnoxious younger brother who thinks the moon landing was a hoax.
You subtitle the work “a soon to be true story.” Do you think any of the technologies from your fictional world will not come to fruition? For instance, will AI in the workforce reach a point where it demands legal rights?
That’s a good question. Yes. I do believe that we will have responsibility for the entities that we create. One of the most heart-wrenching shots in all of cinema, to me, is the end of Spielberg’s movie A.I.—spoiler alert!—when the little artificial being is lying at the bottom of the ocean, I believe, awake, alive, aware, and doomed for eternity (or its power source wears down) to be there. We can’t allow that kind of stuff to happen. On the other hand, anybody who has seen the terrific movie Ex Machina knows that when the time comes we’ll need to be quite wary of these creatures who may, unfortunately, mirror our own lack of empathy and morality.
As for things that will not come to fruition? I don’t believe we will ever really see ubiquity of self-driving cars, although some of their features will—and already have –—been incorporated into existing vehicles, which is a boon for those who find parallel parking difficult. But the entirely self-driving vehicle, I believe, will simply have to be too slow in order to be safe, and people, at least reasonable people, will want to have control over their own vehicles—because it’s more fun that sitting around like a worm and playing with your digital head! Come on. Let’s have some sense about these things. If you leave it to the scientists they will behave as scientists throughout history have behaved and make things that render life more dangerous and problematic than before because they can. In 1945, they thought, hey, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a nuclear reactor that could light an entire city! Except . . . who is running that nuclear reactor today? Homer Simpson.
Many readers will consider Gene the unlikely hero of Immortal Life, but you write many of your characters empathetically. Do you identify more closely with one of your creations than the others? Who?
Interestingly, at least to me, is that I identify with Gene quite a bit. He has consciousness but no memory. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s know exactly what that’s like. He wants to live. He loves quite a few people—falls in love perhaps a bit too easily—and he dislikes jerks. Is also very conflicted about his father. So yeah, I do feel very close to Gene.
I am sorry to say that I also love Arthur quite a bit. He’s a very bad person. He’s a total egomaniac. He has very little care for the feelings of others. He’s rude. He’s oversexed. He’s very smart. And there’s something about his life-force I admire, and he has a very good sense of humor. And I love what becomes of him.
I love Livia because she’s a voice of reason, a very cool person, and capable of loving a very flawed guy who keeps forgetting her name, for God’s sake, because she sees Gene’s simplicity and goodness of heart, if not head. I love Bronwyn because she’s a strong young woman with a penchant for action; smart, idealistic, and wears grommets. And of course there’s Sallie. She’s maybe the most human and complex person in the entire work. She’s capable of looking beyond the exterior shell of the individual she loves; she’s full of life; she’s very smart, self-aware, moral in her own way, and extremely loyal, even beyond reason. And when the time comes, as it does for all of us in our lives at one time or another, she makes a choice and does the right thing.
Beyond that, I of course have tremendous affection for Bob. I’m not sure what kind of language I can use in this venue, so let’s just say that Bob is a butthead. He’s also very smart and about as moral as Mark Zuckerberg when you get down to it. He gets very excited about the tech he’s inventing to the point where he doesn’t consider the human implications of what he’s doing any more than Zuckerberg considers what Facebook’s acceptance of fake news does to our entire understanding of truth. Or, for that matter, what Elon Musk feels when he hears that some idiot killed himself while not paying any attention to what his Tesla was doing on the highway as it drove right into a large truck. It’s science! It’s progress! Ipso facto—good, right? Wrong. Yet you know, Bob is Gene’s dad. None of us get to choose our dads.
Finally, I have to say I do have a very soft spot in my heart for Stevie. He or she is a truly courageous figure and I take off my hat to him or her.
And I do love Lucy. In almost all her forms.
There is much nonfiction speculating what political and economic transformations we have in store this century. Do you have any recommendations for readers looking to further explore the possible future you imagine in Immortal Life?
Yeah. Get off the !#$!@ phone for a couple of minutes. Read a physical book. Try out a newspaper made of paper, which is not the same as one on your iPad. Newspapers prioritize the day’s events for you. On a tablet, the recipe for pumpkin pie is of equal importance to a Korean nuclear test over the Pacific. Go to a Starbucks without a phone and have a cup of coffee. Take a walk without earbuds. Try to retrain your brain to think without prompts. And most of all, eat your meals without consulting your screens or Instagramming your plate, even if at first you find it boring. And stop looking up stupid junk you don’t need to know about. Justin Bieber’s birthday is not important, except to Selena Gomez. In all these ways you will be battling to save the human race from its inevitable genetic evolution to subhuman creatures with no capability for independent thought and the hive mentality of high-level insect life.
Except for that? I’d say try to use your common sense. Resist marketing of things that do not improve your life but only complicate it. And watch for buzzwords that are meant to sell you something that’s bad for you. For instance, shoving you in a little cubicle just like everybody else’s is not “democratizing” the workplace. It’s dehumanizing it. “Disruption” is not good in and off itself, unless that disruption replaces that which it is disrupting with something better, better for people, does not destroy jobs and replace them with screens or, as it has for writers, made it necessary to at times work for nothing. I have a particular problem with this current infatuation with “disruption” as a wonderful thing, a priori. You know what’s the ultimate disruptor? War. How does war work for you?
The other aspects of the book that we can try to stop, if we care, are overconsolidation of corporate capitalism and the fragmentation of our State. I’m not going to go all gooey on you right now, but it’s clear that racism, hatred, and intolerance, as well as income inequality, drive much of the disunion we are experiencing right now. We can all certainly go down the road toward the dissolution of the United States, but I think that would be a shame.
Close readers will find a number of clever barbs about popular music in the novel. What role do you think rock ’n’ roll has played in the shaping of our culture today?
I love rock ’n’ roll, so put another dime in the jukebox, baby. But seriously. One of the great things about our world right now is the absolute tsunami of great music from all times and places we have at our fingertips. That’s one of things I’d want to maintain and protect from the Cloud. And Rock? Along with Blues and Country and EDM and anything that makes people want to make out or dance? That’s a weapon against the digitization of the human brain. There’s a reason why the lone guitarist in the Peaceable Kingdom at the end of the book is working on “Stairway To Heaven.” It’s eternal. It’s heavy. And nobody can really play it very well. So we keep trying.
Immortal Life paints an often-bleak picture of future sovereignty in the US, as well as nations like Russia, China, North and South Korea, India, and Japan. What advice do you give to readers looking to make an impact on global political stability now?
Maybe I addressed this before, but I guess I’ll just add that the only thing I think we can do is work locally for political solutions that build peace on earth and goodwill toward men and women and artificial life-forms, wherever they may be. I know it sounds simplistic, but it’s clear when looking at our politics who is preaching hatred and who is not. And that’s been clear throughout history. Nobody who has seen a speech by Adolph Hitler can be unclear about his mood and intentions. I don’t believe most Americans want that kind of thing, but we have to prove it now.
Beyond that? Honestly? I don’t think there’s a whole lot we can do about large corporate entities with unlimited resources taking over for the nation states that now marginally control the earth. One day Google may very well control all of Japan, Inc. Of course, they’ll run it well, through local representatives so it looks nice. Very slowly—or maybe not very slowly—large corporations will replace government all over the world. The movie RoboCop speculated that one day Detroit’s police force would be privatized. We’re not far away from that kind of thing right now. The post office, for instance. Schools, pretty soon, unfortunately. More and more, our governments and our corporations will become one, and we’ll continue to zone out and look up what kind of trouble Ben Affleck just got himself into on TMZ.
Your character Liz especially retains hope for the possibility of using the Cloud for good. Considering the complicated realities of cybersecurity and privacy we continue to redefine as the technology outpaces itself, to what degree do you share Liz’s optimism?
I don’t, but I love her for it. You know why? From my observation, nobody under the age of twenty-five gives a rat’s tail about privacy. If you mention how much of their privacy they are simply giving away every time they use Facebook, they look at you if you’ve just started conversing in Urdu.
But hey. Hakuna Matata. When we all have our cranial implants nicely ensconced in our mastoid bones, and we’re always in touch with the Cloud for information, news, and recipes, and the Cloud knows what we want, and drones ply the skies to deliver it on time, we will all settle back and live a comfortable life and forget what the Before was like. And we won’t miss it. Because look! Stranger Things 147 is ready for cranial download into our receptor banks!
Considering the Skells, the communal ideals of the hippie movement seem in many ways more attractive than ever. Do you think future Americans will continue to seek out utopic communities separate from the imperatives of technology and global commerce?
Yes, I do. There will always be people who want to remain close to the earth and to each other in ways that have always been defined as human. I’ll see you there, okay?