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Chasing Immortality, Living on the Edge: A Review of “Transhuman Citizen,” the Biography of Zoltan Istvan

(Credit: Zoltan Istvan)

“Although the project to end death is clearly important to Istvan, his forthcoming biography, ‘Transhuman Citizen: Zoltan Istvan’s Hunt for Immortality’ by Ben Murnane, reveals that he has arguably lived his life in response to a related but slightly different question…”

“What are you prepared to do to stop your own death?”

This question has preoccupied Zoltan Istvan for much of his life. It is what brought him notoriety, first as the author of the 2013 novel The Transhumanist Wager, which centers around the above question, and subsequently as an upstart political candidate. In 2016, he founded the Transhumanist Party to promote the project of ending death through scientific progress. During his 2016 campaign for President of the United States, he demonstrated that he was prepared to do practically anything to raise awareness for the cause: He traveled the country in a coffin-shaped bus, handed out atheistic pamphlets at a megachurch, and taped his transhumanist manifesto to the United States Capitol.

Although the project to end death is clearly important to Istvan, his forthcoming biography, Transhuman Citizen: Zoltan Istvan’s Hunt for Immortality by Ben Murnane, reveals that he has arguably lived his life in response to a related but slightly different question: What are you prepared to do to get as much out of life as possible?

From a young age, Istvan has lived life truly on the edge—not as a mad scientist working to defeat death but, rather, as an explorer intent on staring death in the face. After high school, he purchased a sailboat, filled it with 556 books, and set off to sail around the world. This story is mentioned periodically by Istvan in interviews, but the new biography goes into detail about what a seriously riveting and death-defying adventure this turned out to be. During the trip, Istvan encountered indigenous tribes on far-flung islands, worked as a diver hunting for treasure, and survived ferocious storms in the middle of the Pacific. He also matured from writing adolescent poetry to working as a journalist for National Geographic.

As a reporter and documentarian, he continued to seek out treacherous situations. He covered war zones, visited Vietnam to report on the process of digging up old landmines, and launched the sport of “volcano boarding” by surfing down active volcanoes. Each of these adventures shaped his future perspective on the importance of thwarting death. Istvan was particularly appalled by the needless deaths brought on by the conflict between India and Pakistan. He became convinced that “our species had to do better than this.” Rather than warring against one another, we should be concerned with the survival of all.

The balance Istvan strikes between living on the edge and desiring to live forever is both mystifying and inspiring. We currently live in an age that leans in the opposite direction on both points. We are a risk-averse culture, obsessed with shielding ourselves and our children from the slightest danger or discomfort. At the same time, we are a doomer culture, convinced that our demise is imminent—whether from climate change, nuclear war, lethal viruses, or any number of other threats. Key to this doomerism mindset is the idea that we can do virtually nothing to stop any of these threats—aside from, perhaps, throwing soup cans at priceless works of art.

Standing in direct opposition to these trends, it is no wonder Istvan is a polarizing figure. Politically, his vision is staunchly focused on scientific advancement, technological innovation, and individual liberty and accountability. This unique focus often puts him at odds with the typical Left-Right political framework. It also sets him up to hold a number of policy positions that are often considered extreme. For example, in addition to supporting mainstream policies such as abortion rights and universal basic income, he has advanced the idea that prisons could be replaced with drone surveillance. He also advocates cutting back on the military-industrial complex in order to fund his vision of the science-industrial complex. Perhaps even more controversial still, he once wrote an essay arguing that voting rights should be restricted to those who make enough money to pay income tax. (He later backed down from this position.) 

Based on his freewheeling life experience, Istvan is frustrated that so many people are seemingly content to flounder when life is full of endless opportunities. He has exclaimed bluntly, as quoted in the biography, “I just don’t understand why people are so angry or poor.” Why not redefine problems as challenges and then transform one’s life through a little hard work? As his experience showed, it is relatively cheap and “easy” to buy an old sailboat and set off on a world-conquering adventure. All one has to do is take some initiative.

Istvan may never be successful in his political ambitions, and it seems even less likely that he will ever achieve transhumanist immortality. Yet he has certainly achieved a tangential milestone of being politically relevant and culturally larger than life. Our doomer, safetyist culture might recoil at everything Istvan represents, but that does not mean that the pill he represents would not be good for all of us to swallow. Read Transhuman Citizen to sample a taste of Istvan’s vision, which, after all, may prove to be transformative for our culture, if not prophetic for all of humanity.

Peter Clarke, a Merion West contributor, is a writer in San Francisco and the host of the podcast Team Futurism. He can be found on X @HeyPeterClarke

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