Scribner, May 2016
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
One thing pretty much everyone agrees on is that death is going to suck. Uploading one’s mind to some digital storage space is only the most recent idea to avoid it. It doesn’t make any sense, but peeps seem to be into it. Cryogenically freezing the body and thawing it later is another idea that seems unlikely to work, even though it did in Austin Powers and Demolition Man. While seemingly modern, these ideas are part of an ancient tradition. During the Middle Ages, alchemists sought the elixir of life, and crusaders searched for the Holy Grail, believing whoever drank from it would have eternal youth. For millennia there’s been the belief that faith in God will preserve the soul in an eternal afterlife. And before, there were the pharaohs in their pyramids.
All are desperate attempts to escape the one thing certain in life, which is death. And all are tackled in Don DeLillo’s Zero K. By linking “radical technology” with the “swarming traditions of everlasting life,” the seventy-nine year old author plunges into our deepest fears and desires. Profoundly potent and prescient, Zero K is being proclaimed DeLillo’s finest novel since Underworld—but it just might be his finest novel, ever.
The writing in Zero K is “inexpressibly dense” (to steal a line from one of its characters). So dense the sentences often cause me look up, stare off, and think about what I just read. Every now and again it makes me close my eyes to let the words sink in. It’s DeLillo at his most DeLillo:
This is what you may have to confront. The conscious mind. Solitude in extremis. Alone. Think of the word itself. Middle English. All one. You cast off the person. The person is the mask, the created character in the medley of dramas that constitute your life. The mask drops away and the person becomes you in its truest meaning. All one. The self. What is the self? Everything you are, without others, without friends or strangers or lovers or children or streets to walk or food to eat or mirrors in which to see yourself. But are you anyone without others?
Sometimes the man’s writing makes me shudder. The profundity of it—it’s like the words have lead weights attached to them. They’re that heavy, that penetrating. They look into the abyss of the beyond, of what is to come. Not only death, but destruction. The catastrophic collapse of civilization and everything on the surface of the planet. Which, in so many ways, seems impending, inevitable.
“He spoke of food systems, weather systems, the loss of forests, the spread of drought, the massive die-offs of birds and ocean life, the levels of carbon dioxide, the lack of drinking water, the waves of virus that envelop broad geographies.” The speaker is Ross Lockhart, a billionaire who has invested in an isolated facility where people go to control their death. Ross has asked his thirty-four-year-old son Jeff to visit the site, so he can see it for himself and believe in its mission, and it’s Jeff who tells this story.
“Then there was the biological warfare with it variant forms of mass extinction. Toxins, agents, replicating entities. And the refugees everywhere, victims of war in great numbers, living in makeshift shelters, unable to return to their crushed cities and towns, dying at sea when their rescue vessels capsize.” For much of the world’s population, this is our future—and for many, the future is now. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid it? Not just death, but the apocalypse? Go to sleep and wake up on the other side? Perhaps with your head on a nanobody? It’s not living forever that we want. It’s knowing that we’re not going to die.
And so somewhere in central Asia, Uzbekistan most likely, there’s the Convergence, the facility that will survive crushed economies, the wild surges of weather, terrorism, and cyber attack. With the “serious money” invested in it, it has durable energy sources, fortified floors, security patrols. It’s a place where “death is a cultural artifact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.” A place with people who have “fallen out of history.” People who have decided to become “ahistorical humans.”
In the sterile halls, wall to wall screens show videos of flooded cities, massive fires, enormous ocean waves, lava bursting from the earth, tornadoes that leave nothing in their wake. The screens show war, soldiers, facemasks, stampedes. Installations of video art to remind the patients what they’ll be avoiding. Immortality was hitherto the domain of religion or science fiction, but now there’s “a way to claim the myth for yourselves,” says the founder of Convergence. That is, if you can pay for it.
Most of those who go to the Convergence are terminally ill. Ross Lockhart’s young wife is dying, and so it makes sense for her to avoid the early death caused by her disease. How so? An elevator would take her down into subterranean levels, and then “she would die, chemically prompted, in a subzero vault, in a highly precise medical procedure.” At a later date, there’ll be “a reassembling, atom by atom.”
Ross himself isn’t dying. Yet he chooses to go with her. Because he doesn’t want to live without her. And because he can. Immortality has become a billionaire’s opportunity. And people like Ross Lockhart can take it. “Why not?” his son Jeff asks. “What else was there for him to acquire?” Isn’t immortality the best thing money can buy?
Others decide to go early too—not to die, but to “make a certain kind of transition to the next level.” Preserved in a capsule, in a state where one has consciousness, one “can dream of old lovers and listen to Bach.” It’s not clearly specified how, but they’ll resume their identity when they come out, “in cyberhuman form.” They’ll stop living, but they don’t see it as dying. “I’m ending one version of my life to enter another and far more permanent version,” Ross explains. The process? They’ll be “stripped of their organs, which were being preserved separately, brains included, in insulated vessels call organ pods.” And the body? The “cryogenic dead, upright in their capsules,” will become a form of body art. Headless bodies decorate the halls of the Convergence, and eerie life-like mannequins decorate the surrounding land. Harrowing images.
But, oh, the questions. “Is it outright murder?” Jeff asks. “Is it a form of assisted suicide that’s horribly premature? Or is it a metaphysical crime that needs to be analyzed by philosophers?” Is the Convergence an abuse of privilege? Is going into cryopreservation an act of bravery or surrender? Or is it simply a matter of humans doing what we’ve always done, which is getting beyond our limitations?
By visiting the Convergence and facing these questions, what Jeff previously failed to know becomes clearer—he says he now knows who he is, in ways he did not try to understand. Death does encourage us to look honestly at ourselves. Or is it the other way around? “Doesn’t the fact of imminent death encourage the deepest self-delusion?” Jeff asks.
It could go either way.