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  • Katherine H. Voyles, Nathan H. White

Biotech, Nuclear War, and the Singularity: Humanity in 2054

Katherine H. Voyles and Nathan H. White on Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman's 2054


Set in the aftermath of a fictional war between the U.S. and China, Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis’ 2054 is a page-turner of a novel. The opening lines are dense with both meaning and uncertainty. The lines appear to be computer code, but what they command and why that command matters are unclear. The first two characters of the code are the Greek letters alpha and omega (α Ω). They standout on the pagethey alone comprise the first line of text – and they are a different script to the rest of the text. These characters are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which since at least the early days of Christianity have stood for the beginning and end, the totality of a thing. From the outset, the novel draws together technology and images of religious devotion to depict possible fates for humanity.


Technological and scientific progress often have a fraught relationship with religionperhaps because both make claims to the same territory: the origins of humanity, its desired end state, and how it reaches that goal are all implicated in religious, scientific, and technological visions of humanity. These thin boundaries can create a liminal space that is characterized by uncertainty about what could come next. A totalizing vision of the world has conventionally been the provenance of religion, but the potential of technological progress can itself lay claim to being all-encompassing.


Ackerman and Stavridis’ current novel, which is both a stand-alone work of fiction and the next episode in a story that started with 2034 (a novel about a devastating war between the U.S. and China) is above all a consideration of the nature of human progress, possibility, and potentiality in the context of a deeply fractured United States and immensely competitive, complicated geopolitical environment. Their story holds for contemplation the nature of what it means to be human and the goal of humanity in relation to the contrasting narratives around technological progress. The book’s narrative is situated in particular ways; specific times (in the future – to its readers in our own day) and places (including digital locations) demark the beginnings of chapters. Fraught geopolitical contexts serve as the backdrop for the unwindings wrought throughout the story.


Perhaps this is less surprising when one considers the authors. Ackerman is a decorated Marine combat-veteran whose works of fiction and memoir have done much to shape the cultural understanding of the meaning of the post-9/11 wars; he often also writes in the popular press. Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy four-star Admiral whose extensive experience encompasses serving as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander as well as serving as dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he also received his PhD.



Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman. 2054: A Novel. New York: Penguin Press. Pp. 304. $28.00


From cognition and sentience to DNA itself, 2054 showcases how technological revolutions are bringing into question fundamental building blocks and characteristics of humankind. Calling into question the nature of humanity necessarily touches on our trajectory. Why should the survival of homo sapiens be a fundamental consideration - especially in geopolitics - when the boundaries of this species are so specious? 2054 raises questions about the bounds and wisdom of human augmentation devices, mRNA gene editing, and more. How can we preserve our humanity in the face of changes to our very biology?


These questions are unsettling in part because they open space for considering the implications for future decades of technological, as well as geopolitical, decisions that we are making. The narrative end that Ackerman and Stavridis finally envision is itself trans-national and trans-politicala new unity achieved through technological innovation that takes on a kind of life of its own - what they identify as the Singularity that futurists, most famously Ray Kurzweil, predicted. All of this tension around what it means to be human and what might happen to humanity plays out in narrative time and space as characters work out high stakes geopolitical intrigue.


2054 centers on the assassination of an American president, what led to it, and its aftermath. The president’s death seems caused by a new technology that enables remote gene editing resulting in forced biological change—in this case, a tumor that rapidly develops in the president’s previously healthy heart. The workings of the assassination are themselves important, but so are the potential reasons for it. During his years in office, President Castro took more and more power for himself, his office, and his party, the Dreamers. The novel does not represent these developments—no flashbacks interrupt the forward movement of the story—but the expansion of executive authority is a defining fact of American life in this telling. This expansion is itself surprisingly uncontroversial in the novel—by which we don’t mean that America isn’t at odds with itself and Americans aren’t at odds with each other in this novel, but that the fact of the expansion is taken as a given even if almost everything else around it is has people at each other’s throats. The vice-president is, of course, suspected of having a hand in the death. Like any good story about murder a key question is “who benefits.”


This combustible mix of narrative circumstances is made even more flammable by the domestic partisan political configurations of the U.S. Two political parties—the Dreamers and the Truthers—dominate American political life. The tension between these sides builds until a conflagration occurs on American soil. 2034 showcases America at war with a foreign adversary, but 2054 showcases America at war with itself. This is not to say, however, that foreign actors aren’t active in this novel. In fact, Japan, China, Nigeria, and other foreign actors all insert themselves into American domestic partisan political life. Advances in technology are crucial to how people organize themselves within nations, and how nations organize themselves in relation to one another. Nation states and other political actors are in an “arms race” of sorts to be the first to achieve the Singularity, a potent merging of “biological and technological existence” that will unleash a wave of new possibilities in domains such as biotech, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing.


Technological advances don’t merely reorient people’s relations to one another, they bring to the fore the very issue of what makes a human. Characters in the novel work to understand the nature of progress, and whether this biological-technical fusion enhances human existence or threatens to undo it. The events that unfold dramatize that whether these forces are essentially mutually enhancing or inherently pitted against one another is unsettled and highly consequential. This comes together amidst a framework where some posit that “The work of each generation is to keep the species from destroying itself.” Ultimately, it is a question of if these advances are “toying with human existence.” The Singularity takes on an almost spiritual nature in the eyes of some characters: an “intelligence…a thought, an idea, or even a dream.” Achieving the Singularity becomes a defining ideal, a telos, for which individuals are willing to make significant self-sacrifices in the name of progress and a greater good. In an unlikely twist, the irreducibility of humanity comes down to something at once mundane and heavenly: hope. In this way, we think the novels suggests the possibility that human progress is obtained by letting go of what is both possible and within our grasp – and only thereby retaining our humanity through this version of sacrifice.


The essence of humanity, as depicted in the novel, boils down to an element surprisingly near to the production of fiction itself: the ability to envision multiple alternative futures; the capacity to weigh the outcomes of those futures; and the power to show how we thrive and flourish: in the language of the novel, hope. BT, a central figure in the novel who has some responsibility for developing the code used to assassinate Castro, hints toward a resolution: “Hope…was what always would give humans their edge…[t]echnological evolution…would do little to alter the fundamentals of what it meant to be human. Those fundamentals didn’t exist in the technological realm but in the emotional and spiritual one, something his science couldn’t explain.” Through BT’s realization the novel dramatizes the limitations of even a totalizing vision of technological progress.


Human hope is not merely predictive; it tilts toward the positive, and in so doing it helps to actualize the positive future it imagines. This, the novel suggests, gives humanity an edge over machines: we can tilt the scales toward a desired end. In closing the novel in this way, the authors foreclose on certain potential imagined futures – away from predictive determinism toward a place of undetermined but ineluctably humanized resolution.


The novel is an interesting mixture—sometimes engaging, sometimes perhaps confusing—of real-world concrete realities, features from the previously developed fictional world of 2034, and new fictional realities. The specific references to the real world, include historic American political parties, current geopolitical tensions, and people as diverse as Ray Kurzweil and a descendent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, so 2054, in many respects, feels like 2024. Concerns around political violence are all around us. Partisan polarization is the essential fact of American political life. Misinformation and disinformation abound. Intelligence reports are leaked on partisan websites or even withheld from government officials who should have access to them. The news is chockfull of stories about developments in technology, new applications for AI and biotech, the potential effects of these advances on our relationships to ourselves, and to one another.


But the significant part of the vision that Ackerman and Stavridis create for readers is the chance to test the ultimate telos of these developments against the boundary element of the desired end state for our children and for humanity. The reader is caught up in a fictional world where the logical end of contemporary developments is possible and we must ask ourselves whether it is good. This end is not taken for granted, nor is it assured.


And, of course, 2054 is also nothing like 2024. The characters that populate it and the events that they experience are inventions of the authors. Even the intertextuality between 2034 and 2054 underscores that these things did not happen to these people, though the characters behave as if they really experienced something and act on its strength.


Whether the novel is familiar because it portrays so many concerns in our own day or whether the novel presents an unfamiliar world that is only dimly like ours is worth weighing. We think it’s helpful to conceive of the novel as using the very elements that make it strange to bring home just how alike are its world and ours. If 2054 reflects on what’s timeless and ineffable about being human even as it depicts transformations that could radically alter what it means to be human that is because its world both is, and is not, ours today.


 

Katherine H. Voyles holds a Ph.D. in English. Her articles on how relations of scale shape narrative realism and her reviews appear in a variety of scholarly journals including Victorian Literature and CultureVictorian Review, and the V21 Collective. She uses her background to engage issue of national defense in culture and the cultures of national defense issues in venues including Foreign Policy, Task & Purpose, and Public Books.


Nathan H. White holds a Ph.D. in Theology. He is an Anglican priest, theologian, and military chaplain.These perspectives and experiences inform his writing about human responses to adversity, which have been published by Oxford University Press, Routledge, and University of North Carolina Press, among others. His work has appeared in venues as diverse as Mockingbird and Psychology Today.

 

They recently wrote on Phil Klay’s Uncertain Ground for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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