I first met Istvan at a transhumanist conference in Piedmont, Calif., in the spring of 2014. He was handsome in an irrefutable and yet somehow unserious fashion, like a life-size Ken doll or a proof-of-concept for an Aryan eugenic ideal. I recognized right away that he was not a typical transhumanist. He was polite and charismatic and in no obvious sense geeky or awkward. He gave me a copy of a book he recently self-published called “The Transhumanist Wager,” an unwieldy novel of ideas about a freelance philosopher named Jethro Knights who sails around the world to promote the need for life-extension research and winds up establishing a floating libertarian city-state called Transhumania — a regulation-free utopia of tech billionaires and rationalists — from which he wages an atheist holy war on a theocratic United States.
A couple of days later, at a cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, he told me of how the novel did not go over well with any of the 656 agents and publishers he sent it to over the previous year. He had spent over a thousand dollars, he said, on postage alone. The book’s cover, which he designed himself, featured a greenish negative image of his own face, in profile, staring into the vacant sockets of a human skull.
“It’s supposed to be like ‘Hamlet,’ ” he said. “You know, with the whole Yorick scene? With me facing the prospect of death and all that? But yeah, I’m not sure it really works.”
“I’ve seen worse book covers,” I said, which for all I knew might have been the truth.
He confided that his wife, Lisa, a gynecologist who worked for Planned Parenthood, recently started to express a keen interest in his doing something productive with his life. Lisa had just given birth to their second child and, what with the exponentially growing cost of living in the Bay Area, she was becoming increasingly concerned about the need to begin saving for their two daughters’ educations. He explained to me that he was reluctant to fritter away money on such things, given that by the time the girls were in their late teens, it would be possible to upload the informational content of a Harvard or Yale degree directly to their brains and at a fraction of what such an education costs today.
Lisa, he said, was largely tolerant of his views, but drew the line at gambling their children’s futures on the fanciful notion of some imminent technological intervention.
“Obviously she’s a little resistant to transhumanist ideas,” he said, “because in the near future her entire profession will be obsolete. What with actual childbirth becoming a thing of the past. You know, with babies being produced by ectogenesis and whatnot.”
When, some months later, Istvan emailed me about his decision to run for president, I immediately called him. The first thing I asked was what his wife thought of the plan.
“Well, in a way,” he said, “it was Lisa who gave me the idea. Remember how I said she wanted me to do something concrete, get some kind of a proper job?”
“I do,” I said. “Although I’m guessing running for president on the immortality platform was not what she had in mind.”
This article is adapted from the book “To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death,” to be published this month by Doubleday.
“That’s correct,” he confirmed. “It took a little while for her to come around to the idea.”
“How did you break it to her?”
“I left a note on the refrigerator,” he said, “and went out for a couple hours.”
I met Istvan on a Friday morning outside an empty secondhand bookstore in Las Cruces, N.M.; from there, we would commence our encoffined journey to Austin for a campaign event the following Monday evening. His hair was neater, blonder, than it was when I last saw him seven months earlier, and his face and neck were mottled from exposure to the desert sun. He was accompanied by an exceptionally tall and willowy young man with long, center-parted black hair and wide, ascetic eyes. This young man held a video camera attached to a tripod in one hand; the other he extended toward me in solemn salutation.
“Roen Horn,” he said. “Do you want to live forever?”
“I’m not sure that I do,” I said, feeling the slender bones of his hand as I received it in my own.
“Well, why not?” he said. “Do you want to die? Do you think death is a good thing?”
“These are tricky questions,” I said. “Can I think about them on the bus and get back to you?”
This Roen Horn, I learned as we walked down the eerily deserted main street, was a volunteer for Istvan’s campaign, a zealous advocate of radical life extension who was also making a documentary about the Immortality Bus. The vehicle in question was, at the moment, moored in the parking lot of a nearby Bank of America. The immediate plan, Istvan told me, was to drive out into the desert to the White Sands Missile Range, where he intended to stage a protest highlighting the need to divert public money away from weapons spending and into life extension.
The Wanderlodge was an even odder spectacle than I had anticipated: a great brown absurdity with the words IMMORTALITY BUS WITH TRANSHUMANIST ZOLTAN ISTVAN neatly hand-painted in white across the length of its midsection. On the rear of the bus were painted the words SCIENCE VS. THE COFFIN. A construction of inward-slanting wooden boards, also brown, was affixed to the roof, on top of which rested an elaborate arrangement of synthetic flowers. The effect of all this was not uncoffin-like, but it helped if you already knew what you were supposed to be looking at.
Within were all the trappings and creature comforts of a midrange 1970s bachelor pad: a kitchenette equipped with ice machine and microwave oven, a dining table, ample bench-style seating for on-road lounging and, toward the rear, two narrow bunks and a bathroom (nonfunctional). Orange shag carpeting featured throughout.
The thing was road-worthy, more or less, as long as you didn’t drive it uphill at too steep a gradient and as long as you pulled over every 90 minutes or so to refill the motor oil, which leaked out the side at a truly alarming rate. This steady leakage was a concern for Istvan, not just with respect to the long-term health prospects of the Immortality Bus but more urgently the likelihood of our getting pulled over on the freeway by a traffic cop — something that, given the conspicuousness of the vehicle, seemed a nontrivial prospect.
The difficulties began about half an hour outside Las Cruces. As the freeway slung a wide loop around the jagged foothills of the Organ Mountains, the sound of the engine, striving to haul us uphill, had become a shrill rasp. We were maxing out at about 35 m.p.h., and Istvan’s hulking form was bent low over the wheel, as he eyed the dashboard’s archaic array of mysterious dials.
“We look to be overheating pretty bad,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this far into the red. And this isn’t even a particularly big hill. We could have a problem here, gentlemen.”
Upward trajectories were best avoided, he explained, on account of a cruel paradox at work in the ancient mechanics of the Wanderlodge: The longer you went uphill, the harder the engine had to strain to move the bus at even a sluggish pace; and the slower you went, the less air circulated from outside to cool the engine, thereby perpetuating the cycle of overheating.
We crested the hill and began to pick up speed on the downward slope. The engine’s whining descended somewhat in pitch, and I was newly confident that we were no longer about to grind to a halt in the desolate heat of the desert.
“That’s a relief,” I said.
“Actually,” Istvan said in a cheerful tone, “it’s far more dangerous coming downhill, because we’re relying on 40-year-old brake pads here.”
Although I was not sure I wanted to live forever, I was sure that I didn’t want to go down in a blaze of chintzy irony, plunging into a ravine strapped into the passenger seat of a thing called the Immortality Bus. For all that Istvan railed against the tyranny of death over human lives, his attitude toward basic road safety was at times wildly cavalier. The fact that he was piloting a 38-foot coffin bus through New Mexico did not, for instance, stop him from looking at his phone every couple of minutes, responding to texts and emails, checking the social-media analytics on his latest piece for TechCrunch, etc.
Between the driver and passenger seats there was a large, raised, shag-pile-carpeted area, which I was using to lay out my various writerly impedimenta: voice recorder, notebook, pens and so forth. This, it turned out, housed the Wanderlodge’s engine. At one point, Istvan decided that it might ameliorate the overheating issues if he opened this up to “let the engine breathe.” As soon as we lifted the lid of this housing, the whole interior was quickly transformed into a hellish, hurtling sauna, heated by the searing petroleum fumes that emanated from the roaring shag-pile maw of the open engine unit.
“I know it’s not pleasant!” bellowed Istvan over the near-deafening roar of the engine, “but it’s really helping with the overheating!”
At length we pulled over to let the engine cool awhile, and Istvan went outside to change the oil. Horn was recumbent on the long couch to the rear of the driver’s seat, staring impassively at the ceiling, his hands cradling the back of his head. This was to become his default attitude throughout the trip.
I craned around in my seat and asked him how he wound up volunteering for Istvan’s campaign.
“I just really don’t want to die,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that would suck more than being dead. So I’m just doing what I can to ensure that life-extension science gets the funding it needs.”
“So what is it you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean workwise. When you’re not volunteering for Zoltan.”
“I run the Eternal Life Fan Club,” he said. “It’s an online organization for people who are serious about living forever. Not, like, 500 years like a lot of transhumanists. Forever.”
Horn was 28, he said, and lived in Sacramento with his father, a recently retired insurance-claims adjuster, and his mother, who worked in a movie theater. His parents were Christians, his father a Calvinist who believed in eternal life in paradise for the elect and in eternal damnation for the unchosen. He was especially vocal in his conviction that his atheist son was destined for the infernal torments of hell.
“How does he feel about this whole Immortality Bus thing?” I asked.
“He’s actually O.K. with it,” Horn said. “He thinks it’s cool I’m getting to be on TV news and all.”
The military testing area at White Sands, N.M., is a forlorn and silent place. It was here that the boundaries of technological possibility, the boundaries of fear, were redrawn by men of science in the last days of World War II; it was here, in July 1945, that the first atomic bomb was detonated, the prototype of the Fat Man plutonium device that was delivered three weeks later from the heavens to the mortals of Nagasaki. Here at White Sands, science made its nearest approach to divine likeness, divine knowledge. Here, with these experiments in celestial violence, humanity came closest to transcending itself, fulfilling itself.
Just past the security checkpoint at the entrance to the facility, there was a kind of open-air munitions exhibit that featured a squat replica of the Fat Man, along with dozens of other decommissioned rockets and bombs. In the undulating heat of the desert, these slender tilted obelisks loomed like the inscrutable monuments of an ancient thanatopia, a henge of metal phalluses thrusting skyward in ecstatic communion with the cosmic powers. Istvan removed from his backpack a banner he had printed for the occasion and, positioning himself in front of one of the larger rockets, instructed Horn to take a series of photographs of him bearing the rolled-out message: TRANSHUMANIST PARTY PREVENTS EXISTENTIAL RISK. The intention of the protest, if you could really call it that, was to create a series of images and short videos to be uploaded to Istvan’s various social-media accounts and shared among his many thousands of followers. Leaning self-consciously against the Fat Man replica, I scribbled in my notepad. Horn took out his phone and filmed a six-second Vine video of Istvan saying: “Stop nuclear war! It’s a devastating existential risk!” Then he filmed Istvan giving another brief speech on the central theme of his campaign: the need to divert government spending away from war and into research on life extension.
Later that evening, we pulled off the Interstate and checked into a motel. As I stood in the doorway, waiting for Istvan and Horn to get their stuff from the Wanderlodge, I browsed through a stand of leaflets by the entrance. Most of these advertised sites of general touristic interest — for instance, PistachioLand, “home of the world’s largest pistachio” — but there was also a small assortment of Christian pamphlets, and of these I selected one that was simply titled “Eternity.” It was a prospectus of the apocalypse, published by an outfit called the Gospel Tract and Bible Society. Standing in the empty lobby of the motel, I read of God’s decree that all things shall cease to exist — that “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” — and I thought again of the unearthly monument I had walked around that day, the ceremonial circle with its ranged machineries of death.
Reading on, I learned how I, or my soul, might survive the death of my body and all other worldly things by surrendering myself to the Lord. I remembered asking Horn, earlier that day, about how his religious upbringing might have informed his belief that he would live forever through science. He said there was no longer any need for gods.
“Science is the new God,” he said. “Science is the new hope.”
Horn, with his Calvinist background, seemed to me now a walking illustration of the way in which scientific progress had displaced divine providence as our culture’s locus of faith. He embodied, in fact, the religious dimension of transhumanism: a movement that, in its grand mythos of the coming Singularity, maintains a Christian distaste for the flesh and its frailties. Its delirious eschatology foretells a final unity with the technological divine, through which the elect will make the transition from time into eternity.
Istvan, by contrast, had come to transhumanism from a more secular, hedonic background. In his 20s, having graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy and religion, he fixed up an old yacht and set out to circumnavigate the globe. He funded his trip partly by making short documentaries for the National Geographic Channel about the remote places he was visiting. Somewhere along the way, he invented an extreme sport called volcano boarding (basically snowboarding, except you do it on the slopes of an active volcano). While reporting on the large number of buried land mines still remaining in Vietnam’s former DMZ, Istvan himself came very close to stepping on one; his guide tackled him from behind as he was walking and brought him to the ground just inches from where an unexploded mine was jutting from the earth.
In the narrative he had constructed about his life, this was the moment he became a transhumanist — the moment he became consumed by an obsession with mortality, with the unacceptable fragility of human existence. He returned to California to set up a real estate business and, taking full advantage of the permissive finance culture of those years, bought and flipped a number of properties in quick succession. He hated the work, but he was good at it and made quite a lot of money very quickly. Right before the crash in 2008, he sold half his portfolio and came out of the deal a millionaire. Forty years after his own parents fled communist Hungary, he had become the embodiment of an American capitalist ideal: the immigrant son with a weird European name who became an honest-to-God self-made millionaire. It hadn’t even been that hard. The money was enough to enable him to quit his job and to dedicate himself to the possibility, and the necessity, of achieving immortality through science.
On Saturday afternoon, we pulled in at a truck stop some hours west of Fort Stockton and took a booth at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Horn grabbed a salad; his austere calorie-restrictive diet, oriented as it was toward maximum life extension, was ill served by the truck stops and gas stations and drive-through hamburger repositories of West Texas. While Istvan fielded a call from his irate wife about an overflowing toilet he failed to repair before setting off across the country to promote immortality, I took the opportunity to quiz Horn about his lifestyle choices.
He was a transhumanist ascetic, a young man who had largely withdrawn from the world so that he might never have to leave it. He had placed his faith in the idea of “longevity escape velocity,” the popular transhumanist notion that the pace of advancement in the science of life extension would eventually accelerate to the point that, for every year that passes, average human-life expectancy increases by more than a year. Horn told me that, in his parents’ house in Sacramento, he slept on the floor of his bedroom, partly because he didn’t want to buy a bed when what little money he had might better be spent on supporting life-extension research, but mainly because of a distaste for soft surfaces. (This self-avowed aversion was roundly contradicted by his near-fanatical dedication to couch-based recumbence, as outlined above.)
“I have to admit,” I said, “I find this whole immortality thing difficult to get behind. Doesn’t your obsession with living eternally actually amount to your being totally imprisoned by death?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But aren’t we all? Isn’t that kind of the whole idea?” I told him that I took his point, and we both laughed, a little awkwardly perhaps, and ate our lunches in silence for a while, listening in on Istvan’s terse exchange with his wife.
It was late October, and the truck stop was lavishly bedecked with the ghoulish paraphernalia of the season — plastic jack-o’-lanterns, cotton spider webs, wall-mounted witches on broomsticks and other festive gewgaws. Dangling from the ceiling directly behind Horn’s head was a rubber statuette of Death itself, the skeletal form shrouded in a ragged black cowl, a plastic scythe clutched in its bony little hand. This cartoonish figurine twirled slowly on its nylon string, distracting me with its overblown enactment of bargain-basement foreshadowing.
“I just want to have fun forever,” Horn said at length, guiding a forkful of dry salad leaves toward his pale face. “The 20 years I get from eating the way I do could be the difference between my dying and my getting to longevity escape velocity. I’m holding off on pleasure now so that I can have more pleasure later. I’m actually a total hedonist.”
“You don’t seem even slightly like a hedonist to me,” I said. “You don’t drink, you don’t take drugs. You barely eat. To be honest, you seem like a medieval monk.”
Horn cocked his head to one side, gave the idea some consideration. I didn’t want to raise the topic of sex, but it seemed to hang there, twirling slowly above our heads like the rubber avatar of Death. I didn’t have to, as it turned out: Horn brought it up himself.
“You know one really cool thing about being alive in the future?” he asked.
“You know, like A.I. robots that are built for having sex with.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “I’ve heard of sexbots. It’s a nice-enough idea. You really think that’s going to happen, though?”
“For sure,” Horn said, closing his eyes and nodding beatifically, in momentary reflection upon some distant exaltation. “It’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
He had a particular way of smiling that was half evasion and half challenge. Out of context, you might be tempted to describe it as smug, but the effect was somehow deeply endearing.
“The problem I have with sexbots,” I said, “is why wouldn’t you just have sex with an actual person? I mean, all things being equal.”
He said: “Are you kidding me? A real girl could cheat on you, sleep around. You could get an S.T.D. You could maybe even die.”
“Is that potentially a bit alarmist?”
“No way, man. It happens literally all the time. See, a personal sexbot would never cheat on you, and it would be just like a real girl.”
He said nothing for a time and drank at leisure from his glass of water. He consumed some further forkfuls of salad. He gazed out the window at the parking lot full of trucks, the Interstate beyond, the ever-present vultures hanging in the air.
I said, “Do you mind me asking if you’ve had bad experiences with people cheating on you?”
“I have so far abstained from sex,” he said. “I have never had a girlfriend.”
“You’re saving yourself for the sexbots?”
He nodded slowly, shrewdly raising his eyebrows. You bet he was saving himself for the sexbots.
“Fair enough,” I said, raising my hands in capitulation. “I hope you live that long.”
He said, “I’m pretty sure I will.”
My feelings toward Istvan were complicated, contradictory and subject to sudden mutations, intensifications and reversals. His grandiosity exerted a paradoxical magnetism, tempered as it was by an easygoing self-deprecation. He would be talking about wanting to change the world, convincing folks that immortality was within their grasp, and in the next moment, he would be taking delight in some scheme he’d come up with to keep the Wanderlodge on the road for another few hours.
“That’s what I’m good at, half-assing stuff,” he told me one afternoon in the parking lot of a Walmart where we stopped to fill a cart with containers of motor oil and some barbecue trays to collect it as it leaked from the bus.
I said I’d begun to think of the Immortality Bus as the Entropy Bus, the three of us trundling across Texas in a great mobile metaphor for the inevitable decline of all things, the disintegration of all systems over time.
‘I would agree that we are, in fact, trying to play God.’
“Entropy sucks,” Horn said.
“It is what it is,” Istvan said. “It absolutely is what it is.”
The question of futility, given the inexorable suckiness of entropy, was raised many times on the Wanderlodge. Istvan and Horn believed that life was rendered meaningless by death. If in the end everything was lost, they asked, what was the point of anything?
I did not feel qualified to answer this question, but I tried to make a case for life as it currently stood, which meant trying to make a case for death. Wasn’t it the fact that life ended, I asked, that gave it what meaning it had? Wasn’t it the very fact that we were here for so brief a time, that we could be gone at any moment, that made life so intensely beautiful and terrifying and strange? (Then again, wasn’t the idea of meaning itself an illusion, a necessary human fiction? If a finite existence was futile, wouldn’t immortality be just a state of endless futility?)
There was no beauty in finitude, they replied, no meaning to be extracted from oblivion. My arguments, Horn insisted, were transparently motivated by a “deathist” ideology, a need to protect myself against the terror of death by trying to convince myself that death was actually not so terrible. As crazy as most of what Horn said sounded to me, he was, I thought, basically right about this.
We drove through the emptiness. Now and then we passed a hand-painted sign standing in a field, a gesture of anonymous pride or defiance. A “Make America Great Again.” A “Deport Obama.” A “Don’t Mess With Texas.” Mostly, we passed roadkill. For miles at a stretch, the only landmarks were corpses: foxes, raccoons, armadillos in various states of putrefaction on the margins of the Interstate. Istvan swigged at intervals from a magnum-size vessel of greenish energy drink he picked up on our last Walmart stop. We talked for hours and then for hours more we said nothing at all. We listened to a Tom Petty greatest-hits cassette straight through, twice, three times. “Runnin’ down a dream,” Petty sang, “that never would come to me.” An hour later, he sang it again.
About an hour east of Ozona, we pulled off the Interstate onto a narrow side road so that Istvan could remove the barbecue tray, which was by now almost overflowing with leaked oil. We were on the perimeter of a vast ranch, a flat and half-barren landscape of scrub grass and squat cactuses as far as the human eye could see. I went behind the bus to urinate, and as I did so I looked up and counted five vultures idling overhead, like predator drones in the inverted abyss of the sky. I tried to imagine how we might have appeared to the serene eyes of these primordial beasts, three medium-size mammals lumbering upright, without apparent purpose, around a great coffin-shaped leviathan. But what could any of this — men, coffins, journeys — possibly mean to these creatures, to whom nothing was required to mean anything? Being not yet dead, we were probably irrelevant to their view of the landscape.
I struggled to remember some lines from the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, in which he writes about the freedom in which animals live: “the Open” upon which they look out but which is unavailable to our sight, oriented as we are always toward the overbearing presence of our own finitude. Back on the bus, I searched for the passage on my phone and found it: “We, only, can see death; the free animal/has its decline in back of it, forever,/and God in front, and when it moves, it moves/already in eternity, like a fountain.”
Later, as we barreled along the Interstate, Horn cheerfully drew our attention toward a gigantic billboard that read, “If you die today, where will you spend eternity?”
“In the ground,” he said. “In the ground.”
He told me about an accident he had when he was 9. He fell from his bike, punctured his spleen and very nearly died from internal bleeding. There were weeks in the hospital, then a recovery; but a darkness was revealed to him, a black terror beneath the thin surface of the world. Every night, he awoke gasping from the same nightmare, in which he had died in his sleep, in which he felt himself lying there in his bed feeling nothing, an impossible body. Every night this same experience of a thing that could not be experienced, this same vision of a thing that could never be glimpsed. This was the beginning of his move away from the religion of his parents, he said, this vision of the nothingness that awaited him after death.
“What do you say,” asked the newsman, “to people who accuse you of trying to play God?”
We were standing on a lavishly tree-lined street in an upscale residential neighborhood in Austin where a campaign event was about to take place, and Istvan was being interviewed for local TV news. He was dressed in a shirt and slacks, his hair combed meticulously back from his high-domed forehead.
“I would agree that we are, in fact, trying to play God,” he said.
It was to me that he said this, or at any rate it was me he was looking at when he said it. The bearded and lavishly perspiring cameraman, who was double-jobbing as a reporter, had requested that I stand to one side of him as filmed; Istvan would, in this way, appear to be addressing a dedicated news reporter, rather than a guy who, presumably because of budget cuts, had been forced to do two jobs simultaneously.
This was a thing that had been happening to me lately. I had started to see myself as a mechanism through which signals were passed. I would be sitting on the bus, jotting down snatches of conversation in my notebook, details of scenery or sensation, and I would see myself as a primitive device, a machine for the recording and processing of information. I would be at the checkout in a cavernous Walmart, paying for snacks, and I would see myself as one of many millions of mechanisms in a vast and mysterious system for the upward transfer of wealth. I knew, of course, that this was a result of my overexposure to mechanistic ideas, but on some level I recognized that I had always seen myself in this way.
“And what made you decide to run for president?” asked the cameraman who was also a reporter.
“I believe,” Istvan said, “that we should take technology as far as it can take us.” His hand gestures had the practiced decisiveness of a real-deal politician; in the presence of the camera, as he gazed unblinkingly into my eyes, he had taken on a plausibly presidential aura. He seemed, suddenly, a vast physical presence, a great hollow monument to his own significance.
“And that includes,” he said, “becoming technology ourselves. At some point, we are going to become more machines than human beings. That’s what my presidential campaign is advocating for. That’s the conversation I’m trying to start.”
A cluster of young men approached us. They were part of an Austin biohacker group, and they were here for the campaign event. They had names like Alec, Avery and Shawn; they were, for transhumanists, a startlingly frat-brovian contingent, all laid-back Texan vibes, loosefitting vests, hypertrophied upper bodies.
Horn received them in his usual manner, avoiding traditional greetings in favor of an immediate interrogation as to their stance on eternal life.
“I’m down,” said a guy named Alec, as though Horn had just asked him if he wanted to go in on a bag of weed. “Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. Life is awesome.”
“Right?” Horn said. He glanced meaningfully at me, a look that I took as mild admonishment for previous exchanges in which I expressed reservations about absolute judgments on the awesomeness of life.
We went into the house where the event was to take place, a small split-level open-plan that was almost entirely devoid of furniture. I was given to understand that the place was shared by a loose cohort of biohackers; it was not apparent who did and did not live there, but it seemed to be a kind of transhumanist commune or futurist frat house. Even for an event of this sort, the gathering was overwhelmingly male.
We mingled for a while, and I drank some surprisingly potent home-brewed ale, and then Istvan delivered a fluent and apparently unscripted speech. History was being created, he said, with this movement, this campaign, which was not about getting votes but about raising awareness of the coming Singularity and the importance of living long enough to experience it.
We hung around for an hour or so afterward, and at some point, Horn gave an impromptu speech of his own. He delivered this oration “in character” as a generic hipster, wearing a pair of black-framed glasses and a slightly strained knowing smirk on his face. This was a role he’d been tinkering with in the videos he uploaded to the Eternal Life Fan Club’s website over the course of the campaign.
“You guys aren’t mainstream,” he said to the assembled biohackers, most of whom seemed mildly perplexed by the performance. “You still have your childlike imaginations. If you want to take your nonmainstreamness to the next level, you’re gonna have to live forever. You know what the most mainstream thing ever is? Dying. Dying is totally mainstream. Being dead in the ground is totally mainstream. Vote for Zoltan if you want to live forever!”
I’d seen this performance of Horn’s before and had advised him that it was a little too broad in its depiction of the hipster trope, that it seemed like more of a caricature of a caricature than a representation of any actual person, and that, furthermore, the injection of performative irony into his delivery tended to obscure the absolute earnestness of his message. But right now, perhaps because of the unusually strong home-brew beer I was drinking, I was enjoying it immensely, and I felt a strange tenderness for him swelling in my chest, an almost fraternal instinct of protection, very much at odds with any properly journalistic imperatives.
I agreed with practically nothing that came out of his mouth the entire time we spent together. He was as strange a person as I had ever met, and I had met a great many strange people in the year and a half I spent reporting on transhumanists. I found myself hoping that he would not be disillusioned, that he would maintain, as long as he lived, the sense of his own exemption from death. His very belief that existence was rendered meaningless by death was, I thought, precisely what seemed to afford his life a sense of purpose, a sense of direction. This, in the end, was why humans would always look for meaning and would always find it in some variety of religion. You do what you can with the strangeness of being here, for the time being.
As soon as the media people moved on, Istvan wanted to hit the road; the party was still building momentum, but he had an early flight the next morning to Miami, where he had a corporate speaking engagement, and he needed to pilot the Wanderlodge to a place across town where he’d arranged to park it until the next leg of the tour. He completed a valedictory round of handshakes, and then we boarded the Immortality Bus once more.
An hour or so later, we were in the backyard of an empty house on the far outskirts of the city, waiting for a cab to come and take us to our respective hotels. Istvan and I were downing the last of the Immortality Bus’s booze stash. I was feeling a little lightheaded from the drinking, and from the small amount of weed I smoked at the party before remembering I hated smoking weed, and so I climbed down into the yard to take the air. The night was warm and fragrant and alive with the gentle chirping of crickets. I stared up at the stars, feeling pleasantly out of it. It was good to be outside, to be in the world, to be a living animal.
The more I listened, the more urgent the chirping of the crickets seemed to become. I remembered then having read something in the news a couple of weeks earlier about a cricket infestation that had been particularly intense in the area around Austin. The swelling of the insects’ numbers had to do with the summer’s having been unusually wet. Now in the autumn, the cooling of the air had forewarned them, on some primordial level, of their own impending death. The chirping I was listening to, I now realized, was the sound of thousands of male animals expressing their urge to reproduce, an instinct made acute by their own approaching demise. The sound seemed to be intensifying and to be coming at once from everywhere and nowhere, to be generated by the night itself.
I heard the buzz of Istvan’s phone from across the yard. Our cabdriver calling, probably. I breathed in deeply, assimilating the warm and complicated air, the fragrant night. In my tipsy state, it seemed outright implausible that all of this would one day be beyond my reach, that one day I would die and never again breathe this air or hear these sounds — crickets, traffic, words, vibrating phones: the interwoven signals of animals and machines — or feel the hopeful surge of alcohol in my blood, the world advancing its uncertain promise. It seemed ludicrous to think that this was it: just this once, and never again.
I heard the hollow slam of the Immortality Bus’s door, and Istvan calling my name. Our cab had pulled up at the curb. I took a last look at the looming apparition of the bus, the great brown sarcophagus of the American highway, and was momentarily taken by the facile charm of its standing as a metaphor for life itself: an incomprehensible and futile journey, in a vast coffin-shaped recreational vehicle, out of one nowhere into some other. I walked toward the street, toward Istvan and Horn, deciding to tell them about this life-as-coffin-bus idea, and to tell them that I was glad to have been on this journey for a while, whatever it meant or did not mean. But by the time I got to the car and slid in beside Horn, Istvan was already sitting up front, passionately laying out the coordinates of the posthuman future to our cabdriver, and the moment had passed.