This reading group guide for Immortal Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Stanley 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.Introduction
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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
3. Artificial intelligence has long captured the imaginations of writers on both big and small screens, from Blade Runner
. 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?