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DeLillo’s Qualms

Don DeLillo’s White Noise came out in 1986. What stayed with me about the novel was “the airborne toxic event,” and the constant, disturbing sense of menace and fragility that pervades the lives of its characters. This was a perspective that matched too well with my own psychology for me to require being taught that lesson, or to be amused by the humor that critics found in DeLillo. So I did not follow his subsequent distinguished literary output, and come to his latest work Zero K practically a novice.

In Zero K, instead of the airborne toxic event we have the Convergence. It seems likely that DeLillo chose this as a reference to the “converging technologies”: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science. These are said to offer increasing and mutually reinforcing opportunities for human enhancement and redesign of just the sort promised by the Convergence. DeLillo’s Convergence also seems like an extremely well-funded version of Alcor, the real-life company that deep-freezes dead bodies (or only heads, as the customer desires) in the expectation of one day being able to use advanced tools like nanotechnology to bring them back to life.

Bit by bit we find out, of course, that there is more going on at this company. For instance, you don’t have to wait until you die of natural causes to be frozen, you can be helped along. And then it turns out that at least some of the Convergence’s customers are not strictly speaking dead (“Death is a cultural artifact”) but are being preserved at a very minimal level of consciousness. And then it turns out that being brought back to life is not likely to mean life as the now-frozen people knew it.

We see the Convergence largely through the eyes of Jeffrey Lockhart, whose extremely wealthy father Ross is a major funder of the project. Ross’s second wife and Jeffrey’s stepmother, Artis, has multiple sclerosis and other afflictions. Ross calls his son to the Convergence, somewhere in the wilds of central Asia, to witness Artis’ last days and, as it seems, his own, for he announces in the course of Jeffrey’s visit that he intends to be preserved along with his wife when her time comes. Artis invites Jeffrey to do likewise, but he remains a detached critic of the project.

The Convergence facility is “a work-in-progress, an earthwork, a form of earth art, land art. Built up out of the land and sunk down into it as well. Restricted access. Defined by stillness, both human and environmental. A little tomb like as well.”

Largely underground, it is a strange and disorienting place, including color-coded hallways without clear purpose, strange art installations, fake doors, uncommunicative personnel. As he wanders the halls, Jeffrey is allowed to observe—through a slot in a wall—a meeting between some Convergence personnel and, it would seem, prospective investors. We hear a remarkable speech by the Stenmark twins (the name Jeffrey assigns to two Convergence representatives) that brilliantly exposes the foibles and logic of much contemporary techno-utopianism.

The twins begin with nearly two dialogue pages of often insightful and important questions that might be asked about the Convergence’s goals, questions like: Doesn’t death define the value of life? What happens when some face death and others do not? Will longevity cure or extend all our other problems? But they go on to say: “we reject the questions. They miss the point of our endeavor. We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human—stretch and then surpass.”

Perennial human questions are thus simply asserted to be irrelevant if the object of the enterprise is overcoming our humanity. As in real-world discussions of cutting-edge technology, the Stenmark twins give a nod in the direction of “serious ethical questions” but are not truly interested in pursuing them. Even less are they interested in answers that might undermine or restrict their activities.

There follows a brief recitation of all the wondrous technologies that will be used to revive and reconstruct the “dead,” and the wondrous possibilities of enhanced minds with built-in knowledge and abilities: “family photographs and videos, the pornography of your choice.” DeLillo makes clear that he understands the price that will be paid for such supposed wonders. He has “Sven Stenmark” note, in the midst of dangling this candy, that the frozen “will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with.”

The “benefactors” have “an amused response” to this assertion. Rich and powerful people, they are used to being in charge themselves and are hence slow to see the perfect seriousness of Stenmark’s point: that they are paying vast sums to be experimental subjects, completely under the control of those they are nominally paying to serve them. DeLillo understands full well the lesson taught by C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell alike: the true rulers in this world will be the Stenmarks and those like them.

What is their agenda? One of the features of the facility is periodic projection, perhaps live streaming, of natural and man-made disasters, reminders that the natural world can be pretty nasty. The Convergence appears to be a classic Baconian effort to overcome these kinds of constraining events. But “Death is a hard habit to break.”

The Stenmarks conjure various scenarios about what kind of world the revived might emerge into, but seem most interested in the possibility that prolonged life for some might lead to a religion of death: “Bands of death rebels will set out to kill people at random . . . voracious bloodbaths with ceremonial aspects. Pray over the bodies, chant over the bodies, do unspeakably intimate things with the bodies.”

This hardly seems like it would be a selling point to potential customers—but only if we imagine that what the Stenmarks are describing is the revenge of the merely mortal against the revived. A huge sculpted and decorated skull adorning the conference room in which the Stenmarks make their presentation suggests that they already speak for this religion of death, and the death rebels may in fact be the revived, reaffirming in ceremonial fashion “the pattern of extinction” that they themselves have disrupted.

This impression is reinforced by one of the last points the Stenmarks make: the Convergence is “a way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth. Kings, queens, emperors, pharaohs.” Modern technology finally makes possible what the rich and powerful have always sought; wealth will mean immortality.

The speech here satirizes, among other things, a certain brand of libertarian techno-optimism that sees no problem with the fact that the rich will likely be the first to be able to afford any life-prolongation technologies, because the competitive forces of capitalism will eventually bring the price down. But of course, by that time, the rich will have moved on to some newer way to keep the upper hand.

Beyond that, DeLillo understands with Lewis that what the Convergence really promises is a magnification or intensification of the inequalities that already define the status quo, nature in a new guise. The Stenmarks assert, “Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving.” In the future, the immortal can lord it over the mortal; if they are too risk-averse to participate actively in the death-cult games, at least they will be able to watch them from the vantage points of body cameras or drones.

Jeffrey himself discusses the merits and demerits of the Convergence with another person, Ben-Ezra. It is his real name, though it isn’t made clear to the reader whether he is a colleague of the Stenmarks or a customer. In a lengthy dialogue with Jeffrey, Ben-Ezra presents a more humanistic defense of the project, framing it in terms of Jeffery’s relationship with his father, the love of man and wife, and the perennial human quest for transcendence in the face of the fragility and impermanence of life. That Ross and Artis hope for a future where they will be reunited is hardly an ignoble impulse, even if they refuse to see that future, as Jeffrey does, as a matter of faith. Likewise Ben-Ezra quotes Sir Thomas Browne: “It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man to tell him that he is at the end of his nature, or that there is no further state to come.”

In fact, however, Ben-Ezra is no less than the Stenmarks caught in the toils of the technologically possible. He especially looks forward to the new language that the revived will use, a language offering “new meanings, entire new levels of perception” yet without “similes, metaphors analogies.” Will this new language allow the revived to understand their own pasts, even if their memories are preserved? Ben-Ezra hints at the limits of the continuity; those at the Convergence “have fallen out of history” and will “emerge from the capsules ahistorical humans.”

The setting of the conversation says a great deal about what these statements mean: an English-style garden filled with artificial plants. Ben-Ezra imagines himself in the future, sitting in the same garden and imagining how he used to sit in it before he was frozen. But the more the Convergence is hermetic is this way, the less the revived will be who they were. Ross’s financial  generosity to the Convergence means that his love for Artis can be expressed by their pods standing together inside their own chamber. Yet if Ross thought of Artis as a red, red rose, or a summer’s day, how will that love be revived in a language that lacks poetry?

DeLillo obviously has very serious doubts about what the Convergence promises, but he also understands how science and technology today seem to make possible in this world the fulfillment of long-existing human desires that once pointed us toward other-wordly transcendence. Is there a way to live in the modern world and not be swept up by such promises? How is it that Jeffrey can hold firm in his skepticism?

Nothing in his life contradicts Ben-Ezra’s proposition that life is fragile and uncertain. He is scarred by Ross’s early abandonment of his family and the death of his mother. He has psychological quirks that sound vaguely autistic. He has a hard time finding permanent employment, not being willing to rely on working for his father. And there is his very tentative and ultimately doomed relationship with his girlfriend and her adopted son, which connects him with one of those man-made disasters featured on the projection screens of the Convergence.

As the book concludes we see him employed, God help him, as a “compliance and ethics officer for a college in western Connecticut . . . responsible for interpreting the school charter to determine regulatory requirements in the context of state and federal laws.” It is a job “suited to my preferences and central to my past experience.” He settles into “everydayness,” uncertain whether his doing so is something to worry about or not.

Jeffrey looks to have been spared the temptations of the Convergence as much by habit and lack of imagination as by his critical intelligence. But at the very end, the novelist grants his character a moment of illumination in which he sees—if only through the eyes of another—the wonder that can inhere in the everyday juxtaposition of nature and human creations. That moment casts light on earlier incidents in which Jeffrey seemed unduly fixated on events that were only unusual in the most prosaic ways, like a woman meditating in the street.

Maybe wonder saves him—the magic that can call forth the deepest questions from the most ordinary things. Under the guise of their extraordinary promises, the Stenmarks of the world only want to ask the questions to which they already have answers.

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