Neo-Human, All Too Neo-Human

Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel is about a future Earth ravaged by disasters and inhabited by two classes of humans: a small number of highly evolved and medically improved “neohumans”, and a starving race of devolving savages who subsist in the uncivilized territories outside the settled zones. We are with the neohumans, who have discovered a remarkable way to become immortal: their bodies are genetically duplicated at the end of each generation, and their original memory systems are continually ported from each aging body into the body’s younger equivalent.

The hero of The Possibility of an Island is a neohuman variously known as Daniel1, Daniel23, Daniel25 and so on, who lives on the Canary Islands near Africa with two female neohumans named Esther and Isabelle. They all practice a religion called Elohimism, the common faith of the neohumans.

I find the novel’s concept exciting because it refers to a classic metaphysical question: are our entire souls implanted in our memories? If I transfer my memory system into an precise implementation of my genetic blueprint, has this copy suddenly become me? If so, what is left behind in the old me? Philosophers like Daniel Dennett have examined this question, but Houellebecq’s new novel simply lets the scheme happen and shows us where the chips fall.

Michel Houellebecq is a French sensation, a postmodern brutalist whose fables recall those of Kurt Vonnegut and Chuck Pahlaniuk. But he is much darker and more cynical than Vonnegut, and he’s probably even nastier than Chuck. He’s also funny, with something like Douglas Coupland’s droll computer-age satire combined with Norman Mailer’s political outrageousness, and to top it all off there’s a bit of William Vollmann’s show-offy super-intellectualism.

That’s some happy meal, and John Updike takes a bite and makes a face in his well-written New Yorker review of this book. John Updike is probably my favorite literary critic, just because his sentences are so damn amusing, and he doesn’t disappoint in this thoughtful and tempered smack-down.

The usual Houellebecq hero, whose monopoly on self-expression sucks up most of the narrative’s oxygen …

Updike delivers the knockout punches early in the article, then props the pummeled author up and admits that he liked one of his earlier novels. But Updike makes the book sound interesting even as he tells us to skip it, and some of his criticisms seem cloaked, as when Updike criticizes Houellebecq’s sentiment that “All energy is of a sexual nature” (this would certainly seem to be an Updike-ean thesis).

Later, Updike describes a dull moment in the novel as “an interminable blog from nowhere”, which is a sudden unexpected swipe at my profession when I thought we were in the middle of beating up this French guy. Well, it’s such a funny line I’ll forgive Updike for it, even though it’s totally unfair (A New Yorker writer is going to talk about interminable?) …

Anyway, it’s an entertaining review , but I think I’m going to read the book even though Updike doesn’t like it. It sounds like my kind of story.

4 Responses

  1. Review Makes Me Want to Read
    Review Makes Me Want to Read It

    Updike most likely can’t remember what it’s like to not have consumed half the contents of the Library of Congress. This review makes this reader want to buy it.

  2. Nice premise, but isn’t
    Nice premise, but isn’t it

    Don’t get me wrong — if there’s one higher purpose in literature, it’s to approach those “old” human questions that may never quite be resolved. Those horses that can be beaten, thrashed, re-thrashed and used creatively by trap shooters and they’re still not dead, because writers can’t work out a satisfactory answer.

    The multi-faceted issue of cloning (memory! soul! memes! individuality! [im]mortality! Oh, the questions we’ll raise) may very well be one of these unanswerable dilemmas for the century. In fact, I’m quite certain it is.

    But I’m tired of it.

    How can I be tired of cloning literature so early in the game? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m being unfair here. But from Asher’s description alone, without having delved into the New Yorker review yet, I am reminded of nearly every pop culture-y take on cloning in the past decade.

    From Ahnold’s disaster-captured-on-film “The Sixth Day,” marching onward, there have been rebellious recumbents, a crappy movie about an “Island,” and something called “Aeon Flux” which I happened to catch in the all-night movie diner near my house. I was horrified by this last effort, but I watched the whole thing anyway because I like being able to talk about it with authority. The point is (and there is a point): good science fiction writing about cloning is possible, but it won’t happen with a science fiction approach. Cloning has happened — the two sheep a while back — and so far it’s severely underwhelming. Neohumans? Give me a break. We’re more advanced now than we were a thousand years ago, and we haven’t taken to calling ourselves by a different name yet.

    I’m no Updike, but I can still rant somethin’ powerful.

  3. Damn it, AsherYou are
    Damn it, Asher

    You are recommending good books faster than I can keep up! At this rate, I’ll be backlogged for years.

  4. And won’t you be surprised
    And won’t you be surprised when the Illuminati Sheep-Men go on the march!

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!