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How I Killed The Universal Man coverHave you ever played chess against yourself? Really tried to outthink your own mind? Bet against your natural instincts, only to realize that such a bet is still instinctual? Or set out to do something “you would never do,” only to watch that designation evaporate the moment after you’d done it? The technological event horizon—an idea I first learned about some twenty years ago and haven’t stopped quixotically futzing over since—functions a little like this. For a hopelessly basic science student like myself, it presents as a kind of dividing line in temporal space. Absolutely everything I can imagine about the future—from the next iPhone update to the final Star Trek frontier—is in front of that line, leading all the way up to its bleeding edge. And anything I can’t imagine lies beyond it, too fantastically advanced for my puny, bachelor-of-fine-arts brain to comprehend. Obviously, this sets it up as the ultimate moving goalpost. Anything new I might learn, or even conceptualize, automatically jumps to the near side of the line. The far side is, by its very definition, always out of reach.

An interesting wrinkle, however, exists within this theoretical fabric. The technological event horizon is effectively different for everyone. Just because I can’t imagine something doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t already dreamed it up and put it to paper (or even discovered it in real life). No one can read everything. New books are being written, and new ground broken in labs all over the world, every day. This is the global group effort by which both science and science fiction continually evolve. The line is always advancing because we advance it for one another.

No work has moved my personal event horizon further forward in recent years than Thomas Kendall’s staggering transhumanist noir How I Killed the Universal Man, a visionary work of near-future dystopia that left me feeling nothing quite so strongly as “someone better hurry up and publish this, before it all comes true.”

The world Kendall has built here—and the degree to which we, the readers, are immersed in it via his classically world-weary journalist protagonist John Lakerman—is far too complex to do justice in the space of a book review, but I will try to enumerate the key developments. We begin far enough down the road for global warming to have both drastically altered life on Earth, and also been at least nominally solved—this by a carbon-reducing biotech network known as stomata (AKA “the internet of plants”). It’s still hellishly hot most places, but not enough to kill you, and not getting any hotter. Along this same timeline, humans have also become, to varying degrees, physically and mentally linked to the “alternet” via “skin-plants,” the most basic versions of which are something akin to smartphones embedded in the palm of the hand and grafted to our nervous systems. We do everything now, from accessing news to sending and receiving messages to opening coded security doors, at less than the push of a button: we do it at the mere thought of the push. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for the entire book being a transcript of Lakerman’s internal notetaking app, and the way Kendall depicts him as being constantly spammed by adware just walking down the street is a truly unsettling peek at our online-in-extremis fate.

Lakerman begins following the breadcrumbs on a story for donkeyWolf (the “self-consciously edgy multi-social news presence” [p. 9] for which he begrudgingly writes), about the mysterious inventor of a new “guided response drug” called Noumenon (a biotech-laced psychedelic supposedly 50 times stronger than DMT). He soon finds himself wrapped up in a story so big it threatens to either break him out of his permanently disillusioned life of “ironically brandable nihilism” (p. 14) or, if he’s not careful, end it altogether. As he becomes increasingly tangled in a downright Pynchonesque web of mad cognitive science, apocalyptic resource politics, and vaguely godlike corporate entities—UbiQ, Lifepax, Weber, Ulti/Multi, @lantis—he grows both more determined to discover, and more desperate to find, a means of becoming less “powerlessly cynical” in the face of big-tech’s encroaching “monopoly on reality” (p. 12).

It is arguably his deep, low-functioning alcoholic depression that makes Lakerman such an ideal plumber for this particular rabbit hole, as he is so positively fed up with everything he knows—about the world, and himself—that he’ll willingly risk it all, time and again, in the eternally buffering hopes of finding out something he doesn’t; some new, healthful path toward information as a balm, rather than a burden. This terminal ennui is at least partly what leads Lakerman to his story in the first place. Originally developed as a treatment for depression, an injected dose of Noumenon will map to its host’s nervous system and formulate a personalized trip experience for each user, interacting with the supposedly benign PROs (programmed robotic organisms) now present in every human body (à la microplastics in fish). Similar subatomics called Opscions likewise offer the potential to streamline all human contact, tagging, reading, and interpreting the facial expressions of other organisms in one’s orbit, controlling one’s own facial musculature in appropriate response, and creating dialogue trees to ensure optimal real-time interaction (with recent advances in AI and Google Translate, none of this seems that far off). “We built tech to solve tech’s problems” Lakerman notes at one point, “and now that tech is everywhere” (p. 92).

Indeed, if anyone has ever bridged the gaps between the present and the posthuman more effectively, I am not aware of it. Kendall, who’s clearly done his homework, synthesizes so many long-posited but never-quite-convincingly-realized sci-fi ideas here—from the commercial body-modded nightmares of Mark Leyner and David Cronenberg to the corrupt virtual dreamscapes of William Gibson and The Matrix (1999) to the cyberspiritual apotheosis of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005)—and makes them feel not just believable, but imminent. His roads already teem with self-driving cars, and his sky is abuzz with autonomous drones (a sky which, for the right price, can be rented out as ad space in its entirety). There are hotels outfitted for virtual tourism. Women outfitted for virtual orgies. Anything a person could want. It’s all there, at the thought of the push of a button. And yet, if Lakerman is any indication, most people exist somewhere between numb and miserable, “stuck in a future without a past” (p. 85), so far from any version of offline humanity that they no longer even know what it is they’re missing: “There is no privacy, and yet everyone is alone” (pp. 88-89).

It’s here, in its emotionally resonant details, that How I Killed the Universal Man really separates itself from cyberpunk touchstones past, acting as a breathtaking vivisection of how bad we’ve already let things get: of how hard it already is, in the right here and now, to meaningfully connect with others; to recognize, and even feel, our own feelings in a world increasingly working to manage them into the oblivion of prescriptive contentment. Kendall takes that idea of the technological event horizon, and fashions it into a kind of grand metaphor for our collective anhedonia. That dubious state we call happiness, always on the other side of the line, forever just out of reach. If there is a through-line connecting his beloved debut The Autodidacts (2022) and this new work, it’s a profound desire for people to communicate in ways beyond the limits of speech, expression, and language; to truly understand one another’s hearts and minds; to know things about each other, and by extension ourselves, that at present we simply cannot know. As a writer, Kendall openly aches for this connection. It winds through every page he writes, linking his first two novels (which, otherwise, could hardly be more different) like so much cursive circuitry.

I don’t know if How I Killed the Universal Man will all come true, but just observing the open-source AI explosion that’s taken place in the last year since has already made the novel’s fearful, techno-fascist future feel far less speculative and far more prescient. We can write all the regulatory bills we want, but no one has the power to stop innovation, or really even a vested interest in trying. And though there exists a glimmer of hope for John Lakerman at the end of this book—a slim chance “to let reality heal” (p. 179)—the martial crush of time is immense. Every day, from this day forward, will be a Herculean struggle just to maintain his fragilely renewed humanity, and guard vigilantly against those who would turn it for profit. Just like our shared technological future, true human happiness may never be an ultimate goal, only an endlessly moving goalpost separating the peace we can imagine for ourselves from that which we cannot yet conceive. But the line is different for everyone. We glimpse the far side in one another. And we keep moving it forward together.

Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. His first novel, Troll, was published in May 2023 by Whiskey Tit Books. He has contributed book reviews to Heavy Feather Review, Exacting Clam, and X-R-A-Y, and film criticism to Daily Grindhouse and Cinedump. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.
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