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Zero K: A Novel About Escaping the World Through Technology

Zero K by novelist Don DeLillo is a frightening but prophetic tale of transhumanism and the temptation to evade suffering at all costs.

Novelist Don DeLillo is perhaps best known for his book White Noise, a story about a professor and his family in Ohio and the repercussions of a toxic waste spill that serves as a metaphor for so much of modern American life and its dangers. The book was adapted into a film starring Adam Driver and eerily preceded the literal toxic spill that occurred near East Palestine, OH on February 3rd earlier this year. Like the characters in White Noise, nearby residents had to flee the area following the catastrophe.

Little did I know that DeLillo authored a much newer book called Zero K, a dark, brooding novel about a billionaire, Ross Lockhart, who wants to put his mortally ill wife into cryosleep until life-enhancing technologies are developed and can be used to “bring her back to life.” The novel is narrated by Jeffrey, the millionaire’s son, who gets increasingly weirded out by the cryosleep facility and begins reflecting on his childhood life, moments spent with his mother, and his father’s choice to abandon the family for ambition and money. DeLillo carefully contrasts the mood of the facility with its lack of context, culture, and particularity, with the ordinary, richly textured moments of life the narrator enjoys with his mother. The only catch is, of course, that the ordinary world includes mortality, suffering, and death. Hence the facility and its mode of operations.

Artificial Immortality or Ordinary, Meaningful Life?

Jeffrey’s father has chosen to obsess over the prospect of immortality but forfeits the meaning of life in the process. The cryosleep chambers hearken to the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, where those involved in its schemes are “bland in appearance, demonologists in spirit.” A faceless bureaucracy becomes the conjurer for a wholly secular vision of life, death, and resurrection that is yet dependent on spiritual and religious concepts to make sense. In addition, the facility serves as a kind of retreat from the onslaught of digital technology and the impending possibility of global destruction. One of the mysterious leaders of the organization tells Jeffrey toward the end of the book,

Those of you who will return to the surface. Haven’t you felt it? The loss of autonomy. The sense of being virtualized. The devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably. Do you ever feel unfleshed? All the coded impulses you depend on to guide you. All the sensors in the room that are watching you, listening to you, tracking your habits, measuring your capabilities. All the linked data designed to incoporate you into the megadata. Is there something that makes you uneasy? Do you think about the technovirus, all systems down, global implosion? Or is it more personal? Do you feel steeped in some horrific digital panic that’s everywhere and nowhere? (p. 239)

It’s a haunting story — a good book to go through during the Halloween season. But it’s also prophetic, merging two pertinent issues into one speculative tale: euthanasia and transhumanism. To give immortality a fair shot, you must first undergo cryosleep, a kind of death, and hope that someday you’ll wake up from it and be greeted by a brave new world. Ross Lockhart’s wife opts in, and hundreds of others follow suit. But what about the humans who stay in the open air, sharing ordinary moments of love, laughter, and joy, putting themselves on the natural path of growing up, aging, and dying? DeLillo paints the tragedy of the world vividly, showing us why transcending suffering and death can be so appealing. The horrific terrorist attacks against Israel this month and all the pain left in the wake of the unfolding situation in the Middle East are stark reminders that we live in a dark and broken world.

But we also live in a world of beauty, opportunity, connection, and potential for love and healing. This, I hope, is DeLillo’s view too: that however tempting it might be to escape life’s hardships, as well as retreat from the complexity of modern life, the meaning and beauty gained from embracing both the good and the bad features of the real world is worth it.

Buy the book here.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is a prolific fiction writer and has written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is a contributing writer and editor for Mind Matters.

Zero K: A Novel About Escaping the World Through Technology