Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015)

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What does the future hold for humanity?

This is a question that many writers, artists, and thinkers have tried to answer. In fact, predicting the future is a sort of industry. Beyond sci-fi, serious writers have attempted to map out the future of our species in daring works of non-fiction. Yet Harari’s is one of the most believable.

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, and his previous book, Sapiens, is one of my favourite books. In that text, he masterfully explored the entirety of our species’ history, and in this one he looks into the near future. He often makes bold claims, but then tempers them with caution that no one could know the future, as well as offering tempting evidence to support his ideas. 

He starts off where the previous book left, by looking into the past. Here, he concludes – with the first of many seemingly shocking claims – that humans have defeated the problems that have tormented us since the dawn of time. We no longer suffer from disease, hunger, or war, he says. (Of course, he acknowledges that we do, but only in rather isolated cases and that, for example, more people die from eating too much than too little.)

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.

Thus, Harari turns to the future. If we have beaten the problems that have always plagued us, where now do we turn? We turn ourselves into gods, of course. That means humanity will in the future seek to achieve happiness, immortality, and divinity. (For some reason, he always lists his ideas and examples in sets of three.) This change, however, will not by conscious. We will not decide to do these things, but rather we will step-by-step graduate into them without realizing it, even if it happens quickly:

In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.

The rest of the book sort of follows these ideas, but it wanders significantly into different but related territories. Structurally, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness work as it wanders hither and thither, covering animal rights and artificial intelligence, the validity of human experience and the importance of data, and even speculating as to whether our world is real or just a simulation. He zips between the distant past, the present, and the decades to come in order to ask and answer questions about what we can expect humans to do.

Yet even if it goes off track a little, and is sometimes a bit repetitive, it is always readable. Harari knows how to explain very complex matters in simple language. He delves into deep science and philosophy, as well as areas from across the whole of human history, and the reader is not overwhelmed. It is a pleasure to follow his arguments.

Forest Dark

Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, 2017)

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Nicole Krauss’ forthcoming novel is an odd one. It tells two stories that are clearly linked, and yet at the same time the characters may as well be living in different realities. On the one hand there is Jules Epstein, an old man who’s retired, recently divorced, and just lost his parents. He appears to be suffering an existential crisis, although reading this novel I felt it may well have been a degenerative disease because of references to memory loss. On the other, there’s Nicole, a novelist with writer’s block and also suffering a crisis of sorts. Both characters, although they are unrelated, are drawn towards Israel, and in particular the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv. 

The book starts out with a witty and engaging mystery as Epstein goes missing. The second chapter is jarring as it brings us straight into Nicole’s story without warning, and for a while it seems that Nicole may be Epstein’s daughter. For the longest time, we are left wondering when their paths will cross, but this never happens. They are only linked by this attraction to the Hilton, and by certain philosophical ideas about infinity.

On a sentence level, this is a hell of a book. Krauss writes beautifully and brings up seriously deep ideas. However, structurally, it is quite off-putting. Nicole’s sections (the book flips from one to the other) are sort of stream-of-consciousness and include a lot of philosophizing and digressing. Just when you think something is about to happen, you get page upon page of ideas and memories and nothing much does happen. There is a plot about Kafka, and a whole lot of talk about Jewish lore and how nothing can become something, and at times it is wonderful to read, but a lot the time it is a bit tedious.