Transhuman by Ben Bova
Transhuman by Ben Bova is a tired book about a maverick scientists whose work simultaneously enables him to reverse both cancer and the ageing process (with different side effects). So unlike books which, whether in fantasy or science fiction, have their characters set off on a quest for longevity treatment or the fountain of youth, this opens with the scientist sufficiently far off the beaten track of academic respectability, no-one wants to believe him when he announces he can cure his granddaughter’s cancer. This forces him into a kidnapping scenario so he can prove himself right. Because he’s seventysomething, he also doses himself with the anti-ageing treatment and slowly acquires the physique of a fortysomething as the book progresses. If you’re going to run from the FBI, you need to be reasonably fit.
There are various ways in which this trope can be played out. Heroic tomb-robbers can be in competition with villains to find the Holy Grail, or villains have an evil plan which involves testing their product on unwilling volunteers with all kinds of unfortunate side effects appearing. Those who find themselves immortal (often Scottish) find life gets somewhat boring except for the occasional decapitation to liven them up, or get so depressed, they court death, e.g. as in the Company books.
Here were have a near-future scientific thriller in which the treatments appear to induce a cure or reduction in age but with dependency issues. The anti-ageing does work, but causes cancer (or perhaps it only accelerates the development of cancers already latent in the body). This part of the plot is playing the same game as in in “Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow” by Kurt Vonnegut where Anti-gerosome is a cheaply produced serum that stops ageing and produces chronic overpopulation. In this book, the ironic side effect of the cancer cure is rapid ageing. So the balancing of costs and benefits has potential interest (unlike the Newsflesh trilogy when the cure causes a zombie plague). This is one of these not-quite-panacea stories in which the rich will want to corner the market to make even more money by selling the cure to the rich. Withholding the cure from the poor is an effective way of culling the population which is necessary when too many people start living too long.
Having started like this, you’ll understand it’s very difficult to write a book on this theme and hold interest. It’s all been done before and, unless you’re going to get into the politics and economics, the result is likely to be a superficial thriller. So here comes our geriatric superhero (fortunately not emulating Captain Jack with his compass). He has the magic cure. Except no-one believes him. So that’s a problem. No-one in his peer group believes he can cure cancer. Better still, he’s just killed off what was left of his reputation by kidnapping his granddaughter. He’s obviously demented. So how come the White House suddenly gets all excited about the looming disaster of his treatment(s) being launched on to the market? There have been no formal trials with a range of animals, let alone humans. If you were to ask the FDA, they would tell you any launch of either version of the drug is years and tens of millions of dollars away. If there were any headlines, they would read along the lines of a crank scientist found dead of a heart attack. His granddaughter died of cancer. Yes, with this man’s track record for alienating everyone, there’s no way he would co-operate with government so he and any inconvenient evidence of his success would have to die.
I can accept the FBI might be persuaded to chase after him and his granddaughter (and the obligatory young lady doctor). If that happened, I’m less convinced his ex-students (many of whom seem to have been obsessed with the idea of sleeping with him) will risk their professional reputations, if not their careers, in helping him while on the run. Sexual interest in a seventysomething seems less than likely unless they have somehow anticipated he’s regressing in age. It’s not uncommon for young women to have a crush on older lecturers, but carrying a flame over the intervening years for a happily married man is unlikely. Of course the ageing multimillionaire willing to fund the research on the off-chance it succeeds and extends his lifespan is the ultimate cliché.
Then there’s the curious availability of his magic juice. To stock up while on the run, all our hero has to do is rattle off a few ingredients (not including eye of newt) and the next place he arrives has everything he needs for the next set of injections. This is a remarkable concoction if it can be whipped up by anyone with a good kitchen and the right ingredients. Then there are the woeful coincidences like the FBI agent just happening to be visiting the secret base when the young doctor is attacked. Put all this together and you have not just a poor book. Because it fails to even try examining the economics of the effects of this drug, it’s a really bad book. Looking at recent efforts in allied fields, The Culling by Robert Johnson did at least try to discuss the problem of overpopulation. The rookie makes an effort whereas the old dog has no tricks left. Transhuman should be avoided. It’s an old man’s fantasy in which he gets to be young again and have young women fighting over his body.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.