Our interview today is with Jeremy R. Lent, author of Requiem of the Human Soul
FQ: - Eusebio is at first a naive, ill-informed and even somewhat meek character. But he changes/grows through the book. How/why did Eusebio change so much?
Yes, it’s completely true that Eusebio, at the beginning of the book, is naïve and ill-informed. But that’s not really his fault. It’s because he grew up in the sheltered Humanist community of Tuckers Corner, completely cut off from the world of the 22nd century. So, Eusebio’s finding out about his world along with the reader. And as the terrible ethical issues arise in the novel, both the reader and Eusebio are forced to grapple with them together. Eusebio is an everyman: in the words of his daughter, Sally, “he seems so normal, so regular. And yet, he’s really special.” Eusebio’s specialness resides in his humanity, and as he reacts in an increasingly angry and alienated way to the world of the d-humans, I hope the reader feels in touch with his spirit and internalizes his emotions and spiritual struggles.
FQ: The bio-ethical issues brought up in Requiem of the Human Soul are many. Would you discuss some of these issues and how they might actually impact our society in the not-too-distant future?
Our advances in cracking the secrets of the human genome may have an even greater effect on humanity than all the scientific discoveries and technological transformations of the past few hundred years. Until now, we’ve been developing ever-increasing powers to shape the external natural world to our will. In the future, we’ll be able to apply that power to ourselves, to what makes us human.
This will present almost unfathomable opportunities and risks to our society, and force us to question the very nature of our humanity. And, as I’ve tried to show in the novel, this is not a theoretical issue for future generations to consider long after we’re all dead. We’re beginning to shape the debate over these issues right now, in our current generation, in areas like the ethics of cloning, designer babies, brain/computer interfaces.
One of the ways I tried to show this in the novel was with the four interludes – future newspaper and magazine articles spread about a generation apart from each other over the next hundred or so years. What I hope readers take away from these articles is how what is unthinkable to one generation can become avant-garde to the following generation… and commonplace to the generation after that.
Readers interested in the current debate over these issues can find out more on the novel’s website, www.humansoul.com, which explores what’s going on right now in the area of human genetic engineering, and looks at the slippery slope from the present day to a world of d-humans a hundred and fifty years from now.
FQ: Would you tell us a little about where the idea for "virtual field trips" came from? It's a great concept and added much to Harry Shields’ arguments for the Primals' destruction.
Yes, the virtual field trips certainly add another dimension to the book. Eusebio, Harry and Naomi go to the farthest reaches of the earth: to a decrepit Primal village in India, to a regenerated Safari park in Africa, and to a frontline in the battle against the Rejectionists in Pakistan – without ever leaving the United Nation building in New York. I came up with these virtual field trips as a solution to a major conundrum with my novel: how do you make a philosophical book exciting and dramatic?
In many ways, this was the fundamental challenge I had in writing the novel. I wanted to make readers think about issues like the devastation we’ve brought on the world, and what that means about our species, but I also wanted to make the book exciting and fun to read. Robert Pirsig showed the way when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book about philosophy but one which attracted readers through the characters and relationships. In my case, I had the freedom to use the cool technologies of the 22nd century to get the action going in the book.
FQ: The idea that the soul can be seen, via "Schumacher's Smudge" was quite intriguing. Where did this idea originate?
Well, I just came up with it myself as I followed through on the idea of the soul as a kind of background radiation of our DNA. But since then, I’ve researched a fair amount on views held by other societies about the human soul, and it turns out my idea isn’t as radical as it sounds at first.
We’re used to thinking about the soul as something abstract and eternal, something that exists in a dimension completely separate from our physical lives. In fact, that’s a view that’s rooted in the dualism of Plato, and got incorporated into the Christian view of the soul by the early Church fathers in the first few centuries of our common era.
Most other cultures in the world have viewed the soul as something tangible, just more ethereal and finer in substance than our flesh and blood. And it turns out that even Aristotle had a view of the soul that’s consistent with “Schumacher’s Smudge”, as an emergent phenomenon arising from the body’s existence, a property the body possesses as a living thing. So, if you take a longer perspective of human culture, maybe what’s more unusual is the current idea of the soul as something totally abstract and separate from the body!
FQ: D-humans seem to be the ultimate DNA manipulated humans. That is, until we read about d-3 Humans. Was this a statement on the "always something bigger/better" in the near future, that we'll never stop trying to improve upon ourselves, and eventually, perhaps, destroy ourselves?
Yes – that’s a major theme running through the book: the unstoppable acceleration in the rate at which mankind is changing the natural world – including ourselves. I sometimes think of the rise in our powers of technology like a satellite launched into space. If it keeps accelerating out of control, the satellite breaks orbit and shoots off into space, leaving the Earth behind. There’s a danger that our technology may go the same way, leaving us humans behind. For a satellite to be useful, its acceleration has to be managed, so it reaches a stable orbit. The question is: can we manage our technology the same way, to avoid it accelerating into outer space on the one hand, or come crashing down in a fiery ball on the other hand? Quite honestly, I’m not sure if we can, and one of the goals in writing the book was to raise this question.
FQ: Eusebio is a morally good person so I was intrigued to see how/if Yusef would be able to convince him to kill for the sake of saving the human race. Were the conversations between the two characters difficult to write?
They were challenging to write and intellectually stimulating. Like most of us, I find the idea of killing anyone for any reason appalling, and so it was easy to take Eusebio’s point of view. The more challenging part was to make Yusef’s arguments strong enough that the reader has to take them seriously. And in fact, when you think through the issues, Yusef has some very good points. I’m certain that if I were transported back seventy years and had the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler, I’d have done so in a flash. So, as Yusef points out to Eusebio, there’s no black and white answer to the issue: it’s a matter of making agonizing trade-offs among shades of gray.
FQ: There is a lot of interesting talk in your book about spirituality and native peoples/traditions. Is this a topic that has always intrigued you?
When I was in my early twenties, I spent some time with the indigenous people in the highlands of Guatemala, who still wear their traditional clothes and speak Mayan dialects. I had two profound reactions to this experience that have remained with me ever since. One the one hand, I felt awe and love for their traditional ways of living and for the depth of humanity I saw in their faces. On the other hand, I felt horror at how their cultures have been systematically devastated by Western civilization.
Most of us barely give a moment’s thought to the fact that modern civilization has been built on foundations of brutal genocide. We joyfully celebrate Columbus Day, without a passing thought to the horrors caused to the indigenous people of the Americas since that day in 1492.
At the same time, many people who feel a lack of spiritual fulfillment in traditional monotheistic religions look to the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures to try to find some meaning there. But what’s left is in such tatters that it’s hard to pick up much that pierces through the shell of our Western culture.
So a large motivation in writing the book was to honor the beautiful, vanishing cultures of the past and to raise people’s awareness about some of the crimes perpetrated in the name of our society against the indigenous people of those cultures.