Zero K (2016), By Don DeLillo


Don DeLillo has been writing critically acclaimed novels for several decades. His latest, Zero K, nothing if not entirely characteristic of his others, brings forth this from Martin Amis:

The gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.

If you can make it through Zero K–the grade B science fiction settings, the drifting “plot,” the cardboard principal characters, the familiar stereotype oracles and prophets and their banal “profundities” echoing cynical Hollywood screenwriters, together with the heavy handed contrasts among what DeLillo sees as three life experiences–“apocalyptic,” “futuristic” and what we might call “ordinary-yet-wondrous”–you’ll most probably be at least mildly curious about DeLillo and the critics.

Well, what we have here is a certain kind of hack intellectual novel, a straightforward example of a most familiar, tiresome and trivial “humanist” displeasure with technology. Here it is aversion to the deep import of modern and especially future technology as serving a fundamental but still unutterable transformation to a happier experience, an escape from the traditional Human Condition of pain and suffering, mortality and bewilderment, a condition best embodied and, even more importantly, scorned, by that pivotal revolutionary in world literature, Captain Ahab:

…it is that thing behind the mask I chiefly hate. That malignant thing that has plagued and frightened man since time began. That thing that mauls and mutilates our race, not outright but in a manner of letting us die slowly…letting us live our lives with half a heart and half a lung. …If man will strike, strike through the mask!

Melville did not have our formal insights, such as they are, into brutally impersonal natural selection and the cold mindless and forever remote and inconceivable vastitudes of the cosmos(es?).  His explanation of Evil–that Malignant Thing behind the Mask–is an echo of the older mythology if yet skeptically distanced from it and anticipating the perspective of Impersonal Forces of our latter day vision. Hence Melville’s novel response to the Vale of Tears is a new Heroic Defiance. Scarred from nape to sole by the White Whale as agent of Nature, Ahab is Melville’s Exponent, an exponent who rouses his international crew to sail the Pequod on a sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying global mission of Holy Insolence: Strike Back.

By Melville’s lights, the best we can be is to experience the exhilaration of a futile assault on Nature, an assault whose grand defiance confers on us the highest integrity, the greatest virtue. As he tells Starbuck, Ahab would strike the sun if it offended him.

What connects Captain Ahab, a lover of the technology of his day, to the ensuing Technologist Human of our day is the common quest to take on the gravest problems, doing so ultimately beyond profit and even beyond cognitive excitement, for the sake of justifying humankind: to alter the Human Condition.

In the world of Melville and Ahab, the heroic means taking on only the gravest of problems, problems that punish us and especially problems that could destroy us.

Moby-Dick leaves behind the rest of the great Canon of world literature–the Greeks through the world epics and Dante to Shakespeare and Faulkner–because Ahab isn’t suffering any of the traditional “answers” to the Theodicy question–How could a just God allow the pain and suffering of life?–in short, the ravages and travail of the Human Condition? In Melville, we are not guilty of sin and deserving to suffer; nor are our minds incapable of understanding some deistic grand plan that makes the suffering something good–there is no such plan and no chance of the pain being good; nor do Eastern and Western monastic/mystical traditions offer praiseworthy “transcendence” of the suffering.

Moby-Dick is among other things a Conversion Story. And crucially, Ahab, the Great Entrepreneur, the New Heroic Striker, rouses (does not terrorize)  his international crew by rhetoric and action such as throwing the compass overboard as a step toward his empirical ocean surveillance system in pursuit of the White Whale (chief representative of that Malignant Thing and one of the Grand Metaphors).

Melville is a way station on the passage of technology. Arguably, modern and future technology is inexorably moving toward transcending the historic Human Condition. It seems less and less risky to posit that technology, hopelessly or not, is ultimately seeking to remedy mortality and, in so doing, replace the painful historic experience with an engrossing and, above all, mindful state. If natural selection is overcome by non-natural selection–Melville might well frown at the plausibility of the idea–the Human Condition would be little of what it was–poet Delmore Schwartz’s Darwinian Heavy Bear of primal appeitites who goes with each of us would be left behind. New experience would most probably be highly intelligent and thriving not in physical reality but ideality.

Zero K, not a visionary novel despite the advertisements, might be called a cryogenic novel. There’s not much to say about it. The longevity project, funded by rich people and government agencies, is set in a high-tech facility called the Convergence whose coldly unfriendly interior includes mysterious hallways and unvisited levels. The frozen dead people wait in their pods for the apocalyptic times to abate and for somehow a nicer Human Condition to prevail, one for which it is worth being resurrected. There are no hints as to the substance of that new state. One character describes the Convergence and all about it as “faith-based technology.” Yes, the focus is on irony of the intelligentsia variety: After some 260 pages of dull and largely colorless storytelling about characters of little interest, it turns out that sunsets and cityscapes and the rest of the experience of “normal” human life comprise the only plausible Ideal. Zero K is a familiar variation on the old saw, Death gives meaning to life.

In other words, technology mustn’t be taken seriously.

My advice: Don’t take Zero K seriously.

You might, though, reflect on certain parts of the “critical establishment.”