On deciding last night that I’d like to kick off this blog by revisiting and deconstructing a work of feature science journalism I admire1, I re-read Will Self’s “Head-hunting for Eternity”, published in Esquire magazine in 1993. The historians among you will recognise this as a date from the long and arduous pre-internet age and the artefact in question hasn’t yet been excavated from its paper bed for online display. In short, I can’t link to it and you’ll just have to take my word that it is what it is.
The 4000 words of “Head-hunting…” can be found nestled in Junk Mail, a collection of Self’s early journalism and Self-lovers would do well to buy a copy if only to see how far he’s come as a writer in the last 20 years. Here we catch him in the throes of devotion to his master, William Burroughs, and The Great Junksman plays a lead role in at least a third of the articles2.
Self’s usual satirical conceit is to twist, amplify and distort the mundane through the prism of his sesquipedalian prose. As such he performs the reverse manoeuvre to Burroughs, who depicted his obscene fantasies in a matter-of-fact voice descended from hard-boiled crime fiction. In “Head-hunting…”, however, Self is called upon to investigate a real-world phenomenon straight out of the Burroughs lexicon: cryonics – the “preservation of legally dead humans or pets at […] temperature[s] below −2000F/ −1300C […] in the hope that future technology can restore them to life, youth and health” (as the Cryonics Institute has it). Accordingly, he reins in the prolix, makes like Burroughs and keeps the lunch naked.
Now, before you go booking a posthumous liquid nitrogen bath, it’s worth mentioning that cryonics is classified as pseudoscience – and that’s being generous – by most biologists and gerontologists. So how is this a work of science journalism, much less one concerned with any of the disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience – that this blog hopes to address? Stay with me and I’ll explain.
Or, in fact, just keep reading, for brains figure prominently in the opening paragraphs, it’s just that they’re enclosed first by frozen, decapitated heads and secondly by storage units called (brace yourself for a swarm of inverted commas) ‘neurocans’. As you’d imagine, ‘whole body suspension’ is a hefty investment, one cryonics’ “typically middle-class” adherents are ill-disposed to make. Luckily, ‘neuropreservation’ is available at a snip of the price, you just have to accept that you might be ‘reanimated’ later than the whole-bodies due to the greater technical complexity required of the future scientists.
Gasp! Where was I? Ah, yes, Self has to keep his prose as sharp as a pathologist’s scalpel. Indeed, the body of the text is laid out as on a mortuary slab. The autopsy begins at the head before moving unceremoniously down to the heart. Feature journalists would call this organ the nut graph, and it is presented explicitly as such in “Head-hunting…”:
That [a woman who had been frozen along with her pets] is cryonics in a nutshell: a bizarre marriage between scientism run amok and dewy eyed sentimentality. As I journeyed around California from one freeze-dried fanatic to the next, a picture of the cryonics community emerged that was at one and the same time reassuring – all too clearly these people were [mad]3 – and yet unsettling, because the very form that their delusion takes mirrors the profound spiritual difficulties our culture has in coming to terms with death.
This is our only glimpse at the heart of the piece, the only time that its central theme is addressed. It’s one that has been pored over in detail by the psychiatrist and – get this for a job title – existential psychologist Irvin Yalom; that our culture’s repression of death has a profound influence on our psychology and hence behaviour.
In the final analysis “Head-hunting…” is not so much science journalism as journalism about science; Self depicts a cast of characters acting in a satirical play on scientific research. The cryonicists are described singly as “scoutmasterish” and “doggily earnest”, and collectively as a “small posse of rather strident bores”. They live in a technology-enabled sci-fi fantasy world “like some low-budget version of Alien with set design by Texas Homecare instead of H.R. Giger.” Anyone who’s spent much time in a molecular biology lab might start to see the parallels (apart from the characterisation, of course).
Fine, but these similarities are purely superficial, aren’t they? Now standing at the foot of the corpse, his scalpel returned to the steriliser, Self replies:
The strange truth is that, since cryonicists started perfusing corpses with mortuary pumps in the late sixties, scientific research has been advancing towards the cryonicists’ somewhat expanded view of the possible. Parallel computing; nanotechnology (or molecular machines); concepts of cyberspace and, of course, genetic engineering – these are no longer just the dreams of cranks, they are fields of legitimate research eating up many millions of dollars.
Those words were written in 1993, since then the millions have proliferated into billions and the cryonicists’ heirs apparent have advanced to brush the fringes of the scientific establishment – most notably Aubrey de Grey and his research into overriding the cellular mechanisms of ageing, and Ray Kurzweil with his discourses on brain uploading, transhumanism and the singularity.
“Head-hunting…” disquiets more now than it did on publication; its satire cuts closer to the bone. Western society has become, as a recent paper in the British Medical Journal put it, “not so much death denying as blind to death.”
1. That’s a lie, I’m actually on a journalism course this first post is an assignment. I know, they teach blogging at university now, what’s the world coming to? etc. etc. Still, I’d like to be up front hidden down the bottom of the page in the notes about it.
2. How exactly did Self pitch these articles to editors? Imagine his end of the phone call: “Yeah, hi, Jeremy, I’ve got a great idea for a piece – a homage to William Burroughs…yeah, I know, I had one of them in The Observer last week…no, no, same thing again…plenty references to my own junk habit…a lot of fawning over Bill…you’ll take it? Great!”
3. The original word here was “Dagenham”, an in-text joke. You earn my sincere appreciation if you can work out what the gag was.