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Requiem of the Human Soul
Jeremy R. Lent
Today, RebeccasReads is interviewing Jeremy Lent about his new book “Requiem of the Human Soul.”
Jeremy R. Lent was born in England in 1960 and has spent most of his adult life in the United States, now living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1981, before coming to the United States, where he met his wife, Molly, in California. “Requiem of the Human Soul” is Jeremy’s first novel.
RR: Welcome, Jeremy. I’m happy you could join me today because “Requiem for the Human Soul” sounds like quite a story. First off, does the futuristic setting of the novel mean we should view it as science fiction?
Jeremy: It’s science fiction in the sense that it’s fiction and one of its major themes is how science affects our world. But it’s definitely not your typical science fiction book. Even though it’s set in the next century, it’s really about “our” society, “our” time. Because what we do now—the decisions we make—are what create our future.
RR: So in what way does this future differ from our own time?
Jeremy: In the late 22nd century, most people are genetically enhanced d-humans, optimized for health, personality, and even moral values. Sounds great… but does it come at the cost of the human soul?
This is really a continuation of the trends we’ve been seeing in our own society for the past few hundred years. The human race has been exercising its domination over nature at an ever-increasing rate. Over both the natural world and our own human nature. A simple extrapolation gets us to the world of the late 22nd century where we have virtually total control over what we are and over our natural world.
RR: In the novel, the d-humans have a proposal at the UN to make the unenhanced humans—the Primals—extinct. What inspired you to create this difficult situation in the novel? Do you fear it really is a possibility?
Jeremy: There were two major themes running together through my head. On the one hand, if you look at the amazing developments already taking place in genetic enhancement technology, it’s clearly only a matter of time until we humans are able to re-design ourselves into another species altogether. It’s taken us six million years to evolve from our shared ancestor with the chimpanzees. With genetic enhancement technologies, the next step of evolution could happen many thousands of times faster. It’s terrifying to think that we could be literally evolving ourselves out of existence.
On the other hand, when you look at the mess we’ve made of the world around us, the devastation we’ve brought both to other species and our own, you might ask: would it really be so bad if we did evolve to a higher plane? But at what cost?
That’s ultimately the question my novel tries to explore.
RR: Why do the d-humans want to destroy the primals? How will it be beneficial to them?
Jeremy: The d-humans are not just healthier and better-looking than us, they’ve also had their values optimized. In the early 22nd century, the world is recovering from the Great Global Wars, the worst twenty years of destruction in history, which arose from the massive resource constraints brought about from global warming. Just like other times in history, once the horror was over, everyone says “never again.” But this time, they have the ability really to do something about it, in the form of genetic engineering. Re-design the human race to make sure that “never again” actually means something.
So, the UN passes the Global Aggression Limitation Treaty, or GALT, which specifies that any human genetic enhancement must subordinate the “aggression” and the “doctrinal belief” gene-sets, which the experts had identified as the underlying causes of global war. By the late 22nd century, most people are GALT-compliant d-humans. But those impoverished, aggressive, diseased Primals still represent a threat to world peace and prosperity. So the d-humans came up with a clean, human extinction plan—the “final solution” to the Primal question.
RR: Why do Humanists, like Eusebio, think it is wrong to be genetically altered into a d-human?
Jeremy: The Humanists think genetic enhancement may destroy the human soul. The Humanists were founded in the mid-21st century by double Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Julius Schumacher, who pioneered the science of neurography: the mapping of human thoughts. Dr. Schumacher becomes convinced from his research that the human soul is, in fact, the emergent result of the countless billions of interactions among the DNA in our cells. Essentially, our soul is the music of our DNA.
And one day, Dr. Schumacher is horrified to discover that genetic enhancement, by changing the interactions in our DNA, may destroy the human soul. It’s like making violins more efficient by turning the curves into rectangles: you can pack them more easily but you destroy the music.
So the followers of Dr. Schumacher formed the Humanist community, dedicated to avoiding genetic enhancement and keeping the human soul alive.
RR: Eusebio is the main character, defending the Primals from extinction at the UN hearing. But his role gets changed by visits from another character, Yusef. How do Yusef’s visits affect Eusebio?
Jeremy: Yusef visits Eusebio secretly for the first time before the UN session begins. He tells Eusebio he’s from the Rejectionists, a group of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fighting against the global enforcement of GALT. He explains that Eusebio is being used as a stooge by the d-humans, legitimizing their proposal for the Primals’ extinction.
Eusebio ignores Yusef’s advice and continues with the UN session. But, as the days go on, and Eusebio gets increasingly alienated from the d-human world, Yusef pulls him into a conspiracy with the Rejectionists, giving him an awful role to play: detonate a nuclear bomb hidden in the UN building in New York.
RR: Why does Yusef believe the genetic optimization prevents the d-humans from knowing God, and what role does religion or faith play in the novel?
Jeremy: Yusef and the Rejectionists believe that, by subordinating the gene-set for doctrinal belief, GALT prevents the ability for humans to know God. From their perspective, GALT is a Faustian bargain: in order to gain peace and prosperity, the world has given up the human soul.
But the soul of the Rejectionists is very different from Dr. Schumacher’s DNA-based soul. It’s the immortal soul of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions. So religion and faith play a large part in the novel. Each of the main characters has a different view of the ultimate meaning of the human soul, and those differences in viewpoint drive the whole story.
RR: Jeremy, some of the publicity materials for “Requiem of the Human Soul” suggest the novel will make people ask some hard questions, including “What does it mean to be human”? What do you see as interesting about this question?
Jeremy: We generally place a high value on those things that make us human: our abilities to reason, to communicate with language, create beautiful art and music, send rockets to the moon. There is no end of things that we’re proud of as a race. But then there’s the dark side: the cruelty and genocides we commit that no other creature could even come close to; the devastation we’re bringing to the natural world around us. One of the themes the reader faces in the novel is: are both the good and bad parts of human nature really integral in making us who we are? Can we give up some of our undesirable qualities while still remaining human? If not, does that mean we’re condemned to go through the same cycles of progress and destruction forever?
RR: When Yusef asks Eusebio to detonate a nuclear bomb, killing millions of people, how does he justify it to Eusebio?
Jeremy: Eusebio’s a 10th grade history teacher whose heroes are the great Indian chiefs of the late 19th century who fought to stop the utter destruction of their people and their way of life.
Yusef asks Eusebio to imagine he was Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull in the 1880’s, watching his people get destroyed by the white man. If Wakan Tanka, the Indians’ creator god, had offered them a chance to kill the white settlers in their cities in the East coast, and by doing so, save their tribes from the void, would they have taken that chance? “Of course,” Eusebio, answers. This situation, Yusef explains, is no different, only now it’s the human race itself which is faced with extinction.
RR: So in this case, you’re saying that the terrorists are on our side? On the side of the human race?
Jeremy: Yes—that’s what makes it such a dilemma. We’re used to seeing terrorism in terms of black and white, of good and evil. But what if the survival of the human race was at stake? Would mass terrorism be justifiable in that case?
RR: Ultimately, if Eusebio carries out the act of terrorism, is it possible his goal will be achieved? Aren’t there plenty of other d-humans who will just become more determined to destroy the Primals? Is the act realistically going to make a difference and does he consider this? I’m thinking of the 9/11 terrorists who thought they could destroy the U.S. economy by destroying the World Trade Center when it actually had little effect financially.
Jeremy: Yes, that’s a major question that Eusebio has to grapple with. But Eusebio’s viewpoint in the 22nd century is fundamentally different from ours. You see, in the “future history,” the timeline between now and Eusebio’s time, there’s a terrible, seminal event that occurs in the mid-21st century: a terrorist nuclear explosion that devastates Columbus, Ohio. Along with that explosion came a threat that a major U.S. city would be destroyed the following year unless the U.S. agrees to the terrorist demands: that the U.S. participate in a global legal settlement to grant reparations to developing countries for the devastation caused by hundreds of years of Western colonialism. By the end of the year, the U.S. blinks and agrees to participate.
In the late 22nd century, the Rejectionists see the Columbus event as a precedent: they intend to threaten another nuclear explosion unless the U.N. agrees to abandon its plans for the extinction of the Primals, and allow non-GALT-compliant genetic enhancement. So there’s a real possibility that Eusebio’s act of mass terrorism, awful as it is to contemplate, might in fact save the human race (as we know it) from extinction.
RR: Without telling us what Eusebio ultimately decides to do, would you describe him as a hero?
Jeremy: Eusebio is an “everyman,” a very normal person, with character flaws, a quick temper, and sometimes slow to catch on to what’s happening. It’s his very lack of heroic qualities that makes him a hero in the novel: he’s someone we can all identify with. We can feel his agony as he’s being tossed around by forces way beyond his understanding.
RR: Jeremy, would you say your writing has been influenced by any other writers, films, television shows, and if so, which ones?
Jeremy: I’d say that Robert Pirsig, with his seminal novel, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” gave me the idea that it’s possible to write an engaging novel that also expresses philosophical ideas. The two don’t have to counteract each other.
Stylistically, I feel I owe a lot to Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger. These writers gave me the confidence to allow Eusebio his own voice. I wasn’t trying to write flowery prose; I wasn’t trying to impress anyone with a particular style. I was just giving voice to Eusebio. There’s power in simplicity.
Finally, I owe a major debt to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” In some ways, I’d like to think of my novel as a “Brave New World” updated for the 21st century.
RR: Do you plan to write any more novels, and will they be along the same genre?
Jeremy: I do plan to write more novels, but although some of the themes may be reminiscent of “Requiem of the Human Soul,” they will have very different settings. I don’t see myself as a “science fiction” writer, per se.
In the meantime, the next book I’m working on is nonfiction, but comes directly out of this novel’s themes. Specifically, I’m following up on an idea of Dr. Julius Schumacher in the novel, who came up with a thesis called the “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex.” The prefrontal cortex (“pfc”) is that part of the brain responsible for what makes us human: planning, reason, control of our instincts. Dr. Schumacher’s theory was that, over the past ten thousand years, the pfc has gradually come to dominate our human consciousness, increasing its power through stages of human development such as agriculture, writing, monotheism, and the scientific revolution. This is what has led to the sense of separation we feel in our modern society: separation of humanity from nature; of mind from body; separation from each other. Dr. Schumacher’s solution—which he proposed in his book “On Being Human”—was to reach back to our indigenous roots, and get back in touch with the ancient cultures of our world formed when the pfc was still in harmony with the rest of human consciousness. That’s why he founded the Humanist community, where the novel’s hero, Eusebio, comes from.
After finishing the novel, I started asking myself how valid this thesis really was. I decided to start researching it, challenging myself to prove it wrong. To my amazement, everything I read—in neuroscience, anthropology, history and philosophy—seemed to support it. I became bewitched, and I’m now working on writing Dr. Schumacher’s book for him. Only, I’m looking at a different solution. Rather than reaching back to indigenous cultures, I’m beginning to believe that there are elements in Taoist, Buddhist and Neo-Confucian traditions that offer our modern society the means to bridge the chasm that currently exists between spirituality and science.
RR: “Requiem of the Human Soul” sounds like a very dark novel, so did you actually enjoy writing it?
Jeremy: Although the title has a somber ring to it, the experience people get when they read the book is certainly not “dark.” In general, people tend to find it emotionally and intellectually stimulating. That was what I enjoyed most in writing the book: showing that the biggest questions of our time can’t be seen in black and white—they’re really a kaleidoscope of shades of gray, and that’s what I think comes out in the novel.
RR: What did you find most fun and also most difficult about setting the novel in the future?
Jeremy: The fun part was the challenge of making the late 22nd century as believable as possible, and then filling in all the gaps of how we get from here to there. That was also the most difficult part. I was determined that, even though everyone might not agree with my vision of the future, it should be plausible and credible. And I’ve been gratified that one of the most common reactions I’ve received from readers is how realistic this vision of the future seems to them.
RR: Thank you for the interview today, Jeremy. Before we go, I know you have a fabulous website. I was really impressed by all the additional materials on it about your book—you’ve really gone to great depths to create a fictional world. Will you tell us a little about the various aspects of your website and what other information readers can find there about “Requiem of the Human Soul”?Jeremy: The website, www.humansoul.com, is certainly far more than your average author’s site. It’s designed not just for people thinking about reading the book, but also for people who have finished the book and who want to explore the themes further. It delves into the question of how realistic the “d-human” future really is, looking at some of the developments already taking place. It also gives a lot more detail on the beliefs and practices of the Humanist community, where Eusebio comes from. It has a Future Timeline, too, showing some of the key global events of the 21st century that shape the world of the 22nd century. It was fun putting it together, and I think both prospective readers and those who have finished the book can enjo
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