Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death


British political philosopher and critic Gray (European Thought/London School of Economics; Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007, etc.) explores the great quest for eternal life.

The author’s noteworthy analysis plumbs the great enigma of death and the afterlife, pitting the ideas of rigid Victorian-era skeptics against more progressive-thinking individuals like 19th-century philosophers Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers. Both men eschewed the popularity of secular thinking and grew eager for proof of paranormal phenomena and philosophies delivered outside the realms of religious ideology or “scientific materialism.” Automatism, cross-correspondence (communications with the spiritual world), séances, mediums and subliminal though—all were vigorously investigated by Sidgwick, Myers and others, however stymied by the naturalistic theories of Charles Darwin, who asserted that a belief in human immortality only served to cushion the inevitable likelihood of universal extinction. Gray also examines Russian secular pseudo-religion dubbed the “God-builders,” who sought “deliverance from a chaotic world” and argued that science was capable of demonstrating death as a passage to another plane of consciousness. One such advocate was Russian diplomat Leonid Krasin, who attempted to freeze Lenin in the hopes of reviving him via “scientific resurrection.” But these beliefs can be challenged and overturned, Gray asserts, as in the history of author H.G. Wells, whose torrid love affair with a suspected Russian double-agent altered his lifelong belief in controlled evolution. Of course, more contemporary means of techno-immortalism, such as cryonics, calorie-restricted diets and nanotechnology, can be challenged, the author contends, by basic theism. Writing with stiff, academic solemnity, Gray evenhandedly weighs source material from books, poetry and quoted dialogue and rhetorically offers cautionary trepidation toward a subject that continues to bewilder: “What could be more deadly than being unable to die?”

An occasionally dry but profound exploration into the unknown.

Pub Date: April 5th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-17506-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2011


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