To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2017

Are you a transhumanist? I am not. I reject transhumanism for the same reason I reject religion – both unrealistically crave immortality. The faithful feel their soul will leave their body upon death and move into another dimension. Transhumanists believe technology will someday copy their soul to a machine or clone body. Science has never found any evidence for souls. I’m confident our conscious self-awareness can’t be separated from our bodies. In fact, I believe our body is essential in creating our consciousness.

That said, I find transhumanism to be a fascinating philosophical topic. Transhumanism is a very popular theme in 21st-century science fiction, and a goal embraced by many in our high-tech culture. Religion is the old way people hope to escape death. Transhumanism is the new way of fulfilling that old hope. I think both reject the reality of our finite lives. Transhumanism is just another belief system that lets its believers avoid who we really are.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellTo Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell is a book about the future of humans I just finished. O’Connell, a journalist from Dublin traveled the world exploring transhumanistic endeavors by men and women whose goals feel more like science fiction than science. O’Connell is a skeptic of transhumanism, and so am I. However, wherever O’Connell went, he found brilliant, often eccentric people working hard on exciting projects. I thought it would be fun to find links to each of those endeavors and people he describes in the book.

I envy journalists who get to see in person the exciting events and people they write about. That’s why I love a good documentary. Seeing is believing, and O’Connell got to meet many far-out prophets of transhumanism. O’Connell’s book is well worth reading because he applies contextual history and philosophy to a growing belief system emerging our of technological culture. The men and women O’Connell interviews are the John the Baptists of Transhumanism.

Anyone who is interested in the future should enjoy this book, but especially science fiction readers and writers. I’m going to go chapter-by-chapter providing links to what O’Connell writes about. I envy him for being about to wander the globe to check out cutting-edge research.

System Crash

This first chapter deals with death and transhumanism. Transhumanists are people who seek everlasting life with the help of technology and not waiting on any promises from theoretical entities.

An Encounter

A Visitation

This was my least favorite chapter, about people who freeze themselves in hopes future medicine might give them life again, or transfer the contents of their brain to a new body or machine. We might eventually invent some kind of suspended animation, but I flat out disbelieve we can copy our conscious minds to another body.

Once Out of Nature

A Short Note on the Singularity

Talkin’ AI Existential Risk Blues

A Short Note on the First Robots

Mere Machines

Science and Invention 1924 May interior art

Biology and Its Discontents


Please Solve Death

The Wanderlodge of Eternal Life


20 thoughts on “To Be A Machine by Mark O’Connell [Annotated]”

  1. Wow James, a prodigious amount of work. I just read Egan’s Wang’s Carpet and was wondering how one would describe the two branches of humanity he described. I realize they would probably be Transhumanists. I am very tempted to get O’Connell’s book and use your links to follow along. Thanks for all your work I really appreciate the lists and things you share with us.


    1. Many science fiction stories deal with transhumanistic concepts without using the label. I’m not positive, but the transhumanists might have gotten their ideas from science fiction first.

      1. I read a bit on one of your links and the Wikipedia page, and their ideas most definitely did originate from science fiction.I’ve never taken science fiction, as I assume you haven’t, that literally or so narrowly.I have taken it very seriously yes, as a creative form of writing that pushes the boundaries of modern fiction, but that has been under-appreciated it seems by these people who merely want to treat its themes as an actuality.It seems a shame that they have no eye for the written genre’s finer points as a literary art form, and seem to view it so cynically.

        It doesn’t matter if I have any viewpoints regarding spiritual or metaphysical matters and find them interesting within the context of speculative fiction, but the actual cultivating of them into the tangible matter they seem to want to make it is limiting and dangerous.

  2. Hi

    I love the connection to Professor Jameson and I have been happily reading the linked article you provided. I think I will have to look at the books again and see what else I can find.

    Thanks and Happy Reading

  3. I must have read one or two of the Jameson stories too long ago to remember details, but I dimly recall them as pretty pulpy. The idea of flitting around the universe as an intellectual tourist caught my imagination, but I must have been young enough not to appreciate what doing without the “pleasures of the flesh” might be like.

    Another “transhuman” story I found memorable was C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (December 1944 Astounding) about a badly burned dancer who is given a robot body that is humanoid, but not android. I first read it in one of the brilliant Ballantine/del Rey “Best of” collections (The Best of C. L. Moore – 1975).

    You can read it here:


      1. Yep. Evocative and does right by the story, too. Another favourite illustration is the Frank Kelly Freas piece for Shambleau, Moore’s first published story and still one of her best.

    1. What an odd coincidence. I recently posted this cover to Space Opera Pulp on Facebook. It’s a fun group of people who love science fiction cover art, and recently passed the 10,000 member mark.

      1. Pretty racy for a fifties cover, don’t you think? I wondered if a young person looking at the reflector the doctor is wearing might assume it’s some kind of futuristic gear invented by the artist.

      2. Went to Facebook and had a look — boy, you could lose hours there. Great site. I always feel bittersweet looking at such collections of art, though. Don’t know if it’s frustration at all the stuff I never read, or just missing the excitement of youth and more optimistic times. I do know that if I were to read these stories now it wouldn’t be the same. Part of it is also a longing to escape into these fantasy worlds, but then looking at non-genre art often affects me the same way. Basically melancholy brought on by the limits of mortality I guess.

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