As I write this, at about 10 pm on Saturday, September 5, I'm marooned in a strip mall parking lot in Half Moon Bay, California, with a man named Zoltan. He's running for president on a platform of giving every human on Earth everlasting life, and his giant coffin-shaped campaign bus — the Immortality Bus — is having engine trouble. We're facing the real possibility that the Immortality Bus might die.
Zoltan Istvan is the presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party. The party is new, but the movement it represents is not. Transhumanism is the belief that humans can and should use every technology we have to improve and further evolve the species. We should use elective protheses to gain better arms and legs. We should perfect robotic hearts so no one ever dies of heart disease again. We should use cloning and stem cell research and genetic engineering to design the best humans possible. And those humans should be able to live forever.
The coffin-shaped Immortality Bus symbolizes that goal, and serves as a reminder of what Zoltan is promising, and what his opponents are not. Hillary Clinton will let you die, it says. Donald Trump will let you die. Bernie Sanders will let you die. But Zoltan Istvan will conquer death.
Zoltan — who almost always goes by his first name — is only too aware of how fringe an agenda this is. He knows that third-party candidates stand no chance, especially when their party is contesting its first election ever. The operation is about as low-budget as could be. The Immortality Bus is a 1978 Blue Bird Wanderlodge RV, which Zoltan bought for $10,000 near Sacramento, drove back to his home in Marin County, and, along with volunteers, tricked out with a wooden coffin top, new tires, a new paint job, and even some flowers on the roof (how sad would a coffin be with no flowers tossed on top?).
The mission isn't to win — not yet, anyway. This campaign — including the opening bus trip that will, knock wood, take us from Mill Valley to a "biohacking" festival in the Mojave Desert to the Venetian in Las Vegas — is more of an awareness-building effort. It's an attempt to force Americans to consider the possibility that the issues that consume most contemporary political debate are basically sideshows distracting from what is, in Zoltan's view, the only question that really matters: How can we live as long as possible, ideally forever?
Yes, Zoltan is his real name
Zoltan was born in Los Angeles in 1973 to two Hungarian immigrants who had illegally fled the communist regime. And he was born "Zoltan," too; as perfect a moniker as it is for a zany futurist, it's also a fairly common Hungarian first name.
After graduating from Columbia, Zoltan spent the early part of his career traveling the world as a reporter for National Geographic. He covered the Kashmir war between India and Pakistan in 1999; he sailed from Los Angeles to Singapore; he claims to have invented the sport of "volcanoboarding" (exactly what it sounds like, and exactly as dangerous, too). But one of his assignments sent his career hurtling in a totally different direction.
In early 2004, Zoltan was in Vietnam hunting for unexploded American bombs from decades earlier. It was dangerous but lucrative work: The bombs could still explode, but rural Vietnamese people could sell the metal at a scrapyard for a few months' salary. On one bomb-hunting expedition, Zoltan nearly stepped on a land mine. It was an intense, near-death experience, that convinced him of two things: 1) he wanted to live as long as possible, and 2) in order to do that, he needed to devote the rest of his life to fighting death.
In his writings, Zoltan refers to this reasoning as the "transhumanist wager." As it stands, with current technology, people can expect to die after 70 to 100 years or so. If we do nothing, we don't change those bleak odds at all. If we spend our lives promoting transhumanism, or conducting anti-aging research, or otherwise contributing to radical life extension, then we might not live any longer, but we at least stand a chance of bettering our odds of long-term survival. Therefore, Zoltan reasons, anyone who doesn't want to accept a normal lifespan must throw themselves into transhumanism. They must make the transhumanist wager.
This idea is explicated at length in Zoltan's 2013 sci-fi novel, titled — you guessed it — The Transhumanist Wager. It's set in a dystopian near-future America in which transhumanists are on the verge of huge technological breakthroughs but are under attack from conservative politicians and radical Christian fundamentalist terrorists. The lead character, Jethro Knights, graduates from a prestigious university in New York City before circumnavigating the globe by boat, covering the Kashmir conflict, and enjoying some volcanoboarding while on assignment for a magazine called "International Geographic." He takes the transhumanist wager, and is willing to do whatever it takes to defeat the fundamentalists and achieve the technical breakthroughs necessary for everlasting life.
Zoltan claims the character isn't purely autobiographical, which is comforting; Jethro (spoiler alert) eventually becomes a violent transhumanist terrorist whose attacks include a missile strike on the Vatican that kills the pope and hundreds of civilians. "Art should challenge you," Zoltan says. "It's not necessarily my perspective or philosophy. But it's challenging. How far would you go to live indefinitely? How far would you take transhumanism? My character takes it all the way."
Death-proofing the Immortality bus
The inaugural Immortality Bus tour starts in Zoltan's front yard in Mill Valley, California. The big, yellowish-orange motor home is more than a little conspicuous on a dense residential street with dozens of small, maybe half-acre lots; Zoltan's home is a modest 950 square feet. "A lot of my neighbors go to Burning Man, so they don't think the bus is that weird," Zoltan tells me later. The bus tour preempted it this year, but Zoltan is, predictably, a Burner: "I took my wife there as a test."
As I arrive, Zoltan is on top of the bus, finishing up the paint job and appending a box for flowers. He has two volunteers helping out: Roen Horn, the founder and president of the Eternal Life Fan Club (Facebook likes: 3,303; the movement still has a ways to go), and Rachel Lyn, who designed the bus and was drawing white outlines around the stenciled "Immortality Bus" label. There's also Meccano, an Erector robot capable of responding to basic voice commands that Rachel built for the tour (Zoltan suggests renaming Meccano "Jethro," in honor of his fictional doppelgänger).
And there's press — lots of press. Besides me, there's Jamie Bartlett of the Telegraph in the UK, Magda Gacyk of Polish national radio, documentary filmmakers Hervé Cohen and Daniel Sollinger, and freelance videographer Jeremiah Hammerling. Two photographers also stop by to document the occasion for Maria Konovalenko, a researcher of aging and PhD candidate at USC who serves as Zoltan's "longevity adviser." Maria visits briefly; she can't join the bus, she explains, because her current research requires daily maintenance. She figures she can do more for the cause of ending death in the lab than on the road with us.
Ultimately, it'll be five members of the press on the bus and only two members of the campaign: Roen, and Zoltan himself behind the wheel. Like the candidate, Roen has one hell of a transhumanist origin story. When he was 9, he says, he got in a brutal bicycle accident. Veering to avoid a car, he tumbled, and his right handlebar impaled him in the stomach, cutting through his spleen. He had severe internal bleeding, and doctors told him that if he'd been just an hour later getting to the ER, he would've died. He kept the resulting fear of death at bay for a bit by throwing himself into the church but eventually became an atheist, and transhumanism followed immediately. "Technology became the new savior," he says. "It replaced Jesus."
The big question, as Zoltan and the team put the finishing touches on the bus, is how to keep the Immortality Bus from killing people. The team is trying to figure out a way to keep the flowers, and the wooden bed they're in, on the roof. On the one hand, they're an important part of the visual, as well as a necessary bit of joy and levity to make the sight of a giant coffin easier on passing motorists. On the other hand, they're hard to secure properly, especially in the time available before sunset. "Imagine flowers falling off and hitting a motorcyclist," Zoltan explains. Eventually, the team opts to keep the bed but save the flowers and vines for later. Zoltan throws them in the RV bathtub; he'll tack them on in the Mojave, or once we get to Vegas.
Looking on are Lisa Memmel, Zoltan's wife, and his children, Ava, 4, and Isla, 18 months. Memmel is supportive but clearly at least somewhat skeptical; she says she kind of doubted the bus would get built in time, and demurs when queried about Zoltan's platform. Asked what she contributed to the bus, she answers modestly, "I contributed many pots of coffee and moral support." The spousal support goes both ways. Memmel is an OB/GYN at Planned Parenthood, and Zoltan explains that her constant harassment from anti-abortion clinic protesters led him to concoct a plan to build androids that can shout pro-choice slogans right back at them. It's a typically wacky Zoltan plot, but it's sweet in its own weird way.
The Immortality Bus confronts the sweet face of death
Getting out of the yard is considerably easier than expected. Zoltan lives on a particularly narrow road, with street parking on both sides, so maneuvering a hulking, diesel-powered behemoth safely onto the street wasn't a simple proposition. But remarkably, Zoltan manages to swing it in a single attempt. Once we're pulled over, we all throw our things in the bathroom (there's no running water, so it's functionally a storage locker), Zoltan says his goodbyes to Lisa and the kids, and we're off.
The first leg is fairly uneventful. We pass across the Golden Gate Bridge, and follow Highway 1 down the Pacific Coast for a couple of hours. For one stretch, the video journalists hop into the opened trunk of a Prius to capture the bus passing an ocean sunset. The trouble begins when we stop at a Starbucks to get Zoltan the caffeine necessary to make it to Santa Cruz, where we hope to crash at a motel before driving to the Mojave in the morning. Zoltan and I are taking photos of the robot Meccano in the passenger's seat of the coffin bus when Zolt notices a steady oil drip under the front right of the vehicle.
The parking lot isn't level, so we drive a few miles before finding a spot to pull over for maintenance. Zoltan's first step is to call his father. His dad, Zoltan says, "could die at any moment." He's had four heart attacks, and lost an eye due to diabetes. He's only 70 but has been severely ill for years, and at this point his doctors concluded further treatment is counterproductive. "He doesn't want to be cryogenically frozen, even though he's an atheist," Roen recalls. "Isn't that weird?" Zoltan nods. "It is weird."
In this moment, abstract talk of life extension and living forever becomes devastatingly concrete. Zoltan is setting off on a campaign promising to beat death, even as he knows that it was about to claim a loved one, and that however much he needs his father around, fighting the inevitable at this point would only bring pain. The phone call to his father, a son calling a parent for one of the last pieces of advice he'll ever get to impart, is practical and to the point. Zoltan fears he might have to replace the gasket — a major repair that would effectively end the bus tour before it really began — but after his dad tells him where in the engine to look, he concludes full replacement probably isn't necessary.
For an hour or two, the Immortality Bus appears on the verge of death . The rest of us wait in a Taco Bell; marooned and nervous that the trip is over, I go back to the bus for a bit to write the lede to this article. But after a couple of hours, Istvan & Son are able to rule out a number of obvious explanations, and devise a stopgap involving regular manual oil replacement that should (knock wood) get us to Vegas.
Our first (and hopefully last) night sleeping in a coffin
The next task at hand is finding a highway motel at which to crash. This turns into the second debacle of the day. Apparently, finding a vacancy on the Saturday of a holiday weekend at 1 am is difficult, even when you're parked on a random strip in Salinas.
Jamie Bartlett, the Telegraph reporter, and I walk out to a Best Western, a Comfort Inn, and Best Western Plus, and a Holiday Inn; none has any openings. Neither do the Quality Inn or Motel 6 behind us. Zoltan calls eight or nine nearby hotels, all of which are fully booked. He's far too exhausted to drive the bus another few hours in hopes of finding lodging. Slowly, it dawns on us that we have only one option. We're going to have to sleep on the coffin bus.
The documentarians, Daniel and Hervé, hop off and drive ahead of us with Daniel's son Lafayette, who had been following us in a "chase car" for filming purposes. That leaves five of us to bunk in the coffin bus. Zoltan and Jamie (who's still operating on London time, where it'll be 11:30 am by the time we finally fell asleep) claim the RV's two beds. Jeremiah and I toss the throw pillows off couches at the front of the bus and lie down. Roen, the campaign supervolunteer, offers to sleep on the floor; he doesn't have a bed at home in Roseville, California, where he lives with his parents while working full-time on the Eternal Life Fan Club, so he figures this isn't too different.
Now that hotels aren't an option, we're hoping to at least grab some food before the night was out. But we finish our quest for lodging at 1:40 am, while the In-N-Out Burger closed at 1:30. McDonald's is only serving drive-thru; Zoltan learns the hard way that "walk-throughs" aren't allowed for liability reasons. Eventually he grabs a turkey sandwich at the nearest gas station, and pours everyone some Knob Creek bourbon as a nightcap.
While we're all exhausted, drinks nevertheless evolve into an impromptu candidate interview. We go through Zoltan's views on:
- Universal health care: Despite libertarian leanings, he likes Obamacare, and in the long run wants a universal basic income with which people can choose to buy insurance.
- LGBTQ rights: Zoltan views queer and trans rights matters of "morphological freedom," the transhumanist principle that we should be able to do whatever we want with our bodies so long as it doesn't hurt others. "I know some transhumanists who want to be fish," he explains. If he's cool with that, obviously he wants consensual sex and gender affirming surgery to be legal and tolerated.
- Drugs: He leans toward full legalization, with money currently spent on the drug war redirected to addiction treatment.
- Sex work: "It's clear that a majority of women in prostitution are human trafficking victims," he says. (The data doesn't really back him on this.)
On many matters, Zoltan openly concedes that he just doesn't know what to do. He's certain marijuana and hallucinogens should be legal, but with heroin and new, potent designer drugs, he's less sure. His instinct is to err on the side of freedom, but he's not implacably opposed to prohibition. He embraces the anti–sex work position that most sex workers are trafficked but doesn't know if criminalization still makes sense in that context. Maybe legalization could allow people who really do want to work in the sex trade do so while letting law enforcement focus on trafficking.
To Jamie, who in addition to writing for the Telegraph is working on a book about "political revolutionaries" for Random House, this is striking. The other chapters in Jamie's book profile movements characterized by unwavering faith in an inviolable set of principles. He's writing about ISIS, about neo-Nazis, about radical Islamists in Canada. These are people willing to take extreme measures precisely because they know they're right. That raises the question: Zoltan has a beautiful home, with two beautiful daughters. His wife makes a healthy living for the family, and he can get by as a futurist on the speaker circuit too. He could be in his bed with his wife, knowing that his kids are safe in the next room (this is something Zolt takes very seriously: He has 17 fire alarms in his 950-square-foot house; most rooms have at least two).
But instead, he's sleeping on the side of the road in a decrepit 37-year-old RV without running water. Why, Jamie asks, if you're not sure your ideas are correct, are you willing to go through all this? Zoltan shrugs. He's not sure. Nobody's ever sure. But he thinks his beliefs have better odds of being true than the alternatives. Otherwise, he wouldn't believe them.
Finally, at 3:30 am, we sleep. Zoltan rouses us at 8:30 am; we have to get going fairly early if we're going to make the "Grindfest" in Mojave City, where biohackers will be showing off their coolest body modifications. Rich Lee, a biohacker and friend of Zoltan, will be showing off the magnets he implanted in his ears for wireless music listening. Zoltan will be getting an RFID implant, similar to the microchips that dogs and cats get containing crucial identifying information. As of Sunday morning, I'm considering doing so as well. As the saying goes: When at a biohackers festival in a desert, do as the desert biohackers do.
The bus seems to be in good shape. The generator's working, so we all finally have power; most of our phones, computers, and cameras were dying by the end of last night. Barely any oil leaked overnight, so Zoltan thinks there's an outside chance the engine problem is past us. We're all gross and unshowered but made reservations in a La Quinta Inn near the event so we can clean up. At the very least, we'll get to sleep in actual beds for a night.
With luck, I'll be posting more diaries from the campaign this week. Unless the Immortality Bus confronts its own mortality, of course.