Science, Religion, and Don DeLillo’s Zero K (Some Thoughts)

I feel like a lot of (although, to be sure, not all) critics writing about DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K, are getting distracted by a lot of window-dressing and kind of missing the point of what this book wants to be about. Case in point: Nathaniel Rich in the New York Review of Books, who after a lot of throat-clearing about the amount of plot in DeLillo’s various phases as a novelist, vague statements about what is inherently DeLillo-ian about DeLillo novels, and general synopsis of this particular book, manages to get around to a fairly interesting insight:

The Convergence, a work of performance art, reconstitutes religious faith for a coldly technological age. What, after all, is the difference between death and indefinite cryogenic suspension? The Convergence’s acolytes are trying, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, to make “sober decent terms” with oblivion. They are relying on ancient coping strategies. The gleaming pods are their sacraments. The long hushed hallways, airlock doors, and scant roomscapes form the architecture of their cathedral.

I think this is more or less where any discussion of this book should start. After all, this is a novel that is about a man who can’t stand the idea that his wife is going to die. First he freezes that wife, and then he freezes himself, both as some kind of balm to the depression and unfathomable questions that the death of a beloved spouse brings.

And this is more or less the question behind Zero K: previously we had world-encompassing religions that would offer answers for questions of this magnitude. Nowadays, a lot of us don’t really believe in those answers any longer, but what we do have is science, which if it doesn’t exactly offer answers does at least offer a discourse that can help us to avoid the questions in the first place. Afraid your beloved partner will die? You can just freeze that person. Afraid you might die of cancer? Maybe science will cure it. Worried our lifestyle will destroy the environment? Maybe we can terraform the Earth. Etc, etc.

I think much of the point of Zero K is that science has taken over a lot of the ground that religion once occupied in these term of questions like death, anxiety, the ultimate fate of humanity, depression, the unfairness of life, etc, etc. But science never meant to cover this territory; it has set out to solve very different sorts of problems, so the answers it gives to formerly religious matters have been patchy and incoherent at best. The Convergence (the place where they freeze the dying people in Zero K) would seem to be some kind of version of science trying to pose itself as religion: an organization decidedly dominated by scientific discourse and scientific solutions, but drenched in all of the mystique and accoutrements of religion. And maybe this is what science will become with time: quasi-religion.

These are the interesting questions to ask about Zero K, not questions about what phase of DeLillo’s career the book belongs to or if DeLillo has moved back toward White Noise–like plotting, or whatever “the point of maximum complexity” has to do with DeLillo’s artistic project.

Zero K makes a fairly interesting implicit argument that the discourses brought on by the age of science have left us without any real way to think sensibly about death and assorted large questions. So maybe science will begin to move toward discourses that allow for this (you already see the beginnings of that in things like the way that Roger Penrose has tried to locate consciousness in quantum uncertainty). But then again, the best “answer” science has given us so far for death (at least in DeLillo’s telling) is extraordinarily creepy and probably not of much practical use. So does this tell us that science just isn’t going to work as a quasi-religious substitute?

Another question this book brings up: is death necessary? Our understanding of biology, evolution, and history, not to mention the wisdom literary of humanity as a whole and the general organization of society—to name a few—would all say “yes.” But perhaps there is an entirely different idea of humanity out there where we could exist without death.

Critiques of this book might consider if DeLillo has given science a fair airing—after all, cryogenic freezing sounds like something out of a 1950s sci-fi flick, not exactly the stuff of the new millennium. We might also wonder if DeLillo is right that religion has been so roundly usurped (after all, lots of the world still believes in various religions, and some religions like Buddhism have shown themselves to be quite adaptable to the modern era). And is DeLillo correct that the globalized media edifice has brought on an era of mass uncertainty and anxiety that has left us all hungry for some kind of a doctrine to ease the existential questions underlying every moment of our lives?

And perhaps one more question that comes with this novel: is religion necessary? We seem to be entering the first era of widespread areligious civilized society, and it’s far from clear which trends in the modernized world are consequent of what, and which are not.

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