Mark O’Connell wins £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize for ‘To Be a Machine’

Study of transhumanism is second debut by a Dubliner to win in three years

Mark O’Connell: “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever”. Photograph: Rich Gilligan

Mark O’Connell: “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever”. Photograph: Rich Gilligan

 

Irish author Mark O’Connell has been awarded the 2018 Wellcome Book Prize for his debut, To Be a Machine.

Subtitled Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers and the futurists solving the modest problem of death, it is the first full-length exploration of transhumanism, a movement that seeks to cheat mortality and use technology for human evolution.

Kilkenny-born O’Connell (38), was selected from a shortlist of six to win the prestigious £30,000 prize, which celebrates exceptional works of fiction and nonfiction that illuminate the many ways that health and medicine touch our lives.

Artist and writer Edmund de Waal, chair of judges, made the announcement at the award ceremony at Wellcome Collection, London, praising To Be a Machine as “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever. Mark O’Connell brilliantly examines issues of technology and singularity. In doing so he brings into focus timely issues about mortality, what it might mean to be a machine and what it truly means to be human. This is a book that will start conversations and deepen debates.”

To Be a Machine reflects a cultural obsession with futuristic dystopias, fuelled by TV series such as Westworld, Black Mirror and Altered Carbon.

Likened to Jon Ronson, Don DeLillo and Louis Theroux, O’Connell goes further to explore the philosophy and science behind transhumanism, looking at current technological developments together with the opportunities and concerns for the future.

O’Connell presents hilarious and challenging insights into a movement that believes we must merge with machines to transcend our physical and intellectual capacities or risk becoming obsolete. He encounters the developers attempting to convert human minds into code, the self-proclaimed cyborgs inserting tech implants beneath their skin, and the human bodies cryogenically frozen in time on the promise of a future resurrection.

The Irish Times review called it “brilliant… A terrifying, fascinating and often funny insight into a brave new world”.

O’Connell, a books columnist for Slate and a staff writer at The Millions, is the second Irish author and second debut to take home the Wellcome Book Prize, following neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who was awarded the 2016 prize for her first book It’s All in Your Head.

When did he hear that he had won? “My agent rang me a few minutes ago. I was having a stir-fry and my agent rang me and whispered, ‘You won…’

“They hadn’t finished the announcement, so I listened to all these indistinct noises and then I heard Max [Porter, his editor] reading the speech I wrote in the certainty it wasn’t going to be used.”

He didn’t expect to win? “It’s the third award I’ve been shortlisted for and I operate under the assumption that I’m not going to win and that it’s nice to be on the list for these things. But in my bones I know - not just assume - I know I’m not going to win. I don’t allow myself to get my hopes up.”

How did it feel? “Weird. Very Good, obviously, and the money is nice. I haven’t really processed it yet but I’m extremely grateful and honoured. I’m thrilled, I guess. It’s strange not to be there.”

Why isn’t he over there? “The situation is that Amy [his wife] is heavily pregnant... That’s the reason why I’m not there.”

What will he do with the money? “The wing mirror of my car got kicked in today so I’m probably going to treat myself to a new wing mirror.”

Possibly the work of a rival author? “I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Sigrid Rausing, my publisher, who I was also up against. She owns Granta and wrote a book called Mayhem: A Memoir. A strange thing to be up against my own publisher.” He laughs. “Anyway, winning this has completely erased having the wing mirror kicked in which had previously set the tone for my day.”

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