O'Connell's transhumanism debut scoops Wellcome Prize

O'Connell's transhumanism debut scoops Wellcome Prize

Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s “passionate, entertaining and cogent examination” into the use of technology to cheat death and push the human body beyond its current limitations has won the £30,000 Wellcome Book Prize for 2018.

To Be a Machine: Adventures among cyborgs, utopians, hackers and the futurists solving the modest problem of death (Granta Books) took the award on Monday evening (30th April), beating off five other titles on the shortlist. It is the first time the independent publisher has won the award and O'Connell is the second Irish author to have been honoured.

It is the first full-length exploration of transhumanism, a movement which uses technology for human evolution and considers “what it truly means to be human”, according to chair of the judges Edmund de Waal.

In his debut book, O’Connell 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. To Be a Machine "takes the reader from the sublime to the ridiculous", having sold 6,496 copies for £67,903 since being published in February last year, according to Nielsen BookScan.

O’Connell, 38, is a is a journalist, essayist and literary critic from Dublin. He is a books columnist for Slate, a staff writer at the Millions, and contributes regularly to the New Yorker and the Dublin Review as well as various other publications.

To Be a Machine beat off five other titles from the shortlist revealed last month, of which half the titles were published by Penguin Random House: Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing’s memoir Mayhem (Hamish Hamilton, PRH), written after the death of her sister-in-law Eva Rausing, The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris (Allen Lane), about Victorian surgery, and The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman (Doubleday), which explores the rubella vaccine breakthrough.

Also shortlisted were Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s much acclaimed debut Stay With Me (Canongate) set in 1980s Nigeria featuring the effects of sickle-cell disease, and an exploration of mortality, With the End in Mind (William Collins), by palliative care physician Kathryn Mannix.

Artist and writer de Waal described To Be a Machine as “a passionate, entertaining and cogent examination of those who would choose to live forever”.

He said: “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. It is a wonderful winner of the Wellcome Book Prize.”

Kirty Topiwala, publisher at Wellcome Collection and Wellcome Book prize manager, described the 256-page title as “fresh, funny and disquieting”.

“It raises profound questions about our future and challenges how we think about health and humanity,” she said. “This is very much at the core of what we do at Wellcome Collection, making To Be A Machine an exciting and worthy winner of this ever-diverse prize.”

The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award for works of fiction or non-fiction of any genre which focuses on some aspect of medicine, health or illness.

Last year’s winner was French author Maylis de Kerangal’s novel Mend The Living, which explores the emotional and physical complexities of organ donation. 

The winning titles often experience a surge in sales with 2016 winner All in Your Head (Vintage) by Irish author Suzanne O’Sullivan, seeing a 242% boost in print sales through Nielsen BookScan immediately after its victory was announced, shifting 17,353 copies.