Peter James

Crime and science fiction

Peter James is one of the world’s most successful crime writers. His Roy Grace series, about a detective in Brighton, England, has produced 19 consecutive Sunday Times Number One bestsellers. His legions of devoted fans await each new release eagerly, but most of them probably don’t know that James is also a transhumanist.

James has written 36 novels altogether, in several genres, including science fiction. His novel “Host” is about mind uploading, and appropriately enough, it was the world’s first electronically published novel – a copy of its floppy disc version is on display in London’s Science Museum. James joined the London Futurists Podcast to discuss his interest in the future.

As a boy, James had no aptitude for science, but his best friend from school won a scholarship at MIT, and James spent the Christmas of 1970 there. MIT had a rudimentary chess computer at the time, and Marvin Minsky explained to James that in order to beat a human grandmaster, a computer would have to be several times bigger than Earth, and would require more programmers than the entire human population at the time.

Nevertheless, James began to wonder what marvels would become possible as computers became more and more powerful. Among other things, he wondered whether it might be possible to make a copy of a human mind inside a machine. A couple of decades later, he was inspired to write his first science fiction novel by Ed Regis’ 1990 book, “Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition”.

Backing up our minds

While researching “Host”, James visited Alcor, the cryonics company, which was based in California at the time. They were charging $125,000 to store a whole body and $50,000 to store a head. James was not persuaded to sign up, because they had not yet solved a number of problems. One was the formation of ice crystals inside the brain as its temperature was reduced, and another was that there was no legal way to leave money to yourself in a will.

Alcor is adamant that it has solved these problems since then, with vitrification replacing freezing, and the use of trust funds to ensure the preservation of financial assets. But James is also not convinced that future scientists will bother to revive all the people who are frozen. If we were able to resuscitate an Egyptian mummy, would we revive all the mummies in all the museums around the world? Also, could the ancient Egyptians survive the shock of being revived into a world so dramatically changed?

More optimistically, James does hold out hope that aging will be solved in the fairly near future, and thinks that the first person to live to 200 has probably already been born.

As well as covering mind uploading in “Host”, James has explored genetic engineering in his book “Perfect People”, which is about a young couple who had lost a child to a genetic condition at the age of four. They investigate ways to ensure their future children are healthy, but they come under heavy pressure to go further, and select favourable characteristics from a menu of 2,800 options, including ball game skills, various kinds of intelligence, empathy levels, and so on. All they want is for their child to be healthy, but they are admonished not to place their children at a disadvantage by failing to select their genes for favourable traits, and condemn them to membership of a genetic underclass.


Having explored the ways that technology will impact us in the coming years and decades, James is happy to be labelled a transhumanist, which is the belief that humans should be permitted to improve our physical and cognitive abilities. Many people are uncomfortable with this idea, believing instead that we should stick to what is “natural”, even though we have already gone far beyond that, with spectacles, false teeth, penicillin, and so on. He is looking forward in particular to the ability to download a book into his memory in a few moments: his reading backlog is lengthy.

He is also keen on radical life extension, an idea which is surprisingly unpopular, but which is necessary if we are to keep up with scientific and cultural progress. One of our biggest problems as a species is that we don’t live long enough to learn the lessons of the past. Aristotle is said to have been the last person capable of reading every book that had ever been written, and Copernicus was perhaps the last person capable of reading everything written in his lifetime. Most of us only reach a rudimentary sort of maturity before we die. If we all lived a lot longer, we would probably take better care of our planet, and stop fighting over whose imaginary friend is the best.

Despite being keen on technology in principle and in practice, James has not experimented with generative AI systems to help with his writing. He does not doubt that AIs will write great books one day, but they are not ready yet. Idiosyncratic human perspectives are essential to great writing.

Origins and meaning

Another subject which fascinates James is space exploration. He expects that future humans will spread out across our galaxy, and that they will find plenty of other intelligent life out there. In fact he thinks we ourselves may well originate elsewhere. He is intrigued by a series of experiments carried out a couple of decades ago which showed that our natural circadian rhythm is longer than 24 hours. Deprived of clocks, and information about the movement of the sun, humans start to manage their lives according to 25-hour days.

If we ever find an answer to the question of where we come from, it may help us work out why we are here. In the meantime, James is happy with the conclusion offered by Kurt Vonnegut, one of his favourite science fiction authors: “We were put on this earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”


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