I recommend some great reads about immortality

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on one of my other blogs musing about our eternal quest to live longer, preferably forever. While the search for the secret to immortality probably goes back to when we first figured out the whole death thing, and once took the form of such magical interventions as the Fountain of Youth and the Holy Grail, now it is on medical science that we pin our hopes for life everlasting. Just yesterday, some scientist came out and said he thought immortality was possible to achieve within the next 20 years via nanotechnology. I guess we’d better hurry up and do something about global warming, then, or we’re going to be not only immortal, but also uncomfortably hot and wet.

Speculative fiction writers have of course been writing about immortality since writing began. While the mechanics of how it is achieved is of interest, what’s even more compelling is the effect that becoming immortal would have on our essential human nature, which is defined by our consciousness of our own mortality. Here is a list of books that have tackled the theme of everlasting life and its ramifications.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels introduced the island of Immortals. Unfortunately, the Immortals continued to age, becoming more demented and debilitated until they were a great nuisance to everyone else. Too bad they didn’t have retirement homes back then.

The immortal vampire was brought to life (so to speak) by Bram Stoker in Dracula. Everlasting youth and life is the reward, but the price is pretty steep: you have to drink blood, you never get to go outside in the daylight and basically you become an inhuman, evil monster. And so the great tradition of vampire fiction began, which continues unabated to this day (as tired as some of us may be getting of it).

Another type of immortal being, the Elves, are major characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The Elf Galadriel falls in love with a human she must inevitably watch grow old and die, a terrible plight indeed (but I think I’d rather be the Elf than the human, personally). The Elves actually envy our mortality, since they can’t ever get away from millennia of bad memories of war and never-ending quests and wizards gone bad.

In Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins‘ characters simply decide to become immortal. They have a regimen that they follow, involving baths, beets and sex, but choosing not to die is the important part. There really is no downside, except getting tired of the whole routine after a while.

The question of what to do with all that free time is brought up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, in which the character Wowbagger becomes immortal accidentally. He decides to insult every living thing in the universe, alphabetically. It’s important to have a project.

In Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, immortality is achieved by downloading all of your memories and knowledge into a new body, preferably a young clone of your old body. The rich have access to the technology, the poor not so much. And criminals may find themselves put in cold storage, only to wake up decades later in a completely unfamiliar body.

In The Mars Trilogy and Icehenge, Kim Stanley Robinson posits a treatment that continuously reverses the effects of aging, enabling people to live hundreds of years. This makes it possible for humanity to complete enormous projects, such as populating the solar system, but there are losses too. Relationships become less meaningful, children are increasingly rare and alien due to population controls, and precious memories are eventually lost. A lot of people get a wicked case of the blues as a result.

Immortality is achieved in Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Saga by just sleeping through long periods of life, and waking up for short periods. While living very long lives, these sleepers become disconnected from all meaningful relationships and even from their history and culture. Is it worth it to live a long time if you’re unconscious for most of it?

Finally, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut gives an alternate take on how immortality might work. When Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time,” he essentially relives his experiences over and over, in random order. There is no end to it, so no true death as we would think of it, but it’s not exactly an ideal life either. The aliens in the novel view a life as a whole all at once, rather than moving through it linearly.

Can you recommend any additional books about immortality? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

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The endless quest to live forever

The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher’s ...

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There was a story in the New York Times Science section this week about testing beginning on drugs that may slow aging. (Please read the article for all the science stuff — I’ll wait.)

Obviously, this is the Holy Grail of medical science — literally. Since humans first comprehended their own mortality, they have been searching for the Fountain of Youth, the Philosopher’s Stone, the secret to eternal life. I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to imagine a time when the effects of aging can be slowed or reversed so as to extend human lifetimes to hundreds of years.

But is that what we really want? Science fiction writers have tackled the issue many times. Virtual immortality would certainly help the human race advance technologically, as we would have plenty of time to amass knowledge and innovate based on that knowledge. But what about human relationships — wouldn’t we feel a profound disconnect from one another over time? How would we address the pesky overpopulation problems that are bound to arise? And perhaps more funadmentally, maybe we need the ultimate stakes of mortality to make life really worth living.

Of course, I fantasize about having a prolonged life — with excellent mental and physical health, it goes without saying. But might there come a point when you just get tired of the repetition, the sameness of it all? I don’t know, but if we are seriously hoping to extend life, then shouldn’t we also allow people who want it to choose death?