I asked her if she would like to live forever. She said no. They all say no. Why is that?
We have all been brainwashed. Human society has been coping with death and loss for so long, that it became something natural. Something desirable. We have written songs about the virtue of heroic death, we have invented religions which treat death as merely a gateway to a better, happier afterlife. We have romanticized it, accepted it and internalized it. But death is always bad. It is annihilation of a mind – an irrecoverable loss of an individual, a big win for entropy. Even if you believe in some sort of afterlife, you have to admit that death is an end to a persons existence in this realm. It is a net loss for humankind, and by extension for the universe.
Most people agree that death is unfortunate part of life, but do not feel it is something that should be annihilated. Very few individuals view it as a problem that ought to be solved by science. They view it as something natural, or even as part of the human condition. Of course they are wrong. This is merely a coping strategy. We have brainwashed ourselves into thinking this way, because that was the only way for highly evolved, intelligent animals to come to terms with such an unfair, uncaring and disruptive force. We could not make it go away, and so we decided it must be good – that it must have a purpose.
In popular culture, desired immortality has became almost an universally accepted secular form of blasphemy. Only villains, and misguided fools wish to live forever, and usually get their comeuppance in the end. The price of immortality is high – often too high to bear. This is a very old trope (which likely started long before Christian tradition gave it shape in the form of the Wandering Jew myth) frequently employed both by hacks and reputable authors. Science Ficion is filled to the brim with stories built around this premise.
Take The Island of the Immortals by Ursula K. LeGuin for example. It is a rather interesting short story, that exemplifies the trope. A young explorer sets out on a journey to a backwater island state which is known to have been a home to a number of immortals, only to discover that eternal life is not as great as you might imagine. LeGuin is clever – she subverts the trope by making us sympathize with the protagonist, who is baffled and frustrated by the locals who do not view the “curse of immortality” as something exceptional or even desirable. She slowly builds up the mystery, only to reveal the secret at the very end.
When we finally meet an immortal, the realization is swift and crushing – immortality is great, but only if your quality of life does not drop as a result of some unfortunate event. The immortal in the story has been in a fire, lost a few limbs, broken many bones which did not mend properly, and suffered severe neurological damage. He cannot die, you wouldn’t call his his existence a “life” either. Thus is the fate of all the immortals on the island – sooner or later they get in a debilitating accident, loose their independence, outlive their caretakers, become neglected, accumulate damage and are abandoned or discarded when they become too much trouble.
Immortality without advanced medical care and ability to repair accumulated damage can become a horrible curse. There is a good chance that we will soon discover ways to extend out life and youth indefinitely. But we must ask ourselves if it is worth to live forever, when you suffer from a debilitating chronic pain, are paralyzed, have advanced muscular dystrophy or some incurable degenerative disease that will only get worse with time?
I touched upon this in my review of Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect – I think that immortality is worth while only if it is optional, and not mandatory. This is the kind of immortality we are working toward – this is where science gives us a better option than magic and mysticism. If you can opt into, and opt out of eternal life, LeGuin’s point is moot. You live as long as you desire, and if you fuck up and damage yourself beyond hope of recovery you may let yourself die.
LeGuin also does not take into account the exponential curve of human progress, and the possible approaching singularity. The speed at which we develop new technologies increases at a breakneck pace, and chances are that if you live long enough, science will progress up to a point where it will be able to cure whatever ails you. So it becomes a waiting game – and it’s a game immortals can play very, very well.
Some authors tackle this trope from the other end. It is not the immortality itself that is the problem, but the process by which you obtain it. An interesting example here is a short story by Cordwainer Smith titled “A Planet Named Shayol” which is as compelling as it is shocking. Smith’s protagonist is a criminal who is sent to an Imperial punishment planet, which is deemed to be a physical manifestation of hell. Most people do not know what happens on that planet, but assume it must be horrible, because the agonizing screams of the prisoners sent down there are transmitted over the airwaves on Emperor’s birthday every year.
Upon landing however, it turns out the planet is not a place of torture. There are no guards, no jail cells and no rules. In fact, the local microbial life forms known as dromozoa seem to be hell bent on helping out all living things. No one really knows what they are, but they function as the planet’s biomass maintenance routing – they are drawn to living cells, and they repair them, feed them chemical energy, remove waste and etc. As long as you stay on Shayol, your body won’t age, you won’t have to eat or defecate. Dromozoa will do all of that for you. The problem is that they are not very delicate when they go about their business. When they run their maintenance routines on your body, it hurts. A lot.
The other problem is that Dromozoa like redundancy, and they will often decide to grow you an extra organ or an appendage just so you have a spare. So you may end up with a few extra hearts, six dozen ears growing out of your ass, or seven legs attached growing out of the side of your head. Those are then amputated or extracted by the local attendants and used in medical transplants throughout the empire. To help with the Dromozoa induced pain, and frequent organ harvests inmates are kept doped up by super-charged drug cocktails that would kill a normal man. Between the pain, the drugs, and constantly morphing body shapes, they all slowly careen towards insanity.
I don’t think Smith wrote this story to make a comment about the nature of immortality. I think his aim was to create a disturbing Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights like setting. Shayol is a sad and terrifying place, but part of it is how it has been used. If the Dromozoa were studied, and understood, maybe they could be tamed or re-programmed. Allowed to roam unchecked they are more of a magical force – a curse and a blessing in one.
Shayol was made into hell, even though it might as well have been made into a spa. It is clear that the prisoners did not enjoy the sudden immortality thrust upon them via a curt sentence. They couldn’t care less about eternal life, because for them it would be a life of pain and madness. But what if it was used differently? What if you could pay to go to Shayol for a week, and then return stronger, younger and rejuvenated?
Almost every story that fits this trope follows this pattern. Most authors can’t directly demonize immortality (even though they want to) because there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. So they invent circumstances in which immortality becomes a problem. But it does not have to be. If applied properly, immortality is not a negative thing.
Think about it – death is entropy. We, intelligent beings are self replicating anti-entropy engines. We order all the matter we come in contact with – it is our nature – our primary function. We are a force of order against chaos. If there is a purpose to intelligent life, it is to annihilate chaos, reverse entropy and make the universe run forever. The end goal of every sufficiently advanced civilization ought to be to find an answer to Asimov’s Last Question.
First step on that road is to conquer death because that’s something we know we can do. This is why we need more stories such as The Fable of Dragon-Tyrrant by Nick Bostrom. Stories that spread awareness, and aim to correct the common misconceptions about aging, death and mortality by a way of analogy.
So I ask you, do you want to live forever? And if not, why?