JANE: So, Alan, last time you pointed out that one of the difficulties with the SF variant of the Gilgamesh Gambit is that in many cases the science is so futuristic that it might as well be magic.
I agree. A good example of that is the evolution toward a bodiless state that humans apparently achieve in Clifford Simak’s City. If I recall correctly, Simak never explains exactly how this happens. He’s more interested in exploring what would happen on Earth after most of the humans have left.
Reviewing Options for Immortality
ALAN: I’d never thought of that as an aspect of immortality, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you are quite right.
JANE: Although the technology isn’t always spelled out, I think Larry Niven did an excellent job in exploring some of the consequences of technologically extended longevity in his “Known Space” stories. The stories collected in The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, for example, look at what might happen if organ transplant technology permitted people to live as long as there was a supply of new parts.
Lucas Garner, who provides a touchstone in several of Niven’s “Known Space” stories, is so old that – despite various technological advances that keep him alive, he needs a “float chair” to get around because he’s reached a point where the cells in his spinal cord can’t regenerate anymore. Yet Garner remains full of curiosity – far from the dulled ennui that is so often the default position of technological immortals.
ALAN: Sometimes when the technology is spelled out in detail it can have quite a feeling of plausibility. James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels (1956 – 1962) have protagonists who are essentially immortal. The cities that they live in travel around the universe looking for work. Vast expanses of time are consumed in doing this. But because all the viewpoint characters are immortal, the continuity of the narrative is preserved (along with their lives, of course!) Blish lays the groundwork for this very convincingly.
JANE: You recommended these books a while back and I read them and found them surprisingly fresh. For those of our readers who haven’t had the pleasure, can you explain more?
ALAN: Certainly. The background to the story arc is described in the first novel in the series (They Shall Have Stars) which is made up of two separately published novellas together with some linking material. The original novellas were “Bridge” and “At Death’s End”.
“Bridge” tells of the building of a bridge made of Ice IV on the surface of Jupiter. The measurements taken by the project lead to a mechanism that can manipulate gravity (nicknamed the “spindizzy”), which is eventually used to power the flying cities. “At Death’s End” concerns some pharmaceutical research which culminates in the discovery of “anti-agathic” drugs that prevent aging. The novel goes into great detail about both projects – I seem to recall that the narrative even includes some mathematical equations!
JANE: Another neat thing about these books is that by combining the concepts of spindizzy technology and anti-agathic drugs, Blish was able to write some first class sense of wonder SF, rather than becoming bogged down with problems like overpopulation, unemployment, lack of resources, and all the rest that can really cripple stories where the community, rather than a few individuals, are effectively immortal.
ALAN: Modern scientific opinion suggests that structures in the cells known as telomeres might be involved in the aging process. Perhaps drugs that modify the telomere structure could greatly extend a person’s lifespan? Charles Sheffield used this idea in two novels: Aftermath (1998) and Starfire (1999).
On the surface, the novels are actually disaster stories – Alpha Centauri has exploded in a nova, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all advanced electronics on Earth. The books tell of the efforts involved in recovering from that crisis. However a major plot thread involves several protagonists who have been undergoing advanced medical treatment for cancer. The treatment requires varying doses of special drugs based on careful monitoring of their telomeres. Not only are their cancers now in remission, their bodies also seem to be rejuvenating themselves as well! Maybe immortality is just around the corner.
When the disaster strikes, the equipment they have been using for monitoring their telomeres stops working. They urgently need to find an alternative…
JANE: What I find interesting about this is the double whammy. These people don’t only get a remission from cancer, they get immortality. Is this an immortality they plan to share or are they only in it for themselves?
ALAN: The treatment is so new and experimental that the question hasn’t been examined yet. Selfishly, though perfectly understandably, the few people who have received the treatment are more concerned with their own survival than they are with anything else.
JANE: Hmm… I prefer my SF with more focus on implications.
Another form of technological immortality is immortality by cyborg. Interestingly, the two examples that spring to mind for me combined this with putting the human/computer hybrid into a spaceship. Clifford Simak did this in Shakespeare’s Planet where the ship is handled by not one but three human brains.
Anne McCaffery built a series around the concept with her The Ship Who Sang. The sequels, co-written with a variety of collaborators, expanded the concept beyond spaceships.
ALAN: She considered this to be her best work, the book she was most proud of. I heard her read from it on a couple of occasions. She always chose to read the scene set at the funeral service for the ship’s mortal, human companion. She read it beautifully, though invariably it moved her to tears. And I must confess that I had a little lump in my throat as well as I listened to her. The story packs a very emotional punch.
Closely related to the idea of a cyborg, is the concept of “immortality by upload.” I first came across it in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars where the minds of the inhabitants of the far future city of Diaspar are stored as patterns of information in the city’s Central Computer from where they can be transferred into cloned bodies.
JANE: And it’s been done repeatedly since. I’m sure our readers could supply more current titles.
Whether the immortality is achieved by brain transplant, partial body replacement, or upload the question arises as to how much of the physical body can be removed while still leaving the subject human. In this way, SF adds to the age-old debate as to whether the mind, the “spirit,” or the body is at the core of what makes us what we are.
One of the things that’s interesting about stories that feature immortal characters is that ones like those in the “Cities in Flight” sequence that tackle the idea of entire communities of immortals are comparatively rare. More common are those wherein there is a smaller community of immortals living side-by-side with those who age more “normally.” Often the immortals choose to keep their long lives a secret.
ALAN: Quite right. And these kinds of stories define my third category: those stories in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.
JANE: Let’s extend the lifespan of this topic and deal with this point next time!