by Julie Novakova
What would you do if you could live forever? I recently got into a debate on the personal consequences of immortality with a friend of mine. For me, seeking change and novelty seemed natural; after all, if you stack in years after years, don’t you become bored with things that remain the same? For him, almost the opposite rang true—he imagined perfecting one art and yourself with it. Meditating, getting to know yourself deeply, and becoming better still through it. I found it interesting. If taking these approaches to the extremes, you would find running from yourself on one end, and contemplating yourself on the other.
What would most people choose—deliberately or not—if given the chance to become immortal?
Immortality is by far not a new topic in speculative fiction. Already in its roots such as myths or fairy tales, we see immortal beings of all kinds. We’ve got countless depictions of vampires, elves, ghosts, gods, and demigods each dealing with eternal life in their own way. Some struggle because of loss, boredom, or on the other hand unwelcome change; some simply “enjoy the ride”; some are as constant as Earth revolving around the Sun; some experience personality shifts to the extent where they practically become a new being. In popular culture, I especially liked the different takes on immortality in Doctor Who—the Doctor him/herself, Jack Harkness, Lady Me . . . Each represents a different way to deal with eternity, and each also possesses a different kind of “immortality”—the ability to regenerate into another person retaining the previous one’s memories, indestructibility, and eternal youth and health, but with the potential to succumb to deadly injury.
Karel Čapek, the legend of early Czech science fiction, tackled the topic in his play The Makropulos Affair with a rather pessimistic outlook—his immortal became bored and jaded, but still longed to retain her centuries-old youth. We see this pattern often, especially with immortals surrounded by mortals and lacking a clear goal to dedicate the centuries to. (Even Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged’s decision to offend every single creature in the Galaxy kind of works.) If only a handful of the rich and powerful are given immortality, we usually see it play out like in Altered Carbon and get a good old-fashioned dystopia, or we get beings such as the Q toying with the lives of those short-lived, insect-like humans.
But what if it didn’t have to be this way? In “The Gift” [in the current issue on sale now], I tried to imagine what would happen if we were given the gift of immortality (or rather not aging—you could still be killed) by an envoy probe from another civilization. Would we finally have more motivation to pursue long-term goals and venture further into space? Would it enable interstellar colonization? And, out of the vast amounts of people having become immortal, how many would actually choose to continue their lives after a few centuries? Wouldn’t it take a special kind of person to simply go on without serious doubts? Sure, there would be ways how to rewire yourself and make doubt, boredom, grief, sadness or other feelings easily go away—but still, who would be most inclined to peruse them?
In short—wouldn’t we get an unusually high percentage of psychopaths among the oldest ones?
Immortals playing games against each other are nothing entirely new (just think of the Olympian gods); but in this case, what’s at stake is not just personal. Some of the characters had turned to scientific exploration as a way to meaningfully pass their time, and their discoveries may finally shed some light on the alien probe that had given humanity its strange gift. That may be something to engage even very different immortals for a long, long time.
It may not feel the same for everyone, but for me, science perhaps best represents this worthy pursuit. It never ends: there are always more questions to answer. It’s a source of unceasing curiosity, and perhaps that’s why I studied biology, meddled amateurishly in planetary science, and always wished to be able to understand more scientific fields. When I was little, it seemed to me from encyclopedias and textbooks that nearly everything had already been discovered and that we’ve got the “final knowledge.” Luckily, I found out pretty soon that when one question is answered, several others usually spring up. True, we know Jupiter’s mass and size, its orbit, thermal emissions, and so on very well, but what of the planet’s inner structure and composition, processes taking place deep inside it, creating its breathtaking atmospheric events, or its magnetic field? How exactly did it migrate early on when the Solar System was still young, and what can it tell us about exoplanets and vice versa? Is it very carbon-rich? What did its major moons look like soon after formation? We have many hypotheses but few reliable answers—all the more exciting is the quest after them, with Earth-based research as well as probes such as NASA’s Juno. Someone may perhaps say that it doesn’t matter, that it’s not practical—but technological civilization has stemmed from discoveries that initially weren’t practical! Besides, wouldn’t you just want to know?
That’s just a random example—but it hopefully illustrates my point. We never run out of sources of scientific pursuit. There’s always something to tantalize our curiosity and imagination (don’t know about you, but I like to imagine planets’ insides). And while the process of getting answers may be tortuous and painstakingly long, well, it may not be great for people striving to get their PhDs or finish grants in time, but it would suit an immortal looking to pass the decades and centuries.
As one of the characters in “The Gift” says: “It surpasses us. . . . it’s something vastly bigger than us. I think it’s the only thing I can appreciate after the centuries of human trifles. I’m bored by it. Bored by petty fights and intrigues, bored by risking and gambling, bored by relationships, by culture, by everything. It fades and only leaves a bad palate. I’ve shifted toward things that have been here for eons, and will be here eons after we perish. That’s what’s really interesting. It lasts.”
While probably few of us can imagine life without the “human trifles” that often ground us in reality and make us who we are, things existing on much longer timescales may have their special appeal to immortals. There would still be something more glacial and more ancient than their own lives, and such a thought could be soothing and tantalizing at the same time.
I won’t lie; I would welcome immortality personally, especially if it involved perfect health and resilience, but not total indestructibility (millennia may seem great; trillions of years probably less so). So much time ahead to investigate the world, write stories, travel, learn more languages, become an expert in more scientific fields. . . . There’s so much to do, and time runs so fast. But I would dread the effect on society and civilization. Humanity in “The Gift” got off lightly. Its future seems bright—although, as Antonio Arienti points out in the story, the dangers may not be over yet.
We are not immortal. We have no idea how much time in the world we get to enjoy before it’s over. It may be scary, but we should be all the more motivated to make the best of it. So make art. Conduct scientific research. Be curious. Read stories. Learn new languages. And you never know . . . perhaps, one day, it won’t be too late for eternity.