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Who Wants to Live Forever

The quest for highly extended or eternal life, in the form of longevity treatments, technological solutions or genetic improvement, has been a staple of science fiction since it started - in fact it’s described by the Science Fiction Encyclopedia as “one of the basic motifs of speculative thought” and can be traced back to speculations about a spring of eternal youth. While occasionally shown as a positive, almost casually accepted, part of society, more often science fiction considers the challenges that would result from changing the fundamental role of population turnover in driving society forward.

Inevitably, a lot has been written on this subject, but I wanted to discuss a few examples that have caught my eye (or sometimes ear) recently. 

Nature vs Nurture

If life is to be extended, in particular healthy and active life, there are only two real possibilities: first a natural anomaly or genetic shift that affects part of or an entire population, and second a technologically derived treatment.

Book cover of Methuselah's Children (NEL 1966).

The first possibility is explored in one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, Methuselah’s Children (1958) and a series of books that follows it. In this narrative a small group of individuals with long-lived grandparents begins selectively breeding for extended life, becoming known as the Howard Families for the benefactor who establishes the project. Within a couple of centuries of inbreeding, lifespans are increased by decades and the families are forced to conceal themselves for fear of negative reactions from those around them. When their existence is revealed, they do indeed face hostility. The basic motivation for this is unsurprising and articulated by a character with a “normal” life span, Slayton Ford: “Death has been tolerable to me only because Death has been the Great Democrat, treating all alike. But now Death plays favourites”.

Ultimately the conviction of the general population that the Howard Families must have some form of artificial longevity treatment (rather than genetic pre-selection) leads to a concerted research effort and the development of just such a treatment. Ultimately, the genetic advantage of natural longevity is superceded by the artificial methodology that is more generally available. Through the series, both the opportunities and ennui associated with extended life spans are explored, together with a variety of other social mores and Heinlein’s perpetual interest in complex family relationships - including a recognition that these would inevitably change over time (e.g. that a single monogamous relationship is perhaps unlikely to endure for centuries).

This relatively rare example can be contrasted against a much larger body of science fiction setting out directly to explore the artificial prolongation of life. In some cases, this is not explored in detail but just used for context - as in the case of the 1970s childrens’ drama Timeslip: Time of the Ice Box, in which longevity research is used as a setting to highlight the clinical logic and potential amorality of scientists. In other cases, such as Walter Besant's 1888 novel The Inner House, the discovery of longevity treatments, the consequences of their existence, and the necessary decisions regarding their deployment form the main theme.

Front cover of Trouble with Lichen (Penguin 1986)

Two examples which I want to highlight are 625Y and Trouble with Lichen. The first of these, 625Y, is a radio play first broadcast in 1999 and written by science fiction dramatist Wally K. Daly (1940-2020). Produced by the BBC, it is occasionally rebroadcast and made available online. The premise here is that an individual in an experimental research lab stumbles across a single genetic switch that controls ageing. Using a simple, cheap and quick treatment, this gene can be turned off in adults, rendering them effectively immortal.

The bulk of the drama focuses on the government reaction to this discovery (suppress it and then repackage it as a ludicrously expensive treatment effectively reserved for a selected elite), and the consequences for the researchers. The reasons given for the suppression in this case aren’t really explored, but are hinted at: the current economic structure isn’t designed for immortality which could easily lead to overpopulation, starvation and chaotic breakdown of the welfare system. Instead there is a theme of who gets to make the decisions regarding a discovery like this: does every individual on the planet have an intrinsic right to extended life?

The same question is asked in Trouble with Lichen (1960), one of John Wyndham’s less well-known books (compared with, say, The Midwich Cuckoos or Day of the Triffids) and one which the BBC has also adapted as a radio dramatised reading which is occasionally repeated online. As the title suggests, the source of the longevity treatment here is a form of lichen, but unlike in 625Y, in this case the treatment is genuinely scarce and expensive. Here the question of who gets to take the treatment is foregrounded - particularly since it was developed in a privately, rather than publicly, funded lab and is successfully kept secret for an extended period.

Mothers of Eternity

One feature that both these texts have in common is that the lead scientist responsible for the discovery is female. 625Y’s Kate Brown is represented as somewhat naive, and determined to spread her discovery for the benefit of all humanity without consideration of possible consequences. Her efforts are undermined by male figures in the government and lab leadership and by the flaws of her fiance. By contrast, Trouble with Lichen’s Diana Brackley is portrayed as more worldly-wise. She is well aware of the possible consequences of her work and makes conscious decisions about where to deploy it.

 While senior women scientists are more prevalent in biological than physical sciences, the focus here interests me. A long-recognised trope in science fiction studies is the association of women with motherhood (and more generally life-giving or creation). In science fiction, horror and similar contexts, this is expressed as a perversion of natural procreation and traditional feminine roles. Either women are the shown as the subject of scientific experimentation, alien impregnation or similar, or they are shown as suppressing “natural” femininity by pursuing a career which leads to “unnatural” procreation in some form. That’s the case here, although in both cases the goal of the women is to enhance life for others.

In spite of the generally negative connotations of this association, both pieces can be read as generally feminist texts. In 625Y this is something of a subtext, with a female reporter as the narrative voice who provides the only entirely positively-represented character in the story except for the somewhat-naive scientist Kate. By contrast, men are shown to be susceptible to corruption, power-hunger, selfishness, violence and organised crime.

In Trouble with Lichen the feminist theme is more overt and is discussed in detail. Protagonist Diana is questioned by her parents and others over her career choices, and the value of her competence is initially questioned on the basis of her looks. Faced with a very limited supply of the antigerone treatment, she opts to open a beauty clinic and treat only powerful women in order to allow them to maintain and widen their influence over powerful men. As a character notes:

"We’re married to four Cabinet Ministers, three other ministers, two bishops, three earls, five Viscounts, a dozen blue-chip companies, half a dozen Banks, twenty-three members of the Government, eight members of the Opposition, and lots of others. In addition we have close relations which are not quite marital with a lot of Influences."

The ultimate result of a quest for immortal beauty: Lady Cassandra O'Brian in Doctor Who.Both this approach and its success is a telling commentary both on the value that typical men place on older women conforming to unrealistic expectations regarding their appearance, and on feminine forms of power which can (and sometimes must) be exercised by proxy rather than directly. A similar and more satirical view of what must be sacrificed in pursuit of immortal "beauty" is also presented by Doctor Who's Lady Cassandra ("The End of the World", 2005; "New Earth", 2006) - while claiming to be the last human, surviving long after her peers, she is reduced to nothing more than a pampered sheet of skin which needs constant maintainance for its survival. This is very different from the effortless and apparently natural beauty of Lichen's women, but strikingly Cassandra wields power in her own right, although she still depends on men-folk for validation - needing to hear that she remains beautiful.

Who wants to live forever? 

Setting aside the gender commentary, it is interesting to consider the representation of longevity on the larger scale. English has a number of sayings which begin with the assertion that “life is too short”. Indeed, Lichen’s protagonist Diana is motivated to extend her treatment to women by the observation that “this is the world we have to live in. There’s so very much that’s wrong with it, but then life is so short that the best anyone can do is to come to terms with it while doing her best to preserve her own standards”. Wyndham has her articulate her view: “We simply cannot afford to go on any longer attaining wisdom only half a step before we achieve senility. We need the time to acquire wisdom that we can use to clear up the mess.”

 Longevity treatments have the potential to remove this complaint. So just why is immortality shown as such a poisoned chalice in science fiction? This will vary slightly from context to context, but broadly speaking, there are key issues to be faced by any society in which life is prolonged:

 The first of them is demographic. Unless the treatment is anti-geriatric (i.e. adults remain unaging and healthy) then the number of dependent retirees will rise rapidly, presenting an unsupportable burden on society. By contrast, unless it is anti-procreative (i.e. suppressing fertility) then the overall population will rise, rapidly outstripping resources including food, work and living space. If both of these conditions are met, then the overall population may remain stable, but would social structures also survive? Without children or elders to support, traditional family structures are weakened. With suppressed procreation, the society would also become vulnerable to catastrophic disasters including pandemics which would reduce the overall population. Career structures may also have to change, with many individuals unlikely to be content with the same job for decades or centuries, particularly if that job has low social status or job satisfaction. The end state of such a change was anticipated as early as 1888 in The Inner House by Walter Besant - here an immortal society has murdered its elders to reduce demographic pressure, and rare children are only permitted to replace accidental deaths. Property has been eliminated, and all the people are fed and work the same hours under the dictat of a technocracy. As a result, love, art, family and faith are all shown to have withered and died.

The stable, long-lived population envisaged in The Inner House and other similar scenarios gives rise to an equally important problem: stagnation and associated ennui. Would the adult population be receptive to lifelong-learning, or would those attitudes, skills, preferences and choices formed during their (increasingly-distant) childhood become fixed? If the latter, would creativity, discovery and innovation suffer as the culture stagnates? Some science fiction authors (notably Isaac Asimov in A Choice of Catastrophes, 1980) have questioned whether the stagnation which comes with advanced age is a mere societal construct that would be overcome, but others, like Besant, have been less optimistic, foreseeing torpor and a crippling risk aversion that stifles action. The reverse could also be problematic. If continued learning became the norm, would the constant drive to try new things in a sequence of long careers lead to overwhelming frustration with their current situation or a careless ennui, particularly in resource poor societies with little social or economic mobility? If so, there might be a drive toward thrill-seeking and new environments. Examples of long-lived aliens who choose to dabble in the affairs of shorter-lived races for their own amusement include certain Time Lords and the Eternals in Doctor Who and the Q-Continuum in Star Trek. While such dabbling can be benign, it is seldom shown that way - particularly given an assumption in much science fiction that long life is associated with advanced abilities or technologies leading to a power imbalance between players and playthings.

The rejection of Highlander's Conor McCloud by his fiance, clan and even minister of the church.In the Highlander films and television series (starting with Highlander in 1986) rare individuals are born with the ability to survive normally-lethal injuries. In each case, they find themselves forced out by friends and family (see image to the right) and must conceal their nature. While the premise here is based in fantasy rather than science, the questions posed in the series are valid ones: if longevity was restricted to just a few, would they face hostility, ostracism and be forced to conceal their nature?

This certainly appears plausible (and is also seen in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children). Perhaps more importantly, would it even be desirable to live on when friends and family had shorter lifespans? Both Highlander's Connor MacLeod and Doctor Who's Ashildr (a viking woman given eternal life by the Doctor) experienced profound loss as their loved ones aged and passed, and such would be inevitable in a society with mixed longevity.

in the words of the Queen song written for the original Highlander film, memorably sung by Freddie Mercury: Who wants to live forever, when love must die?

"Who wants to live forever", Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog, 11th July 2021