I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
We are just tucking into our Memorial Day barbecue when my mother tells me how my grandmother was not bothered by the idea of growing old. This acceptance of senescence plainly bemuses my mother, who has dyed her hair longer than I likely realize.
My father adds, "When she was about ninety, I asked her what that age was like. She said, ‘I feel seventy.’" From his tone, feeling seventy was clearly a great thing to her.
I have never felt seventy. With some risk management, chemical balance, and relatively clean living, I expect I will, though let that still be a long way off. My seventy will not be my grandmother’s, since she lived through lard sandwiches, tetraethyl lead, nuclear bombs, and constant smoking. My seventy may not be exactly sunny, but it will be different.
On the drive to my brother’s stately house, Amber asked what field of science would best let her contribute to human immortality. We muse the technological, increasingly replacing organic parts with titanium and sensors, but the upper reaches feel unsatisfying. We do not want an artificial intelligence who perfectly copies us, as that is not us. There seems little chance that uploading or neural replacement will be feasible even in an extended lifetime. Amazing things could be done with CRISPR-Cas9, but we seem too squeamish to attempt anything revolutionary despite time being of the essence.
I do not believe that regular exercise, along with modern medicine, will have sufficient impact on my specific longevity, though I am not about to succumb to a high-fructose corn syrup and Candy Crush torpor. Though some quarters of the world are devising ways to keep us healthy, others have only gotten more creative in orchestrating our gradual suicides. We can talk of telomeres and HELA cells, but it doesn’t mean much without follow-through.
Amber pointed out that the first immortal mammal will be a mouse or rat. Lizards and certainly jellyfish (cnidarians, because Amber is precise about her nomenclature) will be of little use to us. There is no sure thing, though she decided to throw her lot in with the biochemists, talking of a foundation headed by a “crazy guy” who believes the first human to live a thousand years had already been born. Finding this too glib, she added that he did his thesis in a protein that regulates allotropic expression of telomeres, in case I thought he was all sound and fury with no significance.
The idea of the human longevity movement if not simply to live longer but to, in Amber’s words, do so in the bodies of twenty-year-olds, so I am a little late for rescue. In small but accumulating ways, I see signs of aging I do not feel (physically and intellectually, I warrant I am in the best shape of my life). I can’t help being disappointed that we as a culture have refused to eradicate all signs of aging long enough to make Amber and me godlike immortals. I either assumed I would have been removed from the board by this point or medical science would be less stingy with the Fountain of Youth.
The former may not be too far off-base. I am not who I was. I have replaced him cell by cell. His life is my series of hazily remembered stories. Someday – seven years from now, according to the conventional wisdom – a new version of me will supplant this shape. He may look at me – my wants and needs, the specifics of my circumstances – with the mix of embarrassment and envy I direct at my predecessor.
Why not have this hard-won wisdom, skill, and acclaim in a perpetually youthful shell thanks to a combination of horrific genetic modification and technology that muddies what it means to be human? Youth is wasted on the young – mine definitely was. Shouldn’t redoes be allowed so I can make the most of the work I need to do?
When, a decade ago, I mused over transhumanism as a means to escape mortality (or improve those years I have), my partner informed me curtly that she would leave me if I ever allowed myself to be modified. At the time, this was a bit like telling me that she would dump me should I become a werewolf, but she was serious. I did not tell her that, given the choice between living forever healthy and remaining with her, she wouldn’t have to be the one to leave. I loved her, but the reality of a massively expanded lifespan and health would be too seductive. I could not choose a nearer, natural death.
From what I have tasted of death, I do not think I will be any good at it.
A few months ago, I donated blood. Only a pint and I moaned as I felt my body struggling to recover. The nurses kept me reclined in the chair, feeling worse than I have felt before absent actual pain, for almost an hour. If this is close to death, I will not face it with courage and dignity, but instead a lot of whining.
The first time I recall facing the fragility of my being was after I had my wisdom teeth extracted. The anesthetist turned up the gas to stop me from arguing that I should get to keep the teeth (“Sure, they are a biohazard, but they are my biohazard.”). I did not dream. It was as though I had been turned off and on again sometime later. I had ceased to exist for the procedure and it was my first evidence that I could go out like a light and would not be reactivated.
If gods exist as more than foci for hopes and stories, I imagine a number of the unselfish ones regard me fondly, but I wouldn’t care to put all my eggs in that basket. I’m too busy trying to thoroughly chew the meal in front of me to ask if this place serves seconds or desserts, but I’d rather linger over this plate until the restaurant closes.
Death – mine, at least – is a source of a sadness so utter that I do not have the words to express it. That said, my actual death doesn’t bother me because I will be too dead to notice. It’s the dying part that worries me, because I am sure not going to go gentle into that good night. A natural death is far off and an unnatural or premature death is not especially likely. I expect I will age between eighty and a hundred years, depending on the rapidity of science, then blow away like a dust bunny, as many billions have before me.
It seems as though the system should be gamed on my behalf, though.
Soon in Xenology: Adventures. Parting and reunion.