Science Fiction Studies

#74 = Volume 25, Part 1 = March 1998

Teresa Mangum

Pangs of Mortality

George Edgar Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin, eds. Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. U Georgia P (800-266-5842), 1996. xvii+243. $40.00 cloth; $20.00 paper.

The chairs were puffy, overstuffed, and swaddlingly comfortable. Old people's chairs. They were the kind of chairs that top-flight furniture designers had begun making back in the 2070s, when furniture designers suddenly realized that very old people possessed all the money in the world, and that from now on very old people were going to have all the money until the end of time. --Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire (1996).

Unlike most reviewers for this journal, I am a relative newcomer to science fiction. My work in what is now called Age Studies, the multi-disciplinary investigation of attitudes, representations, and practices associated with aging and old age, first led me to the essays in Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Given that medical science has been far more successful at sustaining old age than prolonging youth, I surmised that science fiction's fascination with life extension would have inspired intense interest in the aging process. However, notwithstanding exceptions like Brian Aldiss's Greybeard (1964) or Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire, in both this collection and much of the fiction under discussion--as in the paradigmatic anti-aging tale of Peter Pan--writers and critics seem more preoccupied with eternal youth than old age. Still, this intriguing anthology not only surveys the imagined mechanics of achieving and withstanding immortality in science fiction, but also at moments tentatively questions our culture's avoidance of that middle ground between fantasies of perpetual youth and dreams of endless life: the increasingly common reality of a greatly protracted old age.

Following Carl B. Yoke and Donald M. Hassler's anthology Death and the Serpent: Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Greenwood, 1985) and published just after Stephen L. Clark's How to Live Forever: Science Fiction and Philosophy (Routledge, 1995), Immortal Engines emerged from the Fourteenth Annual J. Lloyd Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy, held at the University of California at Riverside in 1992. Literary critics, scientists, a philosopher, and science fiction writers collaborate here "to recontextualize the subject of immortality, continuing to examine its influence as an ancient human aspiration while at the same time considering new scientific advances and their impact on life and literature" (vii). Under the rubrics "Approaches to Immortality," "Science and Immortality," and "Literature and Immortality," the essays illustrate the continuing influence of mythic and religious narratives, chart taxonomies of life extension mechanisms, outline literary genealogies of the long life of immortality as a narrative preoccupation, speculate upon the consequences of immortality to philosophical conceptions of the term "human" as well as to either immortals or mere mortals, and expand the boundaries of immortality narratives by encompassing children's fiction and video games. From the introduction by Eric S. Rabkin to Frank McConnell's final essay "You Bet Your Life: Death and the Storyteller," these essays ponder two questions. First, can a "self" survive immortality (that is, can life extension also sustain individual subjectivity and what is conceived of as its essence, memory)? Second, can immortals evade ennui?

The title and substance of Rabkin's opening, "Immortality: The Self -Defeating Fantasy," form a curiously defeatist beginning. Rabkin equates immortality with hubris, repetition, physical and emotional sterility, and an undesirable annihilation of any sense of individuality. He concludes: "We are changed into objects for the contemplation of others but in the process we lose our very selves. Immortality is a self-defeating fantasy, a desperate defense against death. Finally, who would choose such a neutered eternity?" (xvi). While many of the essays share Rabkin's pessimism, others adventurously approach life extension and immortality narratives from perspectives that temporarily jettison such doubts as the writer considers textual moments of insight or experimentation which productively disturb our assumptions about being and time.

In Part I, "Approaches to Immortality," John Martin Fischer and Ruth Curl's co-written "Philosophical Models of Immortality in Science Fiction" literally charts "A Taxonomy of Immortality" in search of variations which meet both "the identity condition" and the "attractiveness condition" (3). Theirs is a helpful, schematic overview for the newcomer of potential means to an immortal end, including serial lives, mergings of the individual with enduring collective states or beings, cryonics, reproduction, cloning, body transfers, downloading the mind into computers, cyborgs, and time travel. Fredric Jameson's "Longevity as Class Struggle" is one of the most intriguing yet least compatible essays in the collection (not a bad thing), in part because Jameson is more willing than most contributors to treat immortality chiefly as a cover for an alternative, submerged plot. Focusing on George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1921), he locates a narrative dilemma for writers of life extension stories: "How can you show that people have begun to live longer? At what point can longevity become visible in the narrative itself?" (27) While I would suggest that aversion to visceral aging helps explain this narrative insufficiency, Jameson explores the means by which longevity narratives compensate for the unrepresentability of longevity through a process of substitution so that a "longevity plot is always a figure and a disguise for that rather different one which is historical change, radical mutations in society and collective life itself" (34). Fischer and Curl delineate the means to immortality; Jameson counters the menacing tedium of long life by arguing that immortality narratives are always already about culturally specific issues affecting the very much alive.

The essays in Part II, "Science and Immortality," ground desires for immortality in the particulars of distinct scientific arguments or experiments. Steven B. Harris's "The Immortality Myth and Technology" attributes centuries of "mal-resurrection" stories to "fundamentalist reactions to the ambiguities gradually introduced by science" (65), from early Egyptian embalming practices to Frankensteinian grave-robbing and reconstruction to cryonics. In "A Roll of the Ice: Cryonics as a Gamble" Sterling Blake calculates the odds of icy immortality. Neurobiologist Joseph D. Miller's "Living Forever or Dying in the Attempt: Mortality and Immortality in Science and Science Fiction" includes a succinct survey of "what little is known of the biology of aging and death" (81) as well as of potential means of forestalling death: hibernation, excruciating diets, and tampering with hormones, the immune system, or transmitted genes. Most ingeniously, he favors altering the subjective experience of time rather than worrying over one's being in time. Citing Joe Haldeman's Buying Time (1989) as an example, Miller explains: "Objective longevity may still be limited to threescore and ten, but who cares, if the subjective life span could be extended to a thousand years or so by making the biological clock run faster?" (85) Brett Cooke revisits Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (1976) in which Dawkins argued that humans live and reproduce only to serve their genes' immortal imperative to replicate genetic information. He tests this claim against various novels in which genetic replication rather than individual self-preservation is paramount (many of these novels include "seed" in their titles, in odd Dickensian association with the Dr. Seed who is presently attempting to finance a lab for human cloning). With Dawkins, Cooke argues that this biological compulsion has a social counterpart in *memes*, units of mental or cultural information. Like genes, memes survive only if they accrue value and luck into a supportive environment. Memes promise an alternative, collective, cultural, and evolving immortality in preference to infinite individual existence.

Another non-biological means to immortality is, of course, Artificial Intelligence, and Stephen Potts considers responses to the concept of individual identity in light of debates within the Artificial Intelligence community. Citing robotics expert Marvin Minsky's claim that "Minds are simply what brains do," Potts reverses the perception that machines should imitate human consciousness by redefining human mental function as a less efficient version of machine intelligence (fixed, determining laws) responding to random events. However, he too concludes that cyberpunk novels by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, as well as earlier novels by Philip K. Dick and Rudy Rucker, which represent the possibilities of artificial intelligence, eventually stall in android dreams of free will, empathy, and other states of mind marked as human.

The editors save the best for last in this section. N. Katherine Hayles's "How Cyberspace Signifies: Taking Immortality Literally" sails from virtual reality to character, that mainstay of literary realism, inviting readers to cast off the anchoring body in pursuit of new immortal territories. This essay, more than any other in the collection, abandons conventional attachments to the self, to humanness, and consequently to a suspicion of immortality--all of which sustain a nostalgic attachment to *mortality*. Hayles asks a simple question which opens a surprising number of doors: "How might narratives change if mortality were not a fact but an option, an option summoned not merely by a writer's imagination but by pervasive social and material conditions?" (111) She finds answers in William Gibson's trilogy and the idea of cyberspace. Using the example of positron emission tomography or PET, she carefully details how the body and even consciousness undergo transformation into what she calls "embodied virtuality," displacing presence and substituting "the virtuality of information" in its place (114). In a brilliant move, Hayles then turns to a chestnut of formalist literary criticism, "point of view," arguing that in the informational networks of cyberspace, point of view no longer functions as a window offering a view of character; instead, a character--dispossessed of a physical body--is literalized as a point of view. Thus she argues that in cyberspace "literalization flattens differential relations between signifiers that could constitute a distinction between life that is literally alive and life that is simulated metaphorically. Immortality thus happens not only at the level of thematics ... but at the level of signification as well" (116). Machine immortality is achieved when, as in Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), a computer runs continuously, no longer subject to the off switch that hitherto terminated its functions.

In addition, Hayles zeroes in on gender, a topic that is easily if oddly ignored in discussions of immortality but that resists any similar repression for those studying old age. While we routinely hear claims that differences of all kinds are obliterated when bodies are displaced by electronic "points of view," Hayles reminds us that even in cyberspace gender matters: "While men jack in, an expression alluding both to the phallus and to a male electrical fitting, women become receptacles for biocybernetic intrusions" (120). Despite the reinscription of gender dichotomies in this cybernetic immortality, Hayles's version of immortality poses a fundamental challenge to our understanding of continuity: "Once, immortality was represented through metaphor: People were immortal when they were like gods. It is a measure of how far immortality has permeated into the processes of signification that now it is constituted through the opposite trope of literalization: people are immortal when they are literalized into [point of view] and placed in abstract arrays literalized into spaces" (120).

Building upon the array of immortalities offered in this middle section, Part III--on "Literature and Immortality"--moves to a closer consideration of particular texts. The ten essays in this section deserve more detailed attention than space allows. S.L. Rosen again counts the costs of immortality by tracing the "Tithonus Syndrome," which he characterizes as alienation endemic to immortality, through centuries of literature. Barry Crawford's interest in "rogue" narratives, which depends heavily on Biblical allusions, treats feminist science fiction criticism dismissively, despite the fact that one of the most inventive essays in this section is Robin Roberts's "'No Woman Born': Immortality and Gender in Feminist Science Fiction." While Hayles discusses the inscription of gender in discourse, Roberts compares treatments of immortality by men and women writers and finds that in the novels of Alice Sheldon ("James Tiptree, Jr."), Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, and Joan D. Vinge, immortality is divested of either nostalgia or alienation: "Immortality as it is portrayed in science fiction reveals a masculine view that emphasizes the anxieties and stagnation of immortality, and an alternative feminist perspective that defines immortality as a condition that allows change and flexibility" (135). She provocatively argues that these women's novels treat reproductive routes to immortality (including cloning and cyborgian fusions of bodies and machines) as a way "for the feminine power of reproduction to be intensified rather than diminished by technology" (143), a claim that would be interesting to test against a broader spectrum of novels. Other essays in this section broaden the range of texts as well as the reach of immortality: Terri Frongia discusses Italian science fiction, Lynne Lundquist unearths the never-quite-living hence never dead subjects of the popular Victorian children's genre of doll stories, and Gary Westfahl speculates that one can only succeed at video games by embracing electronic mortality and accepting the cycles of reincarnation that permit learning through risk and failure.

Together these essays spin--intelligently though inevitably--through a similar cycle of risk and failure. I confess that I came to the life extension subculture within science fiction expecting a hip high-handedness about such humanist touchstones as Self, Identity, even "the body." I'm bemused to find how mortal many of these responses to immortality are, how tethered the future is in many instances to a very traditional past of myth and religion, how firmly "humanity" still dominates fantasies of infinity. One option would be to embody that humanity more materially by taking life extension as opposed to eternal youth more seriously, a project that would more insistently consider the realities of the world's aging population. Another would be, as Hayles's essay most vividly demonstrates, to concede the body's mortality and embrace the resources of virtuality. Perhaps this anthology, appropriately, performs its most important work as a collection by encouraging readers to consider why we cling to the probably impossible fantasy of immortality when we live with the daily reality of life extension. I opened with an epigram from Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire because I admire the way his novel fuses fantasies of immortality with unsentimental accounts of aging. I return to his novel to conclude with the challenging topic these essays mutually ponder and which I hope science-fiction writers and critics will continue to investigate, the nature of the unnaturalness of prolongevity: "There's no such thing as a genuine normality for a ninety-four-year-old posthuman being. Life extension is just not a natural state of affairs, and it's never going to be natural, and you can't ever make it natural. That's your reality. My reality too."

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