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Ways of not dying in science fiction

By / October 4, 2016 / no comments

When I wrote about Zero K recently, I said that avoidance of death was one of the key themes that runs through the entire history of science fiction. So I thought it would be fun to look at some of the ways of not dying you can find in science fiction.

ExcessionActually, the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks serve as a sort of catalogue of ways to avoid death. There’s the simple way of just not dying: there’s one character in The Hydrogen Sonata who is around 10,000 years old. But that’s the exception. You might have your entire personality recorded through a neural lace and then downloaded into a newly-grown body when you die, as in Matter. Or, a variation on this, you might have clones grown ready to receive your personality if you die, as in Look to Windward. Or you might have your personality stored aboard a GSV, so it can be revived for consultation or restored to a new body at a later date, as in Excession. Also in Excession there’s a character who has been pregnant for over 40 years, and if there is that sort of stasis for the foetus it is surely possible for an adult also. And of course there’s the option of being translated to a higher state of being, or subliming as it is called in the novels, though this tends to be something done by an entire society.

Brittle InningsLet’s go back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the human experiments conducted by young Dr Frankenstein weren’t intended to create a monster, but to extend life. And it seems to have worked, at least to judge by the way the creature is still alive in 1940s America playing baseball in Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings.

In fact, most medical research, in reality as much as in science fiction, is aimed at increasing the human lifespan. So that by the time we get to Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson can keep his cast of characters engaged throughout the long, slow process of terraforming in Red Mars and its sequels simply by declaring that they have benefitted from longevity treatment.

The Forever WarOf course, rather than finding ways to extend life, maybe we can just find ways to dodge death. In a sense, that is what cryogenics does in Don DeLillo’s Zero K: store the body until someone else discovers the cure that could restore you to life. But if you can be stored that way to avoid death, then you can be stored that way to avoid the tedium of a long journey. So all those stories that feature travel between the stars in suspended animation are variations on the theme of using cryogenics to avoid death. When you add in relativity effects, as in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, for example, then we see this whole idea as a sort of slow motion time travel, taking you far enough into the future that there probably is a cure for what ails you. And even if the soldiers don’t live forever, they certainly live for centuries beyond their contemporaries.

Permutation CityVersions of cryogenics can keep you alive (in one sense, at least) for hundreds of years, but you skip across those centuries without any awareness of them. Since computers started to become commonplace, we’ve discovered another way of crossing time and being aware of the scenery, a new place where we can live forever, inside a digital universe. Thus in books from Greg Egan’s Permutation City to Iain M. Banks’s Feersum Endjinn, death is just the gateway to a new form of existence, one in which there are things to see, things to do, that are largely shaped by our own consciousnesses.

The downside is (if you choose to see it as a down side) that if we are reduced to a series of 1s and 0s inside a computer, then we can be duplicated, perhaps an infinite number of times, as we see, for instance, in the later sections of Accelerando by Charles Stross.

The Years of Rice and SaltAll of these are modern technological ways of avoiding death, but what if the world’s religions had it right? We might, upon death, simply be reborn, possibly in this world as some of the Eastern religions have it, as for instance in The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson; or possibly in another world, like the endless riverbank in Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

The Mortal ImmortalOr perhaps we might simply achieve immortality, a consistent theme in science fiction from Mary Shelley’s The Mortal Immortal to Kate Wilhelm’s Welcome, Chaos to Brian Stableford’s six-volume Emortality sequence beginning with Inherit the Earth. The trouble is, there is practically no story about immortality that does not present it in a negative light: loneliness, boredom, isolation all come into the picture. As if death is itself quite a welcome choice.

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