Sunday, 9 August 2015

Would you want to live forever?

Would you want to live forever? Really?

It's a question that looms large in science fiction and fantasy, as in the recent film Self/Less, a remake of a much better film called Seconds.

Both films address the same issue: if you were aging and could place your personality into a younger model, would you? In such a way you could potentially live forever, or at least for a very long time.

Seconds is much more interesting on this psychological question, as the protagonist by the end decides he doesn't want to be younger, as he doesn't fit in - an older man in a young mans' body. There is a massive generation gap between who he is on the inside and who everyone sees on the outside, and he can't bear it, so he asks to be transformed back (not a good idea, as it turns out).

One aspect I think the remake does do better is that the new version feels different, younger again, because his body is younger. Which brings another issue to mind: living forever is not much fun if you're too old - in mind or body - to enjoy it. When we're young we feel so, and there are hormones racing around our bodies to remind us, and we are full of plans and bucket lists of things to do, whereas when we age, everything slows down... It can feel as if your future is behind you.

So, there are really two questions:

Could you live forever? 
Would you want to?

The first is really a question of science. Our minds are in our brains, and are electrical discharges between billions of neurons. One day someone will replicate it, or find a way to simulate it that is good enough. The acid test will then be like a variant of the Enigma Question (can we distinguish between a robot and a real person?) The corresponding question becomes - if we are frequently regenerated, or stored in a succession of physical 'vessels', do we still feel like we are the same person?
In the recent remake of the Battlestar Galactica series, certain 'models' are continuously regenerated (resurrected, cloned), but each one has a distinctive personality that lives and dies; their memories are not the same. Perhaps this means our personality is a string of memories - which suggests 'we' should ultimately be 'codable'. [There is the question of the 'soul', but I leave that to more ambitious blogs.]

Of course, forever is a long time. Various science fiction authors have explored even medium term life extensions. Isaac Asimov, in his science fiction detective series with Daneel as the robot detective, he finds humans living on a planet where they each live several hundred years. The individuals live remote from one another, with little social interaction, they get married for a few decades then separate, and tend to live alone. Pessimistic? Is it? How long do our passions last, whether for particular people or for an activity or interest? Could we stay married to the same person for half a millennia? Stay in the same career?

Frank Herbert (via his son Brian Herbert) had Dune's Titans live for thousands of years, eventually putting their brains into large almost invincible robots, so they could terrorize the galaxy and try to rule it, which they did for a while before they were undone.

In the Stargate series people who have done everything else and reach a certain intellectual maturity 'ascend' to a higher plane, giving up what Star Trek DS9 called 'corporeal' existence. Again, the idea seems to be that to get to our most advanced level, we need to give up our bodies rather than keep replacing them.

Other Scifi series such as Babylon 5 have ancient aliens who are very, very old. The principle in Scifi is usually that such ancient beings will also be very smart, and not be threatened in any serious way by anyone else. They are usually portrayed as being very zen and enigmatic. But what keeps them going? Why get out of bed for the millionth time?

Returning to Asimov, in his later Foundation books he referred to the Gaia principle, that some very advanced alien beings, who presumably had tried everything else, merged with planets,  surrendering their consciousness to nature.

In Eden's Revenge and Eden's Endgame there are alien characters called the Kalarash, who are literally billions of years old. Two of them, Kalaran and Hellera, have been exploring various galaxies and nurturing the development of life there. However, Hellera is already considering its futility, as she points out to Pierre in this extract from Eden's Revenge where she gives him a history lesson, showing our own galaxy's history:

The swirl of stars turned slowly about its axis. Time. She was showing him time speeded up at an incredible rate. He calculated the galaxy’s rate of turn and converted it – a million years per second. Nothing happened for a while, then a spark flared in a spiral then snuffed out, signifying a civilisation flourishing and fading into obsolescence and extinction. Several more peppered the display, each one barely registering before fading. For a few seconds, an entire spiral waxed red, and then thousands of star systems glowed violet, indicating a terrible and all-consuming war, then faded to black, a few star systems hanging on before reverting to grey, indicating their civilisations and grand empires had decayed into oblivion.

            And so it continued. He worked out where Earth was, and kept half an eye on it, but knew that at this rate of time lapse it would not even show up as having produced sentient life and civilisation. Then a swelling ring of stars lit up around the inner hub, inward from the spirals, flickered precariously, and remained bright. The Grid. The interstellar highway that had fuelled and cemented a galactic society. It lasted a full ten seconds, rippling out to most of the spirals, then froze. Today.

            He wanted more. “Hellera, can you fast-forward, please, most likely prediction.”

           The stars all returned to their silver-grey pinpricks, all civilisation extinguished, and then the galaxy split apart, shattered into myriad motes losing cohesion, imploding, becoming dust, the dark matter and energy forces that bind a galaxy together depleted. Just like before, Pierre thought, according to the legends of the war two billon years ago in the Jannahi galaxy when the Kalarash last joined battle against Qorall.

Pierre sat back. She had asked him to say what he understood, but the shock of knowing the likely end numbed him.  

Hellera spoke. “The time between enduring civilisations is very long. You should know this from your own history – four billion years – and humanity has only evolved in the last couple of million, the beginnings of civilisation just dawning before almost being erased.”

She stood. “We Kalarash get terribly lonely in those times of darkness. We see the same mistakes over and over again.”

Pierre sensed the despair of a goddess whose children were forever doomed.

The likely reality, however, is that even immortal beings may still fear death, because though they have lived very long lives, death is eternal, the ultimate singularity. In Eden's Endgame, another ancient alien, Qorall, seeks revenge on the Kalarash. This takes a new twist, because these very ancient beings are suddenly under real threat, and so are 'mortal' just as we are, even if incredibly long-lived. One of them, Kalaran, knows he may well die, and despite having lived for so long, realises he may not be quite ready to give up life just yet, as we find in this exchange between him and Hellera, just before he joins battle with Qorall in our galaxy:

In Kalaran’s judgment there was no such thing as a good day to die. And yet here he was, about to challenge Qorall, one-on-one. As a Kalarash, he felt responsible; when they’d first come across Qorall, he had been an outsider from a backwater sector of the universe, Level Eighteen, an incredible find, a prodigy. They’d taken him in, and Kalaran and the others had helped him advance. Only Hellera had urged caution, but she’d been over-ruled. That had already cost them their home galaxy, and although there were plenty of galaxies around, Kalaran wasn’t going to let it happen again. Even so, it wasn’t easy after two billion years of sentience to contemplate one’s own demise. It wasn’t simply about ego, either; how do you sacrifice for the higher good when you are the higher good?

His plan had been running in the background for millennia. He had been the only one of the seven remaining Kalarash that had developed a contingency plan in case Qorall had survived the last war, the others believing him dead. Unfortunately, Qorall’s onslaught had been far more vicious than anticipated, with many new weapons, and a base that seemed impregnable. High stakes required bold moves, and Kalaran accepted that at the end of the day, the Kalarash weren’t Gods, weren’t permanent fixtures in the universe, they were just players in the game who had a limited time like everyone else, just longer than most. Still, it was difficult to make his final move knowing he wouldn’t be there to see how the game ended.  

His ship held the full spectrum of weapons, from molecular scramblers and subspace mines to dark-energy disruptors and star-imploders, but when fighting an equal, the small stuff didn’t count. Both his and Qorall’s ships had vastly resilient immune systems capable of identifying and rejecting invasive organics. It came down to who hit the hardest and the smartest. And in Kalaran’s case, just how much he was willing to sacrifice.

His ship punched into the system where the Xera homeworld was in the process of resurrection. Qorall had flooded the sector with liquid space rendering it a ghostly green. Four of Kalaran’s allies – Ukrull, Pierre, Jen and Dimitri – remained in play. He vowed to get them out before the battle got too hot. He trimmed his ship’s shields and drives to adapt to the liquid space properties that would otherwise leach power from his weapons.

Six Level Sixteen Nchkani vessels took up position at the outer edge of the system. Kalaran held a tinge of admiration for their design, there was a certain panache about them – obsidian ovoids festooned with feather-like spines, each holding a dizzying arsenal. But the Nchkani were only Level Sixteen, and did not yet possess the ability to manipulate gravity, unlike the Tla Beth, whom they aimed to replace if Qorall won.

It was never easy to kill a species he’d helped evolve over millions of years, but the Kalarash always squashed rebellions, one of their few rules. He dispatched a gravity weapon Qorall knew well enough but was unheard of in this galaxy, a Hell-Class weapon he’d not used for aeons, and had once argued should be banned. But the rules of war were bound only by three factors: the laws of physics, ingenuity and sheer force of will. He had to send a message. Besides, the weapon had a side-effect that fitted his plan. Kalaran watched, knowing any Nchkani caught by it were already dead, their short ten thousand year lifespans about to be snuffed out.

The net, a purple veil, fluoresced through space as it sped toward the ships. Three of the captains had the sense to jump their ships out of the system. The other three separated but were sucked back together. As the net closed around them, first their spines crumbled, melting like wax, then the hulls cracked apart, spilling their occupants into a gravity gradient that pulverised them. A torrent of explosions erupted in a spasmodic and futile fit of rage, then all three ships melded into a ball, becoming smaller, harder, silent; a uniform brown speck that flashed crimson, a stunning bloom of what humans called Hawking radiation, before collapsing into a pin-prick black micro-singularity.

A communiqué arrived from Qorall. That was unexpected. It said <Leave>, meaning quit the galaxy. Qorall wanted Hellera, in order to build the foundation, his progeny.

Not going to happen.

Hellera contacted him from the other side of the galaxy, her ship inside the nebula sheltering the Tla Beth homeworld. Accessing her sensors he saw dark worms and Nchkani ships swarm.

“I should be there, with you, Kalaran. Together we stand a better chance.”

“If the Tla Beth fall, other species will surrender to Qorall. And if you come here and we lose, Qorall will be unstoppable. Once he conquers this galaxy, he’ll go after the rest of the Kalarash.”

Several nano-seconds slipped past, a long pause for Hellera. “These humans. You still believe they are important.”

“A required catalyst.”

“I’ve been in their heads; chaos and conflict.”

“Sometimes they’re happy for a fleeting moment.”

“An illusory and pathetic state we abandoned a billion years ago, with good reason.”

“Do you remember, though? You and I were happy once.”

Again, several nanoseconds pause.

“I remember.”

“I have to go now, Hellera. Is all in place?”

“Of course. Are you sure about this, Kalaran?”

“Never surer, Hellera.”

“Then do it.” She broke the connection.    

Two billion years alive. As the human Jen would say, he’d had a good run for his money. Kalaran readied his ship. Its ten kilometre-long outer hull shifted from its usual scarlet and green hues to a deep blue, except for a single ivory ankh, the sign of the Kalarash. His ship sprang towards Qorall’s, and opened fire. 

The Kalarash didn't start out as naturally ancient beings. They evolved over hundreds of millennia and ultimately merged with hyper-advanced semi-organic ships to travel the galaxy.

This brings us to a conundrum. Motivation is something that comes from our organic nature, rather than our purely intellectual faculties. It is not so easy to 'hard-code' motivation. And a collection of memories, after all, is just that; there is something else we haven't figured out yet. The conundrum, or paradox, is that if we could find a way to extend our lifetimes, we might have to do so by relying more on technology, which might mean we lose the motivational element that is so important, that helps us seek and find a reason to exist. The two questions - can we live forever, and would we want to - are inextricably linked.

One final parting shot on this one. In the Eden Paradox series, particularly the last two books (Revenge and Endgame), there are many races that have significantly extended lifetimes, e.g. thousands to tens of thousands of years, a few extending to millions. But the longer they live, the less there are of them. The closer you get to being immortal, the less you reproduce. In the books, this is not an issue of long-lived aliens not wanting to have sex, rather that sex is no longer effective, the price they pay for effective immortality. As Pierre finds out, there are only seven Kalarash. There will never be any more.  

The Eden Paradox Series:

The Eden Paradox - where we find out we are not alone
Eden's Trial - where we are put on trial for our very existence
Eden's Revenge - where it gets personal
Eden's Endgame - where the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance


  1. The answer is YES! I'd want to live forever. Never mind that whole not fitting in with the younger crowd thing, who says you can't have a younger body and still hang with your mental age group? (Also, presumably, I wouldn't be the only one doing this so there would be a club of sorts I could spend time with.)

    The world changes so fast now I can't see myself ever getting bored, and I really want to know if we develop FTL. I want to walk on another world and I can't see that happening in my lifetime so I'm going to just have to hang around. Also, since it won't do to have a body broken by age, yeah, I'm going to say I'd need some kind of regeneration tech (though I think "transferring bodies" has the same issue as the Star Trek transporter. The thing on the other end is a copy of you, the real you dies in the process, I'd think.)

    To get serious for a minute, I've poked my nose around this concept before. There is research pointing to the development of genetic and nanotechnology that will extend our lives out to hundreds of years, or possibly forever. While reading about anti-sene technology I came across the question of how much storage space your brain has, I believe the answer was about 2,000 years' worth, but I don't remember the source so I can't cite it. In any case, even if 2k years is the limit, I'd want to do it, just to see where humanity goes.

  2. A good answer, I like the idea of an immortal club! Also interesting on brain memory limits. Maybe nanotechnology could help there, or provide a back-up storage system like the Cloud. Certainly tempting to stick around to see how it develops...


© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot