by Robert R. Chase
Science fiction stories tend to play an infinite set of variations on ideas of greater or less plausibility. Faster than light travel is one of the most cherished, but though theoretical work on an Alcubierre Drive offers some intriguing possibilities, and I have enjoyed playing with some of them in this set of stories, I must bet against the chances of ever getting such a device to work.
On the other hand, physical immortality, such as the Eternals have in “The Offending Eye” [on sale now], seems increasingly possible. No basic law of the universe so far discovered prohibits it. Advances in biology, especially in understanding the workings of our genetic code, seems to make it increasingly likely that any “kill code” can be discovered and disabled, and that flaws caused by wear and tear can be repaired.
Why then do we have so few stories of societies in which everyone is immortal? Even in tales in which our heroes hop around the Galaxy, it is usually just a given that people grow old and die. I think the reason is that when we give the matter serious consideration, we realize that such societies are in the long term extremely problematic.
You may object that a life in which you cannot drive a car (or swim in the ocean, or rock climb) is not worth living. Beyond that, you may recognize that society needs a certain number of people who take risks for the society to continue.
I posit that in societies where the members want to live forever, they must become cowards. Or let’s just say, extremely risk averse. If I drive in a safe manner, even though there are thousands of auto deaths every year, the likelihood that I will die in an auto accident is miniscule. But the longer I drive, the more likely it becomes that I will become involved in a fatal accident. If I want to live forever, I must somehow reduce that risk to zero, either by reducing the speed limit to five miles per hour or getting rid of cars completely.
You may object that a life in which you cannot drive a car (or swim in the ocean, or rock climb) is not worth living. Beyond that, you may recognize that society needs a certain number of people who take risks for the society to continue. Explorers, firemen, soldiers all run such risks. If Eternals will not perform these jobs, they will need non-Eternals to do so.
So now you have a society with a small elite of Eternals and a larger mass of non-Eternals who do the dangerous work of keeping things running. You have a society that can afford to increase its population slowly if at all to keep it from exceeding its resources. While you can offer the carrot of immortality to your risk takers, you can give it to only a few.
This sounds to me like an inherently unstable situation. In fact, I can imagine only two outcomes for such a society. Either it dissolves in civil war of the haves against the have-nots, or it petrifies into a rigid hierarchy like that of ancient Egypt in which everyone knows his place and no change is permitted. Neither sounds like a society in which I would like to live. Both sound like societies that could inspire interesting stories. And maybe we actually need more stories dealing with these possibilities. Some of you reading this may have to deal with the reality.