Live Long and Whatever
by James Patrick Kelly
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Do you use drugs? Of course you do!
According to a 2017 Consumers Report study www.consumerreports.org/prescription-drugs/too-many-meds-americas-love-affair-with-prescription-medication/#nation, more than half of all Americans take multiple prescription drugs on a regular basis. In fact, four different prescriptions are the average. Our consumption of these drugs has increased 85 percent in the last twenty years, courtesy of Big Pharma www.rationalwiki.org/wiki/Big_Pharma and its relentless marketing. Do all of these drugs work? No. Are some of them unnecessary? Absolutely. Americans spend an estimated two hundred billion dollars every year on unnecessary or improper medication. There is little doubt that the prescription drug industry has many problems related to utility, side effects, cost, and availability.
But say you’re the odd case like me—knock on wood!—and don’t normally need prescription drugs. Well, I often have recourse to over-the-counter medications, and I’ll bet you do, too. Painkillers, cold and sore throat remedies, vitamins, skin care products, hay fever products, herbal remedies, medicated eye care products, laxatives, sleep aids, medicated foot care products, hemorrhoid remedies—any of these in your medicine cabinet www.realsimple.com/health/first-aid-health-basics/medicine-cabinet/essential-medicine-cabinet? Consumer Reports claims that 75 percent of Americans take at least some over-the-counter drug regularly. For example, I reach for the bottle of melatonin www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-melatonin/art-20363071 as a sleep aid whenever a sensational idea for a story jolts me out of a sound slumber at 2 am or when I fly across multiple time zones to science fiction conventions. Our minor complaints are many and there are multinational corporations eager to address our symptoms, or at least evoke the placebo effect.
Science fiction writers make a living extrapolating the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs to their potential limits, but the future of medicinal drugs does not often suggest compelling story ideas, at least not to your columnist. Maybe that’s because I’ve never understood the appeal of the medical shows on TV, like Grey’s Anatomy www.abc.go.com/shows/greys-anatomy or House www.youtube.com/channel/UCXAi-pPpdtc9uxU39E-PBEQ or E.R. https://er.fandom.com/wiki/ER_wiki, despite their long and distinguished runs. Their success has not often been duplicated in our genre, save perhaps for James White’s Sector General series www.alanjchick.wordpress.com/james-whites-sector-general-series, which began in 1962 and continued until White’s death in 1999. These stories and novels were all set on a hospital in space, but were as much about humans interacting with colorful aliens as they were about medicine. So while drugs might provide an interesting jumping off point for a science fiction plot, they can’t easily carry one, absent other extrapolations.
With one enormous exception. What if there was some way to treat the ultimate disease?
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It’s a dream as old as consciousness. Some 4500 years ago, Gilgamesh www.stmuhistorymedia.org/gilgamesh-the-search-for-immortality wondered why we must die and what he could do about it. Some religions have offered the promise of an afterlife www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-history/history-afterlife-meaning-what-happens-when-we-die. However, the nature of such an existence is uncertain at best. As Hamlet puzzled in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-does-this-quote-from-hamlet-mean-an-114259, it’s “an undiscovered country from whose bourne no travelers return.”
Then there are those who seek immortality in this world, chasing miraculous and mythical cures. The Fountain of Youth https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_of_Youth, a spring of indeterminate location, was first mentioned by the ever-credulous Herodotus www.ancient.eu/Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE; its modern fame derives from Ponce de Leon https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-juan-ponce-de-leon-2136435, who searched fruitlessly for it while exploring Florida and expropriating lands from the region’s indigenous peoples www.keyshistory.org/histindians.html. Follow in his footsteps at the slightly kitschy theme park tribute to his folly at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park www.fountainofyouthflorida.com. Or consider the fabled Elixir of Life www.huffpost.com/entry/elixirs-of-life-a-history_b_59496f6de4b07e2395ce1007, called by a thousand different names by seekers from Asia across to Europe. Alchemists www.alchemywebsite.com from a variety of cultures believed that not only would it impart immortality, but it would also heal all diseases.
These and other fantastical cures still inspire writers. For instance, Ayesha, the title character of H. Ryder Haggard’s www.online-literature.com/h-rider-haggard pulp classic She www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3155, achieved immortality through immersion in the Spirit of Life—bathing in magic fire rather than water. Or the Roman soldier Marcus Flaminius Rufus, who drank from the river of the City of Immortals, in Jorge Luis Borges’s www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/jorge-luis-borges “The Immortal” www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/The_Immortal_(short_story).
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In fact, fiction about living forever has been with us for centuries. In 1726 Jonathan Swift www.bl.uk/people/jonathan-swift imagined the immortal, but unfortunately not ageless, struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17157. More recently, George Bernard Shaw’s www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1925/shaw/biographical 1920 play cycle Back to Methuselah https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Back_to_Methuselah spanned the years from BCE 4004 to AD 31,920. (Warning: it’s a better read than a theatrical experience!) In Aldous Huxley’s www.neh.gov/humanities/2015/novemberdecember/feature/the-talented-mr-huxley After Many a Summer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Many_a_Summer, published in 1939, the immortality cure involves a diet of fish guts. James Gunn’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_E._Gunn_(writer) The Immortals www.sfsite.com/06b/im202.htm spawned a short-lived TV series renamed The Immortal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immortal_(1970_TV_series). Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazarus_Long, who appears in several of his novels and stories, achieved his longevity as a result of genetic engineering. And two of my distinguished fellow columnists here at ’Mov’s, Robert Silverberg www.majipoor.com and Norman Spinrad www.normanspinradatlarge.blogspot.com, deal with immortality issues in their work, notably Bob’s Nebula winning novella “Sailing to Byzantium” and Norman’s Bug Jack Barron https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bug_Jack_Barron.
And still there is no end to immortality stories! For more reading leads, consult the ever-reliable SF Encyclopedia on Immortality www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/immortality. Our list-happy internet offers lots of choices, for example in the 21 Best Immortality Science Fiction Books www.best-sci-fi-books.com/21-best-immortality-science-fiction-books or Eight Books About Immortality www.electricliterature.com/8-books-about-immortality and Sf Novels/Short Stories About Immortality www.sciencefictionruminations.com/sci-fi-article-index/sci-fi-novelsshort-stories-about-immortality. While there is no fiction mentioned in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Immortality www.iep.utm.edu/immortal, the notes at the end of the article offer a treasure trove of further readings about the prospect of living forever. Go ahead and click, but since the theme of this column is biological immortality, be aware that many of the recommendations are for work that embraces the very latest wrinkle on our eternal obsession, digital immortality www.technologyreview.com/s/612257/digital-version-after-death. It is no secret that science fiction is enthralled by the prospect of a virtual afterlife after death, but that’s a subject for another column!
It speaks to a quirk in the human spirit that so many literary chronclers of immortality, both biological and digital, fixate on its discontents. Often immortality is a curse, as in the legend of the Wandering Jew www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14773-wandering-jew or in some flavors of vampirism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_vampire_traits_in_folklore_and_fiction. Or else the quality of life is such that long life seems like a curse. Bored, enervated and senile immortals www.aeon.co/essays/theres-a-big-problem-with-immortality-it-goes-on-and-on are a common trope. Immortals are emotionally crippled by grief at the loss of their mortal loves, or else they are forced to shed their memories like snakeskins, raising issues of identity. Who—or what—is the immortal who, forced to offloaded much of her personal history to make room for new experiences, can’t recall her childhood, her fifth husband, or the transporting smell of a Proustian madeleine www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4648185?
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While the buzz in science fiction currently trends toward uploading www.minduploading.org as our way to immortality, it seems to me that the technology to accomplish this remains a long way off, despite the hopes of transhumanists like polymath technologist Ray Kurzweil www.kurzweilai.net. Understand that I am a huge fan of Ray’s; his books The Age of Spiritual Machines www.youtube.com/watch?v=-inK0esaIgk and The Singularity Is Near www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5jiGeQBLTk have had a huge influence on my work. I am so grateful that he generously donated an excerpt from The Singularity Is Near for Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, which John Kessel and I edited. But while I believe that we may well be able to create a place in some future digital cloud for an uploaded mind to exist, there are no easy solutions for the problems of extracting those minds from our bodies. Hyperventilating futurists claim that there are children alive today, or perhaps even adults, who will have an excellent shot at living for centuries instead of mere decades. If that is indeed so, I’m thinking the smart money will be chasing reconstructed and/or rejuvenated human bodies rather than online avatars.
So where to look for potential breakthroughs in biological immortality? My guess is a confluence of technologies related to the CRISPR system and telomere repair. Non-immortal readers will probably recall our discussion of CRISPR www.sciencemag.org/topic/crispr in the last installment, but to recap briefly, this is a new molecular technology that promises a relatively inexpensive way to modify DNA in many species, including humans. However, while we have a map of the human genome www.genome.gov/human-genome-project, all too many of the complex interactions among our genes are as yet a mystery. Some of the interventions we might envision will have uncertain outcomes. So while the CRISPR system opens vast new areas of research, it’s clear that this research must be done carefully. We know that already some have launched reckless experiments www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00673-1.
Telomeres https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/basics/telomeres/ are repetitive nucleotide sequences that cap the ends of our chromosomes, protecting them from damage. Think of them as the plastic tips on shoelaces that keep them from fraying and unraveling. Unfortunately for us mortals, our telomeres shorten every time our cells divide. When they erode too much the chromosome ends become sticky, which can compromise the accuracy of cell division, or else the cells quit replicating. In the 1960s Leonard Hayflick https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/leonard-hayflick-1928 theorized that there was a limited number of times a population of cells could divide before division ceased. Prior to that it was believed that cells had a unlimited potential to divide. Recent research has tied this Hayflick Limit https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/genetic/hayflick-limit.htm to telomere shortening. And shorter telomeres correlate to shorter lives in humans. Among the elderly, those with shorter telomeres are three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease. But we don’t yet know whether telomere shortening is a cause of aging or merely a symptom, like wrinkled skin. But scientists—and businesses!—are scrambling to deploy a new weapon in the war against cell senescence. Telomerase https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180227142114.htm is an enzyme that can repair or replace telomeres and reset gene expression. It’s present in all cells, but is not normally activated. However, when “turned on” in aging cells, its RNA template is capable of producing new telomeres on the ends of chromosomes. Several human trials on the efficacy of telomerase therapies are scheduled to begin this year.
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In the meantime, eat right, get plenty of exercise, and don’t forget to buckle your seatbelts.
Copyright © 2019 James Patrick Kelly