Science Fiction Topic: Longevity and Maturity

  • by Gitabushi

The other day I shared that I think the Left, and particularly the US Left, are politically children.  This isn’t a political post…I bring it up as an introduction: I identify them as immature because they are only concerned with some power giving them what they want, without costs or trade-offs.

This is from my assumption that with maturity comes wisdom. Chesterton’s Fence is a good example of how a mature mindset plays out in real life. The more times you’ve been around the sun, the more times you’ve seen well-meaning policy changes founder on reality, due to unintended consequences or short-term thinking. After all, we haven’t needed this fence within the last 10 years or so of memory in the person wanting to tear it down…it is only the aged that realize the fence was established to prevent or ameliorate a once-every-twenty-years event.

barbwire fence on wheat field
Photo by JACK REDGATE on Pexels.com

Game of Thrones includes the warnings of wisdom in its repeated reminder that “Winter is coming.” Most of the people battling for power and control had lived their whole lives in one of Westeros’ sometimes decades-long summers.

We are creatures of experience, and we doubt our parents. We consider them moribund, hopelessly behind the times, and clueless about the way the world works now.  This is one of the themes of Generation Ships, or even of interstellar colonies in which civilization collapse: the parents have stories of Old Earth, and the Old Ways, and technology, but the children consider them fairy tales and society devolves to a lower level of civilization in ignorance.

So there is a a good story topic, if you want: We haven’t had a new Generation Ship story in generations, I don’t think. Except instead of writing how children dismiss the stories of their parents and civilization devolves, you could write a story of what the on-ship society does to prevent the devolution of technology and civilization. Instead of what goes wrong in a cautionary tale, explore the obstacles and propose solutions. There is still a good story in the drama of overcoming obstacles to retain civilization, and of the people who live through it.

The reason I have been thinking about “generation” ships, however, is because the pace of counter-aging research appears to be picking up. I think this is because Moore’s Law means computing power has advanced to the point that we can actually begin to control for all the variables in the aging process. We can actually track the degradation of cell functioning, and how the decline of one cell, or one tissue, or one system, impacts and affects others.  The human body is so complex, and so the aging process is so complex, it makes sense that the computing power of 10 years ago might still be inadequate.

In any case, there are reports that some researchers are already conducting trials on counter-aging of pets, like dogs.  Researchers already have a better grasp of how telomere length impacts aging, and the problems of artificially lengthening the telomeres. We have enough modern data to know how exercise and learning help preserve and retain youthful health so that fewer years are spent in mental and physical decline…this is important, because with lifespan extension, you want an increase in enjoyable years, not an increase in years spent in a nursing home, or attached to a machine.  Even a few years ago, researchers discovered that you can extend both life and functional youth by at least a decade with just a combination of two substances that clear out senescent cells, which prevent aging damage to nearby cells.  Of the two substances, one is cheap (you can get sufficient quantities by eating a spoonful of capers every day), and the other is rare enough to cost $50k/dose (which I think is every month).  Obviously, the goal is to reduce the cost of the second substance to a realistic number. And even aside from that, there is some compelling evidence that simply getting transfusions of young blood can help delay aging…but I’m not sure if it can actually reverse it (can it cause hair gone gray to begin to recolor?  Doubtful.)

As I like to say, I originally thought that aging, and thus most disease (which if often aging-related, as body systems that prevent disease break down), and even natural death would be fully solved in my grandchildren’s lifetime.  Then I began to think my children might have a shot at it. Now I believe that if I keep myself in good shape, staying as mentally and physically young as I can, they will conquer aging in my lifetime.

I *hope* it will end up as the ability to select the age you you want (and I would probably choose late 30s…just before presbyopia set in), but even if it just ends up at only being able to slow aging to the point that we have extra decades, I have made it my goal to live to age 130, with enough health and vigor to enjoy it.

grayscale photography of man sitting on wheelchair
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But what would that do to society?

Tolkien’s elves live for centuries. He then posited a lower birth rate, or else elves would have choked the world with their numbers, and I think that is probably correct.

Larry Niven had boosterspice in his stories, and it was the key to one of his plots, in that a woman was concealing her advanced age as part of a scam, and had to “pretend” to trip…Niven assumed that with age and experience would come grace that would arise from greater experience on how to avoid things like tripping.  [shrug]. I guess I can understand that, from the standpoint that kids are clumsy…we even call teenagers or young adults coltish, in that they aren’t yet accustomed to new height after a growth spurt.

Some vampire stories certainly try to display the increased knowledge vampires have from centuries of experience on the earth.

But for the most part, I am not really impressed with the maturity shown by most of the long lifespan individuals in most science fiction stories.

This is a problem for writers: how do you write beyond yourself? Can you only write at your own intelligence?  Meaning, how can you write a genius character if you aren’t a genius yourself?  I think this is easier than it sounds: most of intelligence is speed.  The more intelligent you are, the fewer repetitions you need to learn and understand something, the more quickly you learn when and where you can take mental shortcuts, etc.  Intelligence doesn’t always mean insight that leads to wisdom. So you can write a brilliant character merely by thinking things through, and having the character able to make leaps of logic or grasp things immediately, that other people would need more time to get.

But maturity….that’s another problem.

Some maturity issues are easy to see and understand. Obviously, children want immediate gratification, so you can write a mature character by having them delay gratification, see the long view.

woman wearing grey long sleeved top photography
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

I know I’ve matured quite a bit since age 25. But I also think I’ve matured quite a bit in just the last few years. I understand so many more things about my wife, about relationships, and about male/female differences in just the last five years, and I’m over 50.  So what insights will I have when I’m closing in on 100?  Can I imagine those?

One aspect of maturity is because you’ve seen it all before, you have more patience in frustrating situations. On the other hand, with age comes an “I’m too old for this crap.” impatience.  I’d argue the first is mature, the second is merely advanced age immaturity, but that’s an aspect worth considering more deeply yourself.  But I do think if we had leaders with three centuries of experience, there would be an increased willingness to let things play out on their own, to not see urgency in most crises, because intervention too often makes things worse.

The vampire stories posit that with age comes an understand of human nature that makes it easier to manipulate people.  That might be true.

But I’d counter an inability to remember immature mindsets seems to come along often with maturity. The adults cannot remember the angst and worries of youth. The elderly don’t have the interest in keeping up with fashion, and trends, and fashionable thinking. It is possible to keep tabs on modern thought, but is it possible to do so well enough to be master manipulators?  Without seeming out of touch?  I’m not sure.

In any case, this is the science fiction topic you could tackle: if/when humans no longer *must* die (although accident, murder, suicide, and some illnesses will still result in death), how does it change society? Do people suicide when they get bored? Do we finally have the longevity to make terraforming Mars and colonization of interstellar systems possible (imagine a “generation ship” that takes two centuries to reach a Alpha Centauri, crewed/populated with people who fully expect to make the return trip within their lifetime). Do the aged withdraw from society as they grow bored with the immaturity of the young? Does the birth rate plummet?  Or does colonization of the moon, Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and interstellar systems create enough room that we have a population explosion? Do the elderly ensconce themselves as leaders, guiding all of society with their greater knowledge?  Do the young now chafe at the reduced chance of earning key roles, since no one ages out of a prominent position anymore?  Or do they win key positions in corporations and government due to youthful exuberance and innovation?

If nothing in society changes except for everyone alive suddenly having a realistic chance to live for 500 years or more, what happens?  There are a hundred different story possibilities to explore right there.

Go do it. I want to read some good stories that explore this issue, that will help us be prepared for it when it eventually happens.

6 thoughts on “Science Fiction Topic: Longevity and Maturity

  1. “We haven’t had a new Generation Ship story in generations, I don’t think.”

    One was published a couple of years ago to good reviews. Gene Wolfe’s “Long Sun” series concluded in ’96.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I dunno, man. It’s all about money, and can you imagine how much profit there’d be in a cure for baldness? It would be a goldmine.

        And those other solutions are either lame or only work for some guys. Trust me, I know.

        Like

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