Monday, January 26, 2015

Retrofitting Humanity


Retrofitting Humanity


Unhurriedly he dons his swimming gear. Then he exhales all the air from his lungs and plunges into the pool. The water is invigoratingly cool, sending a prickly sensation through his gills, which are now moving rhythmically. Man has turned fish.[i]
Aleksandr Belyayev (1884-1942), author of The Amphibian (1928), was once described as the Soviet Jules Verne, which is accurate as far as it goes. He has also been characterized as a juvenile writer. Beyond Russia, most readers don’t know even that much about him. Yet Belyayev deserves recognition -not just as the creator of a viable school of native pulp science fiction in the early Soviet period but also as a pioneer and popularizer of biological themes at a time when sf elsewhere was preoccupied almost entirely with physical sciences and technology.
Belyayev created a sensation in 1925 with his short novel Professor Dowell’s Head. His first published work, it assured the success of a pulp magazine called Worldwide Pathfinder, which reached a circulation of some 100,000 before falling victim to Stalinist repression in 1930. While the premise of the story, a man’s head kept alive without its body, seemed fantastic, it was actually rooted in Belyayev’s own experience. In his childhood, he broke his back after jumping off a roof using an umbrella for a parachute. Complications took the form of spinal tuberculosis, which later kept him bedridden for months or even years at a time. Having himself felt like a “head without a body,” Belyayev could bring a psychological realism to the terror Dowell feels when, for example, a beetle lands on his beard and starts crawling up his face. Beyond that, being trapped in a crippled body seems to have led to him dreaming of overcoming, not only his own limitations but those of common humanity.
The Amphibian, still Belyayev’s best-known novel, powerfully conveys the actual experience of Ichthyander – a youth at once blessed and cursed by an operation enabling him to breathe underwater. In his own element, as recounted in “A Day of Ichthyander’s,” he enjoys a freedom unknown to ordinary men - from frolicking in and under the waves, or riding his tame dolphin, to reclining at his ease on the seabed eating oysters. But in his hopeless love for the land-bound Gutierrez and in the terrible shooting pains that afflict him whenever he remains out of the water too long, he also knows an alienation beyond any we ourselves can experience.
Ichthyander is the creation of Dr. Salvator, portrayed as a benevolent version of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, who runs a free clinic for Indians in Argentina and experiments with grafts and transplants of all kinds. The villain, Pedro Zurita, owns a pearling ship and hopes to enslave the “sea-devil,” as Ichthyander has become known, as the perfect pearl diver. In a Victor Hugo-like bit of romantic complication, Zurita’s henchman Baltasar turns out to be Ichthyander’s natural father. Belyayev takes the side of Dr. Salvator, who defends his experiments to improve on the human form at a trial instigated by the Church. The strength of The Amphibian, going beyond the melodrama and even beyond the scientific debate, lies in seeing through Ichthyander’s own eyes and his own experience – as when he has occasion to weep for the first time ever, and finds himself “wondering why everything around looked blurred, as if he were swimming underwater with no goggles on.”[ii]
The basic idea of The Amphibian apparently originated in a French sf novel, Jean de la Hire’s The Man Who Could Live Underwater (1908), which not only turns on an identical shark gill transplant but also has a hero named L’Hictaner.[iii] That Belyayev’s novel is still being read, while de la Hire’s is merely a historical footnote, nevertheless suggests that The Amphibian improved dramatically on its model. Another example of Belyayev’s adapting a French sf story is “Invisible Light” (1938), a short classic indebted to Maurice Renard’s “The Doctored Man” (1921): Both feature blind men who are fitted with electroscopes in order to “see” electricity. Here again, Belyayev stresses the actual experience of his protagonist: To him, the city becomes a wonderland where the motors of passing streetcars are “like the wheels of Chinese fireworks,” where skyscrapers are outlined by “the brightly shining, complex network of the electric light conductors, and the weaker glow of telephone wires,” where the very air is filled with “scattered light from radio waves” and “torrents, rivers of light” from cosmic rays.[iv]
Belyayev’s works often blend melodrama with a sort of black humor. In Professor Dowell’s Head (revised and expanded 1938), Dowell is the victim of Dr. Kern, a jealous colleague who kills him and then keeps his head alive with a life-support system as a “generator of ideas” for which he can claim credit. Two other victims of the doctor’s experiments, in the expanded version that is the basis of the extant translation, try to make light of their grotesque fate in a black comedy chapter titled “The Heads Amuse Themselves.” Besides Kern and his collection of heads, the novel features a diabolical psychiatrist, Marie Laurent as a damsel in distress, and Dowell’s son Arthur as her rescuer. At the end, when Kern has been exposed, a police investigator calmly asks Dowell’s head: “Can you give me any information about the circumstances of your death?”[v]
Contrast Professor Dowell’s Head with Curt Siodmak’s often-filmed Donovan’s Brain (1943), in which the disembodied brain of a corrupt businessman takes over the mind of a scientist who preserved it after he was killed in a plane crash. For all his melodrama, Belyayev takes a sympathetic approach to the possibilities of medical science. In The Man Who Lost His Face (1929), for example, the deformed Antonio Presto is transformed into a handsome Hollywood leading man through a miracle of endocrinology. Tissue culture replacement organs figure in Laboratory W (1938). Controlling Brownian movement (an idea apparently never used elsewhere before or since) enables a youth to fly in Ariel (1941). Yet even today, ideas of the kind Belyayev pioneered are unsettling to many: In Kobo Abe’s Inter Ice Age 4 (1959), a proposal to create amphibious men to assure mankind’s survival during a coming Ice Age is treated with gothic revulsion.
Genetic engineering was unheard of when Belyayev wrote The Amphibian, and yet it is relevant to the novel by its very absence: The tragedy of Ichthyander lies not only in his mistreatment by society but also in his necessarily being the only one of his kind. In Western science fiction, however, a growing understanding of the potential for genetic engineering dictated a fresh approach to the idea. J.B.S. Haldane had suggested the possibilities in Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1924), and Olaf Stapledon had made the creation of new species of man a major theme in Last and First Men (1930). Yet even in 1938, L. Sprague de Camp’s comic “The Merman” turned on use of a vapor that caused the protagonist’s lungs to function as gills, forcing him to live for a time in the Brooklyn Museum’s fish tank.
Norman L. Knight’s “Crisis in Utopia” (1940) was the first significant sf work to deal seriously with creation of a species of men adapted to other environments by what was then called “tectogenesis.” Knight (1895-1972) couldn’t have even heard of Belyayev, yet his Tritons are a race of Ichthyanders. Rather than the creation of an isolated scientist, they are a long-term project of Submarine Products Corp., one of the factors in a corporative utopia of the forty-fourth century.
Prime Center has long kept the project under wraps, for fear of public reaction, but it is now finally going public – only the Tritons themselves don’t all agree. “We shall be accepted as human beings, not monstrosities,”[vi] says the young Cragstar. Certainly he and his lover Merling have a beauty of their own: black, salamander-like skins, hairless skulls covered with faintly phosphorescent tubercules, brown eyes without pupils and a greenish luminosity in their depths. But Cymorpagon, a Triton elder, is fearful that a jealous humanity will call for wholesale sterilization of the new race, and instigates a rebellion on the Pacific reef that is its home. Anticipating the problem of newsmen becoming part of the news, Knight has the rebellion and its aftermath take place just as a television crew arrives to cover the Triton story. If the newsmen’s reaction is any clue, the Tritons have nothing to fear.
“The vanguard of a new epoch,” exults a commentator. “Another eye through which the human mind may see the Universe in a new light, another brain wherewith Man may appreciate and admire.”[vii] Cragstar and other radicals want to go further. “Very few people have dared to alter the human cerebral genes,” he observes. “[But] we must come to grips with this problem of the brain and conquer it.... Man will begin to mold his brain as he has now begun to mold his body, and the Universe will be in the palm of his hand.”[viii]
Knight later collaborated with James Blish (1921-75) on A Torrent of Faces, in which the Tritons play a prominent role, and matings with Drylanders produce a hybrid race with advantages like telepathy  by 1967, alas, not a particularly novel idea. Blish, in his own right, was known for his fictional explorations of the possibilities of pantropy, the genetic engineering of adapted men for conditions on other worlds. Oddly, his most famous pantropy story, “Surface Tension” (1952), is an allegory about the evolution of knowledge rather than a realistic account of human adaptation: The microscopic men created for the watery world of Hydrot are pure fantasy, and yet their struggle to understand and master their tiny universe is symbolically true.
Blish’s first serious venture into tectogenesis was “Beanstalk” (1952), which was expanded into a novel as Titan’s Daughter (1961). While it centers on the creation of a race of giants through selective doubling of genes (“tetraploidy”), rather than pantropy, the parallels with “Crisis in Utopia” are obvious. Not only is the prejudice (actual, in this case) of ordinary humanity a prime concern, but also the rebellious fanatic Maurice reprises the role of Knight’s Cymorpagon. Blish adds another twist, however: The giants’ creator never intended them to breed true, but to contribute their advantages, such as longevity, to the human gene pool in order to produce “the tough, long-lived race that will be needed to reach the stars.”[ix]
This strategy, consistent with Haldane, Stapledon, and Knight, continues in “A Time to Survive” (1956), first of the pantropy stories collected in The Seedling Stars (1957). With a vested interest in terraforming, Terran authorities set out to sabotage pantropy on distant Ganymede by raising their own Ganymede-adapted man to infiltrate the colony. But even ammoniated blood proves thicker than water, and their agent joins forces with those whose dreams go beyond adaptation to the Jovian moon itself. “We’ve got a new generation of children,” explains a scientist. “[They] can’t live on Earth, and they can’t live on Ganymede, but they can live on one of six different extra-solar planets we’ve picked out.”[x] “The Thing in the Attic” (1954) has a Jack Vance quality to it, but its pantropic element is slight: A race adapted to an arboreal life on a jungle planet discovers it is not alone in the universe. “Watershed” (1955) brings the series full cycle: A now-desolate Earth of the distant future is itself seeded; “basic” men, long a minority, must finally realize that they are neither more nor less human than their adapted brethren.
Although it is not generally known, Blish was anticipated by Catherine L. Moore (1911-87) in developing the pantropy theme. Moore’s “Promised Land” (1950), like “A Time to Survive,” is set on Ganymede, and even shows a greater grasp of the moral implications of pantropy. Policy for settling other worlds is a compromise between terraforming and genetic engineering. A new race is bred for what will become the environment over several generations: “When the final generation of Ganymede-slanted stock was bred, Ganymede was ready for them.”[xi]
After colonization, terraforming is continued, and the adapted men are bred back toward the human norm. Moore’s drama centers on the potential failures of such grandiose projects. In a Stapledonian mood, Knight could let Cragstar speak cavalierly of risking “creation of a whole menagerie of experimental monsters”[xii] in pursuit of progress. But how would they feel about it? In “Promised Land,” Torren, ruler of Ganymede, is such a failure – born of an aborted plan to adapt men for life on Jupiter itself. Unable to live a normal life on any world, he schemes in his bitterness to sabotage the Ganymede project. In a strange conflict of racial loyalties, it is his aide Fenton, an Earth-normal human, who sides with the Ganymedans.
In Roger Zelazny’s “The Keys to December” (1966), an entire race of adapted men, engineered for a world that has been destroyed in a nova, finds itself without a planet. Jarry Dark conceives a daring project for the salvation of his fellow Coldworld Catforms: acquire a world and modify its environment over generations, while the settlers remain in hibernation. But during periodic awakenings to monitor how the project is progressing, Dark becomes aware that the changes are speeding the evolution of the world’s own intelligent life – only to inevitably doom it as the shift toward new conditions becomes too extreme.
Pantropy can be treated as either a dream or a nightmare. In Clifford D. Simak’s “Desertion” (1944), part of his City series, there is a domed human colony on Jupiter, but colonists increasingly opt to go through a biological conveter that gives them the outward form of the native Lopers – with brains and senses so superior that they don’t want to come back. But Algis Budrys takes a cold Darwinian view of a similar situation in “Between the Dark and the Daylight” (1958): Colonists on a world so hellish they dare not venture beyond their sealed environment devote their lives to developing a race capable of surviving outside, knowing that their “children” will turn on and destroy them in the end.
 In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Falling Free (1988), adapted people are victims of human callousness rather than blind chance or evolutionary tragedy. The quaddies have been produced by a company called GalacTech to work in free fall. In place of legs, they have a second pair of arms, and other changes have been made to their physiology to adapt them for null-gee.
Quaddies live in a space habitat around the planet Rodeo, on which GalacTech has a 99-year lease. There is no law there – only company regulations. The quaddies have no legal standing; the company refers to them as “post-fetal experimental tissue cultures,” and their existence is known only to company men involved in the project. As the story opens, the eldest of them are about 20-years old.
Leo Graf has been sent to the habitat to give a group of quaddies their final instruction in welding and quality control, before they are sent out to do actual work on a new space station. Graf is proud of the work he’s done over the years: he believes that by identifying faults in structures he’s saved thousands of lives. But then comes news that artificial gravity has been perfected: quaddies have become technologically obsolete. 
The company’s “solution” is to terminate the project, sterilize the quaddies and warehouse them on Rodeo until they’re forgotten. But Graf finds a way to set them free, helping them turn their habitat into a colony ship and escape through a wormhole with a few ordinary humans of good will to find a new home in a system with an asteroid belt but no planets to attract other ordinary humans.
Although F. Paul Wilson’s “The Tery” (1979) isn’t actually a pantropy story, it too centers on the potential for moral abuse of the power to change the very nature of man: What begins, on a colonial planet, as a project to create Talents (men with paranormal powers) degenerates into a nightmare. Experimenters create beasts that look like men and men that look like beasts – all for their own amusement. Under the puritanical regime that follows the fall of technological civilization, Teries (beast men) and Talents alike are hunted and killed without mercy.
Gen-tech slaves are part of 23rd Century reality in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009). Emiko is one of the New People, engineered for subservience – and sterility. Abandoned by her Japanese owner in a near future Thailand where rising waters due to global warming threaten Bangkok, she has to work as a prostitute to escape exposure – and summary execution. She nevertheless gains the sympathy of Anderson Lake – an industrial spy:
She is an animal. Servile as a dog. And yet if he is careful to make no demands, to leave the air between them open, another version of the windup girl emerges. As precious and rare as a living bo tree. Her soul, emerging from within the strangling strands of her engineered DNA.[xiii]
Lake tells her of a secret refuge for New People, which gives her hope of finding a new life with her own kind. Unfortunately, he also introduces her to the Thai regent, who is such a sadist that she snaps –killing him and eight of his henchmen. She escapes but Anderson is arrested; later released, he dies from a plague under her care before he can spirit her out of the doomed city. But another player, the mysterious and rather cynical Gibbons (“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods.”[xiv]), is moved to promise her that he will use her DNA to engineer a fertile race of New People and make her dream come true. 
There’s a lot more to the novel than that, involving Anderson’s mission to get hold of a secret Thai seedbank, a coup d’état, more political murders and destruction of the levees that protect the capital from flooding. But genetic engineering also figures in two novels set earlier in the same future: Ship Breaker (2010) and The Drowned Cities (2012). There we learn of half-men like Tool, a war-beast (his makeup has elements of tiger, hyena and dog). Despite their origins, however, they too don’t all remain prisoners of their intended roles; some manage to become part of the human family – and perhaps even offer a glimmer of hope for their dystopian world.
Yet utopian use is occasionally made of the idea of adapted men. In David Gerrold’s Moonstar Odyssey (1977), natives of a terraformed world remain androgynous throughout childhood and choose gender at puberty. Satlin’s religious mythology centers on the gods Dakka and Reethe, who represent the male and female principles, and the concern of each Satlik is to make the right Choice during blush, when he/she can function as either sex. Gerrold’s story follows the quest of young Jobe for Choice at a time when Satlin itself is facing a crisis, from both natural disaster and foreign cultural contamination.
An overlooked work which explores a novel form of adaptation is Hal Clement’s Ocean on Top (1967). In an energy-poor future, a dissident group has founded a secret colony in an ocean deep, but not by means of genetic engineering. Evidently inspired by experiments in which animals have been shown capable of breathing in water supercharged with oxygen. Clement creates an environment where men live and work in some sort of dense fluid.
A massive heat pump supplies light and electricity for agriculture and industry. Oxygen pressure in the medium is so high that breathing is unnecessary; in fact, any attempt to breathe is painful and dangerous, and both newborn infants and new recruits must submit to surgery for elimination of the cough reflex. Clement’s insight into the varied cultural ramifications of living in such an environment is startling. Speech, only a memory to the original colonists, is inconceivable to their descendants, and even so fundamental a human emotional outlet as laughter is impossible. A new written language, which evolved gradually out of electrical and engineering diagrams, has given rise to a supplemental sign language for everyday use. Since both are so alien, it is almost impossible for the colonists to learn surface languages, or vice versa. Yet without the aid of technicians recruited from the surface, it may be impossible to keep the colony’s technology functioning.
Pantropy is part of the background in the future histories of Cordwainer Smith and Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which centers an experiment in androgyny on one of the planets seeded by an ancient people called the Hain, and mentions a number of other experiments by the Hainish genetic engineeers. In Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, as in much modern sf, the moral justification of such experiments is questionable.
Samuel R. Delany, in “Driftglass” (1967), had already developed a classic tragedy around the exploitation of amphibious men for undersea work that anticipates the themes of Bacigalupi while harking back to the old dreams of Belyayev and Knight.
Cal Swenson is a seeming victim of such exploitation, left crippled by an accident years before. Now the Aquatic Corporation is sending a team of newly created amphimen on a dangerous mission involving a power project in an Atlantic canyon. When Tork and his comrades set out on what we sense will be another disaster, one of Swenson’s friends is stoic: “Fishermen from this village have drowned. Still it is a village of fishermen.”[xv]
It all comes down to what kind of life is worth living, and who gets to decide. When has human life not been dangerous, or even tragic? Perhaps only the Ichthyanders and Swensons – and the likes of Emiko and the Tool, should they come into existence – will have the right to judge whether it is “right” for them to have been made what they are.


“We can rebuild him, better than he was before,” ran the TV teaser. In The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8), ABC pursued bionics with an absolute vengeance. First there was Steve Austin (Lee Majors), the Six Million Dollar Man himself. Then came Jamie Somers (Lindsay Wagner), heroine of The Bionic Woman (1976-8). Finally, the network unleashed Max, the bionic dog – a sure sign that the concept was wearing thin – and, within a year, both series were dead.
By the time television got through with it, bionics must have seemed a pretty stupid idea. Never mind that the first series was based on a hard-science novel, Martin Caidin’s Cyborg (1972). Never mind that bionics is already part of our lives – what are heart and brain pacemakers but the first steps in the mating of man and machine? The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first bionic eye in 2013. Even if they aren’t biological electronics, advances in prosthetic limbs and artificial organs are part of the same medical revolution. But the long-range implications of bionics, including cyborgs, remain within the realm of science fiction, as do those of such other developing medical technologies as growing new organs from stem cells and cloning humans.
Tampering with the stuff of life has figured in science fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Even in the 20th century, medical experimentation in sf was often associated with a post-gothic horror. Maurice Renard’s Docteur Lerne (1908) starts out with organ transplants, but ends with the mad doctor’s soul possessing a car. Hanns Heinz Ewers’ Mandrake (1911; Alraune in German) reads sinister implications into what is now the routine process of artificial insemination: it produces an evil temptress without a soul, supposedly because the sperm donor was a hanged murderer – a 1952 German film version is faithful to that idea. A heart transplant in Otfrid von Hanstein’s In the Year 8000 (trans. 1932) somehow implants the atavistic emotions of the donor.
By contrast, George Allan England’s “The Man with the Glass Heart” (1911) was a pioneering work in the rationalistic treatment of bionics. As the title makes clear, it has to do with an artificial heart – “partly glass and partly aluminum,” with an internal power source.[xvi] Aleksandr Belyayev adopted the same approach to medical themes in the Soviet Union. In a series of stories featuring one Dr. Wagner, he even takes a comic approach to fantastic medical experiments. We first meet Dr. Wagner in “The Visitor from the Bookcase” and “The Man Who Doesn’t Sleep” (both 1926), where we learn that he can work around the clock and even carry on two trains of thought at once because he has had the right and left hemispheres of his brain severed. In “Amba” (1929), the brain of an African explorer is kept alive in a metal case; for some reason, he is unaware of his condition. In “Hoity Toity” (1930), the same brain is transplanted into a circus elephant, which amazes crowds with its intelligence. But medical sf went out of favor under Stalin. Yuri Dolgushin’s Generator of Miracles (1939), which envisioned use of biocurrents to heal the blind, the deaf, and the crippled – and even raise the dead – was the most imaginative such work; following magazine serialization, however, it was denied book publication until a variant text appeared in 1959.[xvii]
Meanwhile, in American pulp science fiction, there were some stirrings of bionic ideas. Miles J. Breuer’s “The Man with the Strange Head” (1927) has to do with man whose head doesn’t match his Charles Atlas torso. He has never pumped iron in a gym, but simply acquired a mechanical body-suit that keeps pacing back and forth even after he has been shot dead through the heart. In Edmond Hamilton’s “The Comet Doom” (1928), aliens have mated organic brains with robot bodies – an idea taken up by Neil R. Jones in his Professor Jameson series, beginning with “The Jameson Satellite” (1931). While Jones’ series had an acknowledged influence on Isaac Asimov’s treatment of robots in science fiction, it can also be seen as the ancestor of such works as Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang (1969) and its sequels, in which human brains are functioning parts of starships.
McCaffrey (1926-2011) was careful to establish a justification for an idea that might initially seem appalling. Her cyborg-brain pilots are deformed children, who could never have known normal lives in any case. Their profession even offers emotional rewards; the relationships of cyborg ships with their “brawns” (captains) are as close as those of lovers. Other examples of cyborg starships can be found in Thomas M. Scortia’s “Sea Change” (1956) and Frank Herbert’s Destination: Void (1966).
But Arthur C. Clarke returns, in essence, to Jones’ concept of the cyborg in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), in which Howard Falcon’s status as a brain in a wheeled cylindrical housing makes him uniquely qualified to explore the upper atmosphere of Jupiter in a probe ship. Clarke doesn’t shrink from the question of whether Falcon, rebuilt as a cyborg following a dirigible accident, is still “human.” In fact, Falcon sees himself as part of the inevitable course of evolution “between the creatures of carbon and the creatures of metal who must one day supersede them.”[xviii]
Catherine L. Moore had long before taken the cyborg story in a different direction with “No Woman Born” (1944). Deirdre, the heroine of the story, is a beautiful dancer who is burned nearly to death but is given new life in the most perfect metal body science and art can devise. Seemingly, she makes a perfect adjustment, and resumes her career in triumph; yet, whenever she lets her guard down, it becomes clear that her apparently casual humanity is a performance. At the end, she knows she is changing into something beyond the human, and she wonders aloud what that may be, “the distant taint of metal already in her voice.”[xix]
Cordwainer Smith’s pilots in “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950) must wear surgically implanted devices to regulate their vital functions; their nervous systems are disconnected, along with all senses but sight, lest they succumb to the Great Pain of Space. Elaborate ritual supports their faith that the sacrifice they have made is meaningful, and when a new discovery threatens to make scanners obsolete, their response is to condemn their benefactor to death. Only Martel, a scanner “cranched”-restored temporarily to normal sensation-can appreciate how inhuman, however necessary, their living death has been. For their own sake, he must betray their conspiracy.
A conspiracy of a different sort explains the seemingly insane cyborg project of Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976), in which poor Roger Torraway is transformed into a creature as grotesque as one of the gargoyles on the Cathedral of Notre Dame with “the dully gleaming flesh, the great faceted eyes, the hovering wings”[xx] designed for life on Mars. All very functional; the skin is as tough as rhinoceros hide and the “wings” are solar energy panels. Torraway is just perfect for Mars, if he can endure living at all as a monster, that is. But what human purpose can be served by such a sacrifice? Computer projections indicate that putting a “man” on Mars will restore morale and save the world from disaster. It sounds unconvincing, as well it should – for the purpose behind the project is not human, but that of artificial intelligences seeking to secure their own survival in face that threatened disaster.
Caidan’s Cyborg shows an awareness of the potential psychological complications of a far less radical reconstruction of the human form – complications soon forgotten in The Six Million Dollar Man. Although he is involved in a cyborg program by accident, Steve Austin is nonetheless rebuilt to do a job. That idea was elaborated on in Timothy Zahn’s Cobra (1985), in which the demands of interstellar war call for the creation of an elite force of cyborg soldiers with built-in laser weapons and power packs to operate them, reinforced bones, even implanted nanocomputers for fire control and combat reflexes. When the war is over, nobody wants them around, and they are exiled to a world of their own; they also pay for their superhuman powers in the unanticipated degenerative diseases of their later years.
That hasn’t stopped Zahn from writing seven sequels as of 2013, and William C. Dietz has left him in the dust with a the Legion of the Damned series, which had run to a dozen novels by early 2014. In the Human Empire of the future, the terminally ill and condemned criminals are given one last chance to survive: join the Legion and become cyborgs. The Empire is threatened by the alien Hudatha as the series gets going in Legion of the Damned (1993), and only the Legion is of any avail against them. But by the time of A Fighting Chance (2011), Earth itself has fallen to another aggressor, the Ramanthians, and it’s touch and go to end the series on an upbeat note – after which come prequels beginning with Andromeda’s Fall (2012). Dietz’ cyborgs must be gluttons for punishment.
In Samuel R. Delany’s Nova (1968), by contrast, cyborg implants are seen as a solution to the problem of alienation. Delany (1942- ) imagines a future society in which men who work with machines are linked to them by direct nervous connections. Cordwainer Smith had suggested something of the sort, not only in the Scanners, but also in the planoforming pilots of “The Burning of the Brain” (1958), who fly their ships by a sort of mental interface with their star charts. In Nova, however, the entire organization of industry has been changed by the cyborg revolution:
All major industrial work began to be broken down into jobs that could be machined ‘directly’ by man. There had been factories run by a single man before, an uninvolved character who turned a switch on in the morning, slept half the day, checked a few dials at lunchtime, then turned things off before he left in the evening. Now a man went to a factory, plugged himself in, and he could push the raw materials into the factory with his left foot, shape thousands on thousands of precise parts with one hand, assemble them with the other, and shove out a line of finished products, having inspected them all with his own eyes.[xxi]
Thus has humanity been returned to the industrial workplace, and one can find similar ideas in the symbiont implants that allow men to live in hostile atmospheres in Kenneth Bulmer’s On the Symb-Socket Circuit (1972) and in computer implants that provide sensory access to the world’s data nets in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). In his Shaper-Mechanist series (1982-85), assembled as Schismatrix Plus (1995), Gibson’s fellow cyberpunk Bruce Sterling imagines an interstellar conflict between advocates of genetic engineering and bionics, respectively, as the only right course for directing human evolution.
Altering the human form, and even human nature – whether through genetic or bionic means – is at the heart of transhumanism – a cultural and intellectual movement that derives its name from Teilhard de Chardin[xxii] and the roots of which have been traced to Haldane,[xxiii] but which has gained traction only in the last few decades – and inspired a number of sf works.
Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), but without the Galactic Overlords to shepherd humanity into the Cosmic Mind. Rather, humanity becomes a cosmic mind. Biotechnologist Vergil Ulam, who develops simple biological computers based on his own lymphocytes, hides them in his body after his boss orders him to destroy them. There they become self-aware and evolve rapidly. The nanoscale civilization they establish transforms Ulam, then infects others, ultimately assimilating most of the biosphere of North America – and passing beyond the normal plane of existence.
Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-89) is even more disturbing. The alien Oankali make the human race an offer it can’t refuse: to be reshaped in their image of what we should be. Even without the disaster of a nuclear war, humanity would have been helpless to resist them – as helpless as the nonwhites of our world were against the Europeans. What makes it even harder to endure the Oankali is that they seem to be right – their civilization really is more advanced; from their long experience with genetic engineering, they know exactly what is wrong with us and exactly what to do about it.
Other works credited by Wikipedia’s Transhunanism entry with taking up transhumanist themes include Nancy Kress’ Beggars trilogy, Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and even Dan Brown’s Inferno (2013). In the future universe of one of the works cited, Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002), bodies are only “sleeves” – people’s memories and personalities are stored in cortical stacks that can survive bodily death and be downloaded into new sleeves.
Linda Nagata’s The Bohr Maker (1995), first of the Nanotech Succession trilogy, is set in a future where genetic engineering for cosmetic purposes and life extension is routine, but there has been a backlash against artificial humans and nonhuman intelligence.  It’s bad news for Nikko, ia post-human who has been genetically engineered to survive in airless space, but only under a research permit that’s about to expire, and his life with it – unless he can steal a device to rewrite his genetic code. Only that’s going to end up letting the nanotech genie out of the bottle…
It’s the pervasiveness of gen-tech and/or bionics among our own kind that matters: Is Star Trek transhumanist science fiction simply because the Borg are a threat to ordinary humans and other species? But if the radical transhumanism of writers like Bear and Morgan and Nagata raises emotionally upsetting questions going to the roots of our conception of what it means to be “human,” organ transplants seem a trivial matter by comparison. They’re already routine, after all – a development Larry Niven anticipated decades ago in his Known Space future history. Yet Niven also feared that transplants would become an explosive social issue: Where were the organs going to come from?
In “The Jigsaw Man” (1967), even minor traffic violations have become capital crimes in order to meet the growing demand for body parts. In The Patchwork Girl (1980), a woman convicted of murder is later cleared – but her body has already been broken up for organs, so she has to be reconstructed from miscellaneous parts. Corpsicles, the frozen dead who had hoped they might one day be resurrected by other advances in medical science, are victims of the world’s remorseless greed for organs in “The Defenseless Dead” (1973).
Niven’s dire forecast no longer seems credible, and yet the sheer expense of transplants and other medical miracles could exacerbate the problems of social stratification. In Frederik Pohl’s “The Merchants of Venus” (1972), the plot turns on the hero’s desperate need for a liver transplant he can’t afford and the villain’s equally desperate struggle to prolong a life he can no longer afford. If our recent experience of soaring medical costs (regardless of how they’re covered by private or government insurance programs) continues into the future, even cultured replacement organs – which Niven foresaw in A Gift from Earth (1968) – may not meet the demand.
Providing spare parts for a body is one thing; providing a spare body is quite another. Head or brain transplants involve seemingly insuperable technical challenges. Even if the problem of connecting the nerves of one person’s brain stem with those of another’s spinal cord is solved, there will be practical and psychological consequences: How much will the experience of the new body affect the personality of the transplanted brain?
Edgar Rice Burroughs had ignored that issue in The Master Mind of Mars (1928), in which mad scientist Ras Thavas transplants brains of rich old Martians into youthful new bodies for profit. That’s a different idea, which may have inspired Niven. Unfortunately, the best-known novel to touch on the old mind-new body problem, Robert A. Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (1970), descends into pure fantasy. An aging billionaire has his brain transplanted into the body of his young secretary. The problem of adjustment to life as a female could have made a compelling story, but female psychology is hardly Heinlein’s strong point. Worse, the secretary’s mind somehow still shares her body, and the two minds carry on interminable conversation – joined at the end by the mind of a departed lawyer who has even less excuse to be there.
Dave Van Arnam’s Starmind (1969), which has little pretension to being more than pulp fiction, actually succeeds better than Heinlein’s novel in developing the theme of multiple personalities in a single body. Parts of three brains have been joined in Van Arman’s story, and there is thus greater plausibility to the situation. Moreover, the reconciliation of the former individuals to a new form of existence is more convincing. But Starmind is an obscure work, and it is more common in sf – especially on the screen – to have one person’s consciousness transferred to another’s body. “Turnabout Intruder” (1969), a Star Trek episode in which a madwoman uses an alien device to swap bodies with Captain Kirk, is one example, and a website devoted to body swaps cites dozens of others.[xxiv] Robert Sheckley’s Mindswap (1966) may still be the best known among genre sf novels.
Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark (2002), inspired by her own experience of autism in the family, broke new ground for medical sf. It is the story – told mostly in the first person present – of Lou Arrendale and his fellow autistic employees at a major pharmaceutical firm. Thanks to early medical treatment and affirmative action accommodation of their special needs, they are socially functional after their fashion – indeed, a gift for pattern recognition makes them better at their jobs than “normal” people. But an ambitious new executive at the firm wants to get rid of them unless they agree to undergo an experimental gene therapy that will supposedly make them normal.
Moon doesn’t pull any punches in the story line of abuse of power, and that ambitious executive meets poetic justice in the end. But the heart of the story lies in the challenges faced by Arrendale and the other autistics, and in the choices they make. They face misunderstanding at best and prejudice at worst from the “normal” world – yet they themselves call it that, and some long to join it even as others remain fiercely loyal to the niche culture they have created for themselves. Through Arrendale’s eyes, we come to understand what they hope to gain and what they fear to lose, and only thus can we understand his decision to accept the treatment even though it is no longer being forced on him, to become part of a larger society whatever the risk. Yet even before that, he can understand some social issues better than normals. Under a reformed legal system, for example, a man who tried to kill him won’t rot in jail –he’ll simply be implanted with a chip rendering him unable to do any harm. Only, is that really ethical progress?
It’s not that simple. A word can mean one thing in one context and something else in another, or be understood differently if spoken with a change in tone of voice. So too can an act be helpful or harmful depending on the circumstances. The PPD chip doesn’t give people better judgment as to what is harmful and what is not; it removes the volition, the initiative, to perform acts that are more often harmful than not. That means is can also prevent the one-time would-be killer from doing good things.
Perhaps the most obsessive medical theme in science fiction is cloning, the creation of an exact copy of an organism from one of its cells. Cloning is an idea that can be exploited for sensational and trivial ends. In Nancy Freedman’s Joshua, Son of None (1973), for example, a clone of John F. Kennedy is doomed to repeat the same life of triumph and tragedy as the original.
More convincing, for all its melodrama, is Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil (1976), which raises the issue of heredity vs. environment in shaping character. Dr. Josef Mengele has created clones of Adolf Hitler and has placed them with foster parents chosen to duplicate Hitler’s as closely as possible. It is the planned killing of the “fathers” on a schedule timed to match the natural death of Hitler’s own that brings the conspiracy to light. After the end of the manhunt that follows, after the death of Mengele, there remains the question: Are these 12-year-old boys fated to become Hitlers? Must they be done away with to prevent another holocaust? Gorim, the Jewish militant, thinks so: “We not only have the right to kill them, we have the duty.”[xxv] But Yakov Leibermann, a Simon Wiesenthal figure, is ready to gamble on chance and free will: “They’re boys. No matter what their genes are. Children. How can we kill them?”[xxvi] Before Gorim can act, he flushes the list of clones down the toilet.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Nine Lives” (1969), nature and nurture conspire in tragedy. Raised by the Exploitation Corps for service on distant worlds, teams of clones seem to have built-in advantages. “No ESP, nothing fancy,” explains a component of the John Chow tenclone. “But we think alike.... Given the same stimulus, the same problem, we’re likely to be coming up with the same reactions at the same time.”42 That same common understanding that makes the clones sufficient unto themselves as a group (even sex is just a form of masturbation) makes it impossible for them to endure solitude. They have never really had to relate to anyone else. When all but one are killed in a mining accident, the surviving Chow lacks the will to go on – “I am nine-tenths dead,” he says; “There is not enough of me left alive.”43 Only through the patient efforts of an ordinary spaceman can the lone Chow be reconciled to the human family.
It is the ordinary humans who prove fittest in the long run in Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), a novel in which cloning seems at first to be the only salvation for mankind. With universal sterility afflicting the world because of environmental pollution, the Sumner family establishes a redoubt in the Shenandoah Valley, where a utopian society of clones survives the downfall of civilization. As the generations pass, it becomes clear that the new race suffers from a lack of variation: Copies of the same people are produced over and over, and society becomes stagnant. When sexual reproduction once more becomes feasible, breeders and their offspring are treated as second-class citizens, tolerated only for their talents and initiative. Even as their technology begins to break down, community leaders pursue the dream of a utopia of specialized clones, and condemn the “cult of the individual.”[xxvii] One of those individuals, Mark, sees the handwriting on the wall: Survival now depends on the breeders. As the Shenandoah redoubt goes through its death throes, he founds a new community – primitive, but alive, “Because all the children were different.”[xxviii]
F. M. Busby raises another problem in Rissa Kerguelen (1976), part of a hybrid space opera-future history series in which most of Earth is under the fascist grip of United Energy and Transport. Opposition to UET is led by the Hulzein Establishment, a business empire founded by Heidele Hulzein. Wanting to keep that empire together under competent management and distrustful of the vagaries of marriage and a random combination of genes to produce an heir, she has a daughter created by parthenogenesis, a self-fertilization process equivalent to cloning. A precedent is thus established for a “dynasty” of identical Hulzeins. But as the “generations” pass, more and more genetic errors creep into the makeup of the Hulzein heirs, who become progressively less competent and less stable. Lena Hulzein, last of the dynasty must be destroyed by her own grandmother, Erika (who has survived thanks to her prolonged travel in space and the time dilation effect), lest she in her madness destroy the world.
Cloning or parthenogenesis isn’t necessarily seen as a recipe for disaster. Toward the end of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), a homosexual culture in which cloning is the only accepted means of reproduction has evolved, although one colony planet of breeders is kept, in case something goes wrong. Asexual reproduction essential in lesbian feminist utopias like Joanna Russ’ “When It Changed” (1972), Suzy McKee Charnas’ Motherlines (1978), and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1980). Such utopian works are filled with vibrant, loving, and creative women – if, indeed, there are any drawbacks to parthenogenesis, they matter little compared to the evil of having to depend on men.
Pamela Sargent (1948- ) takes a refreshingly sober approach in Cloned Lives (1976, incorporating stories from 1972-4), which fulfills neither alarmist, nor tragic, nor utopian expectations. Rather, it follows the surprisingly ordinary lives of surprisingly ordinary men and women. What seems at first a fault is actually Sargent’s point: Clones need not be any more alike in personality than identical twins. The five in Cloned Lives, derived from the cells of physicist Paul Swenson (some gender-tweaked, as in “Nine Lives”) are even quirky in their individuality. Only one, Albert, follows his father’s calling. Daughter Kira goes into genetics, while son James ends up as a failed poet-novelist. Edward turns to mathematics, Michael to engineering. More important, they live different life-styles, and often find it as hard to get along as normal siblings. True, the Swensons turn to each other for solace and understanding more than might be expected of “normals” – two of the brothers even have brief affairs with Kira. Part of the reason is the attitude of the world at large, which has shut them out and has even declared a moratorium on further genetic research.
If much of Cloned Lives reads like a family soap opera, Sargent nevertheless has a more important end in mind. Kira’s work ultimately brings her father back to life, and it assures the survival of Hidehiko Takamura, her “creator” and now her lover. So can cloning be the royal road to immortality, and should it? Busby would caution otherwise, but the dream of immortality is far older than cloning, and science fiction has long imagined other roads.


Nowadays, they call it life extension, and it’s the subject of serious research based on a number of approaches, from genetic engineering and nanotechnology to cloning and anti-aging drugs. But people who don’t want to wait for any of those approaches to pan out can find dietary that supposedly extend their life spans all over the place.[xxix]  And what they’re hoping for is something many have been longing for since the dawn of humanity.
Immortality is a dream far more ancient than science fiction. The secret of eternal life was sought by Gilgamesh in a Babylonian epic, and the quest was surely an old one even then. In Western literature, the tradition of the Wandering Jew circulated for centuries before finding an echo in proto-sf and sf works like William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) and his daughter Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” (1834), which play on that tradition in developing the gothic rejection of immortality as a curse that estranges its bearer from humanity.
Shelley’s gothic approach is essentially unchanged in 20th Century sf like Charles Beaumont’s “Long Live Walter Jameson” (1960), one of the classic episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, in which the 2,000-year-old immortal is finally done in by one of the wives he has abandoned to aging. It had even become the stuff of grand opera with Leos Janacek’s The Makropoulos Secret (1925), based on Karel Capek’s 1922 play of the same title, in which an immortal woman has outlived all her lovers, and all her reason for living.
Another tradition, even more ancient than that of the Wandering Jew, is the curse of Sybil, who, in Greek mythology, asked for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth at the same time. Like the later Struldbruggs of Jonathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels (1726), she thus became immortal only at the cost of becoming ever more aged and decrepit. Seekers of eternal life are repeatedly cheated in novels like H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Again, in films ranging from Terence Fisher’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) to Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), death catches up with would-be immortals in grisly fashion.
There is more than a hint of sour grapes in such tales of immortality. In any event, reconciliation to the inevitability of death has long been a keynote of literature and cinema. An obvious religious taboo discouraged any other approach in early science fiction: To seek physical immortality was blasphemous. In Victor Rousseau’s The Messiah of the Cylinder (1917), for example, it is a Satanic temptation offered in defiance of God’s plan. In other sf works, immortality remained the stuff of legend: John Carter, hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), is an immortal, but we never learn how he became so. Carter’s literary ancestry has been traced back to Edwin Lester Arnold’s The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician (1890),[xxx] which in turn harks back to the Wandering Jew. Barry Sadler continued the same tradition in his series, Casca: The Eternal Mercenary (1979-90) – but none would call that science fiction.
While one can find a few earlier examples, the first modern treatment of immortality as a science fiction theme is David H. Keller’s Life Everlasting (1928). Harry Ackerman, the scientist hero of Keller’s novel, develops a serum that offers not only immortality itself but also perfect health. Rather than keeping it to himself, like a typical gothic sf protagonist, he offers it to the world, and it has realistic consequences in that world. News of the first successful experiments on prison inmates arouses alarm among politicians. “What is he going to charge for it?” asks the President. “Can the nation afford to buy it? Is there a chance that he will become worried over the publicity, and go and sell it to a foreign power?”[xxxi]
But that is only the beginning. As the implications begin to sink in, other parties become equally alarmed. For businesses ranging from life insurance to pharmaceuticals, eternal life means financial ruin. Doctors are concerned: “Who will want to study medicine for ten years at the cost of fifteen-thousand dollars when any disease can be cured by a single injection?”[xxxii] The clergy fears the mental health Ackerman’s serum brings: “His serum robs the world of sin, and I cannot see how the Church would function were it not for sin.”[xxxiii] Another far-ranging consequence is that the serum ends women’s fertility and the menstrual cycle; without children, the family becomes obsolete: ”In married life, there was no cementing force;”[xxxiv] serial polygamy becomes the norm. Keller (1880-1966) concludes on a surprisingly conservative note, given the daring of his concept: Women turn against immortality because it robs them of motherhood.
But other writers soon began to see a romantic appeal to immortality, consequences be damned.  A.E. Van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (1950), in which the hero gets mixed up with a mysterious society of “masked immortals,” was given a soft-core pornographic varnish for a 1960 edition by Beacon Books. The added scenes get at the point of what immortality would mean to a lot of people: “And it’s guaranteed forever,” the immortal heroine reminds the hero following a session in bed. “Don’t forget that.”[xxxv] In John Wyndham’s Trouble with Lichen (1960), the feminist heroine isn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of immortality’s being exploited to turn women into eternal sexual playthings. Even in an egalitarian society, however, it seems inevitable that immortals would become jaded with sex—and much else.
Nevertheless, the romance of immortality and the immortality of romance are recurrent themes in science fiction. In Larry Niven’s A World out of Time (1976), for example, the resurrected Jaybee Corbell pursues the secret of immortality on a far-future Earth. When he finds it, it even transforms the old hag who has shared his quest and has made his life miserable along the way into an exotic temptress with whom he can know eternal sexual bliss. Norman Spinrad’s TV personality in Bug Jack Barron (1967-8) exposes Benedict Howards, an evil business magnate who has assured his own immortality through transplants of irradiated glands from black children (an idea worthy of Hammer Films). Despite an attack of social conscience, aggravated by the suicide of his lover, Barron nevertheless accepts Howards’ treatment for himself, and he looks forward to “all the time in the world.”[xxxvi]
The romance of immortality overlooks the obvious, on both the personal and the social levels. Neither Earth nor the universe actually abides forever, but “immortals” would abide a far shorter while. Sooner or later, accidental death or even murder is inevitable. One can minimize the risks, of course, but that might rob life of all meaning.
In Lester del Rey’s “The Dwindling Years” (1956) immortals have become obsessed with security and is fearful of taking any chances with life. “No sane man would risk a chance for near eternity,” reflects Giles, who, no braver than others, has forsaken the chance to test an experimental faster-than-light drive that would enable him to visit his grandchildren in the Centaurus system. “Heroism belonged to those who knew their days were numbered anyhow.”[xxxvii]
Del Rey’s story is also notable for its premise that immortality requires continuous treatments – some serious research today centers on such strategies. When Giles discovers his rejuvenation treatments are no longer working, his entire attitude changes. He remembers how precious life had been to his own grandfather. Past and future become important again. He vows to complete work on that FTL drive and to visit his distant grandchildren: “Thirty years was a long time, a precious long time!”[xxxviii]
A common solution to the problem of immortality causing cultural stagnation, by reinforcing the fear of death, is use of cloning to produce duplicate bodies. In John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, citizens routinely have their memories recorded for later replay into the brains of their new bodies should their old ones be destroyed. Of course, nobody’s tape can be complete to the moment of death, and the more time that has passed since the last update, the more memories the next incarnation will be missing. Moreover, the whole process begs the real question: Is the cloned new self really the same person as the old self? If not, are not accidental death and murder still to be feared? Since memory recordings and cloning can and do result in simultaneous duplicates of the same individual, as in “The Phantom of Kansas” (1976), the answer to this seemingly metaphysical question seems all too clear: Immortality by surrogate is not real immortality at all for it fails to assure immortality of identity, whatever that may be, Science fiction is often inconsistent on this issue. In Niven’s A World out of Time, Corbell seems able to live with the fact that “he” is merely a recording played back into the brain of a mind-wiped criminal. Yet, having accepted that, his quest thereafter is for physical immortality in “his” new body.
Syd Logsdon’s A Fond Farewell to Dying (1981) is one of the few works to confront the identity paradox head-on. David Singer, the protagonist, an American in a post-holocaust world, ventures to India to pursue his quest for eternal life. His research aims at perfecting the means of recording a man’s entire memory and transferring it to a clone surrogate. Singer succeeds just in time, for India is going through political upheaval, and his original self is assassinated during a coup. His lover, a Hindu woman named Sashi, refuses to accept his “reborn” self: She is convinced that Singer’s atman (soul) entered the fetus of their unborn son at the time of his death. The man who thinks he is Singer, she declares, is “a walking dead man... an abomination.”[xxxix] In an epilogue, Logsdon attempts unconvincingly to reconcile the materialism of Singer and the spiritual experience of Shashi. But one doesn’t have to believe in the atman to believe in the reality of the original dilemma: The memory may linger on, but does the person?
And what about memory? The capacity of the human brain may be vast, but it is hardly infinite. Live long enough, and it will be exhausted. That is the fate of Douglas Hooker in Niven’s “The Ethics of Madness” (1967). Hopelessly insane, Hooker carries his pursuit of an imagined enemy across the Galaxy. His ship’s autodoc keeps his body young, but the years take their toll on his mind:
He was totally a man of habits now. He had not had an original thought in centuries. The ship’s clock governed his life in every detail, taking him to the aurodoc or the kitchen or the gym or the steam room or the bedroom or the bathroom. You’d have thought he was an ancient robot following a circular tape, no longer able to respond to outside stimuli.[xl]
In One Million Tomorrows (1970), Bob Shaw suggests that older memories will gradually be obliterated to make room for new ones: “An immortal must learn to accept that endless life is also endless death—of the successive personalities who inhibit his flesh and are gradually changed and worn away by the passage of time.”[xli] James Blish elaborates on his idea in “A Style in Treason” (1970):
After a while, it became difficult to remember who one was supposed to be—and to remember who one was, was virtually impossible. Even the Baptized, who had had their minds dipped and then rechanneled with only a century’s worth of memories, betrayed to the experienced eye a vague, tortured puzzlement, as though still searching in the still waters for some small salmon of ego they had been left no reason to suspect had ever been there.[xlii]
If immortality brings unexpected problems for the individual, the problems it brings to society are alarming. Even before immortality became a popular theme in genre sf, Tiffany Thayer zeroed in on the most obvious – overpopulation – in Doctor Amoldi (1934). People simply stop dying in Thayer’s satirical fantasy. Not only that; they can’t even be killed. Babies are still being born, however, and the inevitable result is a world overrun with human flesh: “Higher and higher the slimy piles grew, croaking, squealing, crawling—all over the globe, like a solid sphere of maggots.”[xliii] Shaw’s notion in One Million Tomorrows that Nature will solve the problem by making male impotence the price of immortality is as unconvincing as Keller’s in Life Everlasting that Nature will solve it by making women sterile.
An even more improbable solution is presented to humanity in Clifford D. Simak’s Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967): The dead are kept frozen pending culmination of a project to revive them and send them back in time to colonize various prehistoric eras. The paradox is obvious: If people are really going to live forever, those sent to 200 million B.C., along with their descendants, will still be around when another batch arrives in, say, 150 million B.C., and so on. But people take the promise seriously enough to allow the Forever Center virtually unlimited control over their lives.
Weinbaum had already foreseen the problem, and reserves immortality for a small elite in The Black Flame. In Blish’s A Life for the Stars (1962), part of the Cities in Flight future history, immortality is a privilege, and young Chris DeFord must prove himself worthy of becoming a citizen of New York (anti-agathic drugs are a perquisite) in a lengthy apprenticeship.
Jack Vance’s To Live Forever (1956) may be the most memorable work to explore both the individual and the social consequences of a culture in which immortality is possible but must be reserved for the few. Barbarism prevails in most of the world, following a Malthusian population collapse. In the city-state of Clarges, however, admission to eternal life is the object of an intense and complex competitive system which shapes the entire society. Would-be immortals must earn points by achievements in the arts, sciences, or public service to work their way up through the castes of Brood, Wedge, Third, and Verge, with each advance bringing extra years of life, until the final admission to Amaranth status.
Obsession with “slope,” the curve on life charts that signifies whether an individual is advancing rapidly enough to win a higher rank within his allotted years, is all-consuming – those who fall behind in the competition may be visited by the assassins even before their scheduled years are used up. Gavin Waylock reminds the Jacynth Martin why in conversation:
“One Amaranth per two thousand population is the allowed ratio. When you were received into the Amaranth Society, an element of information entered the Actuarian. Two thousand black wagons went forth on their missions; two thousand doors opened; two thousand despairing creatures left their homes, climbed the three steps; two thousand times—”[xliv]
Waylock is, in fact, the Grayven Warlock, condemned years earlier for having accidentally killed a rival soon after achieving Amaranth. Under a false identity, he must begin the climb all over again, and, already, he has killed again – a previous clone of the Jacynth Martin herself – to protect his secret. To Amaranth society, he is thus twice a monster, although his “victims” live again in new bodies, which is more than can be said for the wretches visited by the assassins. Her suspicions aroused, the Jacynth has vowed to expose her murderer and to bring him to justice. In the end, Waylock’s only recourse is to bring down the entire system. Vance invokes a traditional Wellsian solution in his denouement, as Clarges “punishes” Waylock by sending him forth to find new worlds to conquer. In the context of immortality, one can not quite accept the idea: One sees the grim fate of Thayer’s Doctor Amoldi eventually overtaking the whole universe.
Although it skirts the issue of whether immortality by cloning is true immortality (newly accepted Amaranths cower in their apartments until their surrogate bodies are full grown, but they accept the reality of identity-transfer thereafter), To Live Forever remains a classic for its insight into how the promise of eternal life could warp both the lives of individuals and the fabric of society. Vance’s approach contrasts sharply with that of mainstream novelist Franz Werfel, whose Star of the Unborn (1946) is a satire of immortality in moralistic terms. Werfel’s immortals degenerate into physical manifestations of their past sins: Lechers, for example, become mindless sex organs. Because it is impossible to believe that anyone would accept immortality on such terms, the novel really is pointless as either moral vision or social criticism.
An even more far-reaching criticism of the dream of immortality is implicit in the most obvious solution to the problem in To Live Forever. Damon Knight’s “World Without Children” (1951) states it plainly in its very title. A society of immortals can maintain a stable population only if it chooses never to allow children, but the consequences of a choice so fundamental, however welcome to individuals, could be disastrous for the species. Tim Huntley’s One on Me (1980) is the funny-sad autobiography of the last child born in such a future – a future that, as it turns out, has no future. The immortals in their aerial cities may look young, but they are actually so senile that they have lost all trace of creative drive.
“I asked them once why they kept at it so, with their imaginary games and their endless fucking,” the hero relates. “They said when I got to be their age, I’d understand. They were all pushing nine hundred some. Apparently the older one gets the more basic the wants, instead of the other way around as one might suppose.”[xlv] The immortals are helpless in the face of any real challenge, and such a challenge comes from long-frozen dissidents who have conspired to have themselves thawed. Yet these dissidents, in turn, are themselves pawns of a greater conspiracy aimed at forcing the human race to start over again in search of a better destiny.
Immortality as a betrayal of evolution is a recurrent theme in sf. In Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956), the seeming wonder city of Diaspar was created by men who retreated into virtual fantasy existence “from fear of death, and fear of space.”[xlvi] The issue at hand for Clarke’s generation, and even today, has been and is whether the end of death means the end of birth.

Any comments? E-mail me at

[i] Belayev, Alexander, The Amphibian [trans. L. Kolesnikiov], (Fredonia Books, 2001, from 1956 Moscow
Foreign Languages Publishing House edition), p, 74
[ii] Ibid., p. 126
[iii], retrieved
Dec. 27, 2013
[iv] Belayev, “Invisible Light,” trans. Doris Johnson, in: Robert Magidoff, ed., Russian Science Fiction (New
York University Press, 1954), pp. 26-27
[v] Beliaev, Alexander, Professor Dowell’s Head, trans. Antonia W. Bouis (Macmillan, 1980, p. 156
[vi] Knight, Norman L., “Crisis in Utopia,” in: Greenberg, ed., Five Science Fiction Novels, op. cit., p. 222
[vii] Ibid., p. 246
[viii] Ibid., p. 223
[ix] Blish, James, Titan’s Daughter (Berkley, 1961), p. 138
[x] Blish, The Seedling Stars (New American Library, 1959), p. 46
[xi] Moore, C.L., Judgment Night (Gnome Press, 1952), p. 225
[xii] Greenberg, ed., Five Science Fiction Novels, p. 223
[xiii] Bacigalupi, Paolo, The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2009, p. 184
[xiv] Ibid., p. 243
[xv] Delany, Samuel R., Driftglass (New American Library, 1961), p. 137
[xvi] England, George Allan, “The Man with the Glass Heart” (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Nov. 1939), p, 80
[xvii] Долгушин,_Юрий_Александрович
[xviii] Clarke, Arthur C., The Wind from the Sun (New American Library, 1973), p. 168
[xix] Moore, C.L., The Best of C.L. Moore (Ballantine, 1973), p. 288
[xx] Pohl, Frederik, Man Plus (Granada Publishing, 1976), p. 113
[xxi] Delany, Samuel R., Nova (Bantam, 1969), pp. 196-96
[xxii], retrieved Dec. 26, 2013
[xxiii], retrieved Dec. 26, 2013
[xxv] Levin, Ira, The Boys from Brazil (Dell, 1977), p. 261
[xxvi] Ibid.
[xxvii] Wilhelm, Kate, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Pocket Books, 1977), pp. 1ff
[xxviii] Ibid., p. 207
[xxx] Lupoff, Richard A., Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure (Ace Books, 1968), pp.
[xxxi] Keller, David H., Life Everlasting and Other Tales of Science, Fantasy and Horror (Hyperion, 1974), p. 97
[xxxii] Ibid., p. 110
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 112
[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 157
[xxxv] Van Vogt, A.E., The House That Stood Still (Paperback Library, 1965), p. 105
[xxxvi] Spinrad, Norman, Bug Jack Barron (Avon, 1969), p. 327
[xxxvii] Del Rey, Lester, Mortals and Monsters (Ballantine, 1965), pp. 77-78
[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 89
[xxxix] Logsdon, Syd, A Fond Farewell to Dying (Pocket Books, 1981), p. 138
[xl] Niven, Larry, Neutron Star (Ballantine, 1968), p. 206
[xli] Shaw, Bob, One Million Tomorrows (Ace, 1970), p. 189
[xlii] Blish, James, The Best of James Blish (Ballantine, 1979, p. 314
[xliii] Thayer, Tiffany, Dr. Arnodi (Julian Messner, 1934). p, 332
[xliv] Vance, Jack, To Live Forever (Ballantine, 1956), p. 106
[xlv] Huntley, Tim, One on Me (DAW, 1980), p. 17
[xlvi] Clarke, Arthur C., The City and the Stars (Harcourt Brace & World, 1956), p. 268