Today, we take an amusing look at how science fiction is often portrayed in a jarring way especially when dealing with the topic of life extension.
Those of us who fancy science fiction stories are used to all sorts of technological miracles taking place in them; some are plausible and might become reality at some point in the future, while others are mere fantasies, artistic liberties that are taken to tell a better story and will likely never translate into real-life technologies—or, if they will, they will do so at the cost of rethinking fundamental principles that we’ve thus far considered to be fully established.
In science fiction, we’ve seen faster-than-light travel, teleportation, portals, energy weapons, strong AI, telepathic powers, and radiation-induced superpowers of all kinds; unfortunately, the only “superpower” known to be actually induced by radiation thus far is cancer. Entire imaginary worlds have revolved around the existence of one or more of these marvels, and series and shows have assumed that they’re possible and imagined what our society would be like with them, but one particular possibility has been neglected or relegated to one or two episodes and then forgotten, as if it was of no importance whatsoever: the defeat of aging.
There is no elephant; but if there is, it’s okay
Star Trek, a popular space opera I have loved since my early teens, is famous for its optimistic depiction of a future where space travel is as common as trains are today. Space travel is not, per se, the topic of Star Trek; episodes don’t generally discuss whether space travel is feasible or desirable, nor do they praise or demonize it; quite simply, space travel is taken for granted as an everyday reality that functions as a plot device. Star Trek episodes answer the very general question, “What might life be like if we were a space-faring species?“
Now, just how many series can you recall, from the top of your head, doing the same thing with the defeat of aging in place of space travel? How many shows are there where people don’t die of aging anymore and this is not the topic being discussed but is rather just a background element? In other words, how many shows are there where aging is no longer a thing and the show doesn’t revolve around all the alleged problems and drawbacks of it? How many shows assume that aging has been medically conquered and try to answer the question, “What might life be like in a society where age-related diseases no longer exist?” Not many, I’m willing to bet.
However, many science fiction shows have an episode or two where the possibility to reverse aging is hinted at, sometimes very clearly, but none of the characters seem to realize the bleedingly obvious potential for an unprecedented medical revolution staring them right in the face. If anyone bothers reacting in any way at all, it’s normally just to dish out stale clichés and moral lessons about how the finitude of life is a blessing or how tampering with nature is unnatural and hence bad (which is a rather bizarre thing to say for someone standing on a spaceship traveling faster than the speed of light).
This is not so strange when you think about it. This is nothing but the umpteenth manifestation of the pro-aging trance, which blinds us to the tragedy of aging and forces us to do all manner of embarrassing mental gymnastics to pretend it’s some sort of blessing in disguise. Our acceptance of aging is so strong and pervasive that it’s slipped unnoticed into every layer of our society and culture, especially the arts.
Sometimes, this acceptance doesn’t necessarily lead us to praise aging rather than rage against it; some of us would gladly do away with it if they only knew that it might be possible, but they’ve grown so accustomed to its alleged inevitability that the possibility doesn’t even cross their minds. Some of the clearest examples of the different manifestations of the pro-aging trance in science fiction come mainly, but not exclusively, from Star Trek.
To not-so-boldly go
Dr. Beverly Crusher on Captain Picard’s Enterprise and the holographic doctor on Captain Janeway’s Voyager have performed nearly all the medical wonders you can imagine. They’ve triumphed over all sort of diseases, brought in people who were transmuted into aliens or assimilated by the Borg into cybernetic organisms and turned them back into humans, the list goes on. Yet, 300 years into the future, no one has yet figured out what to do about aging. Humans keep aging more or less at the same rate, or perhaps a bit slower than that, since most people seem to live to around 140 years old, although they still grow sick and decrepit.
However, every now and again, some characters in Star Trek do happen to stumble upon a cure for aging or a phenomenon that might hold the potential to become one. You’d be amazed to see how many different ways there are to undo aging in the 24th century and how, apparently, no one could care less about them.
In The Next Generation’s episode “Too short a season”, a very elderly and disabled Starfleet Admiral manages to get his hands on an alien concoction that is said to cause rejuvenation (even in humans, apparently, despite its alien origin). In an attempt to speed up the rejuvenation process in time to face an old enemy, the Admiral takes twice the recommended dose, obtaining the desired effect at the cost of his own life: the extremely accelerated process causes too much stress on his body, which gives in when he has been rejuvenated to about the age of 20. Not only did none of the characters seem even slightly interested in the potential of this miraculous cure—which, with some fine-tuning, could end the diseases of aging for good—the authors also managed to shoehorn in yet another lesson about the perils of tampering with nature.
In another, more fanciful, TNG episode, the Enterprise’s counselor Deanna Troi falls prey to a sly, manipulative negotiator who, through a strange ritual, manages to turn her into a receptacle of all his negative emotions. The burden quickly becomes too heavy and Deanna, just like other women that the negotiator exploited before her, experiences accelerated aging that almost kills her. Thankfully, the crafty Dr. Crusher manages to break the bond between the attacker and his victim, instantly rejuvenating Deanna and killing the negotiator, who turned into an old man in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the technique used by Dr. Crusher here could have been of some medical interest to treat the diseases of aging, but the idea didn’t seem to cross her mind.
Of particular interest in this same episode is a bit of small talk casually thrown around by Commander Riker. When the negotiator first boards the Enterprise, he is accompanied by an elderly, demented woman whom he passed for his mother. (She’s actually a chronologically young woman used as his current receptacle.) The “mother” eventually dies and the negotiator replaces her with Deanna, but before this happens, Deanna talks with Riker about how the sight of the elderly, mentally ill woman upset her. As they talk about it, the Commander nonchalantly comments that maybe, one day, we will all be like that elderly woman—as if the prospect of losing our health and wits is no cause for concern whatsoever.
In Star Trek IX, “Insurrection”, the crew of the Enterprise finds out that the particular location of a planet within a nebula exposes it to a type of radiation which has rejuvenative and regenerative effects, which are experienced by the crew themselves. Busy as they are foiling the villain’s plan to deport the local population of the planet, none of our heroes think that this beneficial radiation should be studied for its therapeutic potential. (Unsurprisingly, only the villain is interested in the properties of this radiation, and, naturally, he can’t think of a better way to reap its benefits than wreaking havoc on the planet. Once again, the moral of the story seems to be that only the bad guys would ever want to extend their lives, and they always do so at others’ expense. Sigh.)
In a Star Trek Voyager episode, the stuffy and stern Lieutenant Tuvok is stranded on an unknown planet in the company of a handful of local, alien kids who are terrified that a terrible monster will come and kill them if they get too close to a cave where their own people left them to die. Initially bewildered that a species might purposely try to kill its own young—an idea which he, as any good Vulcan would do, deems “illogical”—Tuvok eventually discovers that the children are actually elderly, and their species’ growth process works the other way around, almost a la Benjamin Button; they’re born as elderly grown-ups, and they rejuvenate and de-develop from adults into children as they approach the end of their lifespan; the monster is just a story.
Forget that this makes no biological or evolutionary sense whatsoever; forget the unique opportunity to study a spontaneous process of multicellular rejuvenation and its potential applications; forget that this would imply death in this species occurs only for the sake of ending each individual’s life, with no apparent cause. The really grave offense here is Tuvok’s parting words to the last of the terrified children after the rest have disappeared (read: died): there is nothing to fear at the “natural” end of her life cycle (why not? And why, then, is there anything to fear at the “unnatural” end of life?), which he can’t and doesn’t want to interfere with. Apparently, in this particular instance, the otherwise inflexibly logical Tuvok was glad to throw logic out the airlock. Though to be fair, under the circumstances, Tuvok couldn’t really do much else, and what is most despicable aren’t his actions as much as the message the authors tried to convey.
There are more examples of how Star Trek glosses over the problem of aging and how some characters have an ambivalent attitude towards death, but I’d rather stop here. Don’t get me wrong; I still love Star Trek, but in some respects, it didn’t go nearly as boldly as it could have.
Dr. Who’s episodes are often just as scientifically cringeworthy as they are brilliantly hilarious—so much so that one is willing to turn a blind eye to the numerous examples of downright nonsense. However, I couldn’t bring myself to do so in the case of the episode “The Lazarus Experiment.”
An ingenious yet obviously unscrupulous elderly scientist invents a machine to rejuvenate people. In a public demonstration of his invention, the man steps into the fancy-looking piece of machinery, and after some light show, he leaves the contraption some fifty years younger. The Doctor and his trusty companion are nearby and visibly worried about what he’s just witnessed, he confronts the scientist about it. The Doctor knows how the machine works and tries to persuade the rejuvenated scientist that each man has his own time and that “It’s not the time [that you live] that matters, it’s the person [you are].” Forgetting clichés and non sequiturs, it is important to keep in mind that the Doctor belongs to a species whose members, despite their entirely human appearance, are able to regenerate whenever they’re close to death; at this point, the Doctor had regenerated ten times already (and his incarnations aren’t always very faithful to the original), and ironically, he was about to do it again in the very next episode, when his life was at risk. Each man might have his own time, but the Doctor has been postponing his meeting with the Reaper for a good nine hundred years (and counting).
To complete this rather hypocritical collection of clichés, the rejuvenated scientist eventually transforms into a monster—yet another “lesson” that trying to extend your life is a bad idea.
The example of “Passengers”
The movie “Passengers” is set on a fully automated starship in which people who want to start over on a new world are placed in stasis capsules and sent off to a faraway planet in a journey that will take 120 years. The unlucky main character’s capsule malfunctions and he wakes up, all alone, 90 years in advance. There’s no reason for me to spoil the plot further. There’s nothing in it that I criticize per se, and the whole story hinges on the fact that he, in his 30s or so, will be long gone before the ship may reach its destination; without aging, this plot wouldn’t make any sense. Yet, it is another example of a story where, apparently, in the future, we’ve made no progress against aging. I couldn’t help thinking about it the whole time; in the future portrayed by this movie, we managed to build a huge, fusion-powered starship that is full of stasis capsules that bring metabolism to a complete halt (for the very purpose of preventing death by aging during the trip) and then restart it, but we’re still unable to cure aging.
Superluminal starships, teleporters, and holodecks, despite the fact that they don’t exist yet and we’re not even sure that they can, are something we’re perfectly used to and can easily imagine, because many people have dared to describe what life with them might be like; however, very few, if any, have dared to envision and show a world without aging, even though the science that might take us there, early-stage as it may be, is already here. Furthermore, rather than showing curiosity towards this brave new world that might await us, many people show disinterest or even contempt.
Of course, stories in which humanity manages to overcome aging or death do exist, but generally, it’s a power that only a few have and is generally depicted as a burden to carry, even though there is no evidence that this would be the case.
It’s a glaring demonstration of foxes disdaining grapes, of an extremely long-term Stockholm syndrome, and of the pervasiveness of the pro-aging trance. It’s high time that we woke up from it.