Immortality would be paradise, right? The Bible is chock-full of the joys and wonders that await those who achieve eternal life. No more aging, suffering, illness, or death, though it seems like it’s cheating a little because all that comes after death, and You Only Live Twice, Mr. Bond.
What about eternal life minus the whole death thing? Wouldn’t that be cool? (I’m not getting into the Rapture question here, pre-, mid-, post-, or whatever—that may come up next time, but not today) Can it happen? Hmm. It could have. There’s this odd little passage in Genesis:
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” – Gen 3:22
Doesn’t sound very sporting. First, we’re not allowed to possess the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then, to add insult to injury, immortality is off-limits. Seems like that would fix a lot of our most vexing difficulties with life on Earth. Too bad we can’t rewind history and create a world where immortality isn’t just a pipe dream.
But wait! We can! Speculative fiction to the rescue!
Last week, I talked about some of the different ways our desire to cheat death plays out in spec fic. So, what happens to those fortunate few who manage to outwit, outplay, outlast, or otherwise thumb their noses at the Grim Reaper and gain immortality?
Let’s spend some time among the immortals and find out.
Starting once again with classic literature, some of you helpfully pointed out last week that Tolkien’s Elves were essentially immortal, save from death in war or other violent mishap. They were also subject to a sort of fading away, whether through grief or fatigue of their long lives, and they all eventually set sail from the Grey Havens for a journey into the unknown West, beyond the knowledge of Middle Earth.
And as I noted last week, that immortal rake, Dorian Gray, despaired of his debauched existence and ended up destroying the portrait that sustained his youth and vigor, killing himself in the process.
No, I still won’t spoil the end of Tuck Everlasting for you, but I will note that the good-hearted Tucks find their immortality a kind of stasis, in which they remain fixed in time, despite the changes in the world around them.
A similar theme plays out among the immortal vampires of Twilight and Anne Rice’s novels. Life is change and growth. Un-death is a sterile existence without development or progress, where the immortals parasitize the mortals and inexorably lose touch with whatever humanity remains to them.
How are we doing so far? Don’t lose heart…literature is always so grim and pessimistic. Maybe some more modern examples from the world of popular culture, springing from our social enlightenment and advanced scientific knowledge. Yes, that must paint a rosier picture.
In the bizarre 1974 motion picture, Zardoz, Sean Connery portrays a barbarian transported…in a flying stone head…to a land of immortals. Their eternal life has become a torture to them, and their most profound hope is to somehow rediscover death.
Did I mention there’s a flying stone head?
Mr. Connery makes another appearance in the movie Highlander, about a race of immortals locked into a never-ending tournament. Behead your opponent, gain his power and abilities, and live to fight the next challenger until only one remains. The victor wins the ability to guide the course of human history, for better or worse, but eventually, the whole thing starts all over again. On television.
Maybe something higher-brow…Isaac Asimov’s Hugo Award-winning novella, The Bicentennial Man (not to be confused with its pale translation to the big screen starring Robin Williams), concerns a self-aware robot who desires to become human, and after years of modification is indistinguishable from the genuine article, with one glaring difference that prevents society from accepting him: he’s not subject to natural death. Rather than give up his dream, he surrenders his immortality and engineers a way to make his robot body age and die at a human rate. He gains legal recognition as a human being, and then he dies.
This isn’t helping, is it?
Okay, back to the movies. Ron Howard’s Cocoon brings a downhearted collection of senior citizens together with a crew of immortal aliens who are trying to recover some of their comrades marooned on Earth in hibernation vessels. Contact with the alien cocoons rejuvenates the oldsters, but unfortunately drains the life force from one of the aliens inside, killing him. The rescue team doesn’t seem to hold a grudge, and they whisk everybody off to their homeworld, where the seniors will presumably live forever and teach the aliens about the Charleston, needlepoint, and Spam. Wait, wait…there’s a sequel! Some of the immortal geriatrics return in Cocoon: The Return to visit their loved ones and must decide whether to stay on Earth and die, or go back to the alien planet and not die.
In summary, immortality in spec fic is most often boring, futile, dismal, empty, or all of the above.*** It has less in common with life eternal than with death everlasting. Maybe God knew what He was doing when He fenced off that Tree of Life. It appears that making a sinful, messed-up, broken human being immortal would condemn them to an eternity of sinful, messed-up, brokenness. Perhaps immortality is best experienced after death. More about that next week.
***No, I didn’t forget The Doctor, who leads a rather jolly semi-immortality, and there are some other immortal or nearly-immortal characters in his universe that aren’t totally miserable, but I would maintain he’s the exception that proves the rule. Besides, he owns a TARDIS, and that would keep almost anyone amused for several millenia. I now respectfully yield the floor to the Whovians.