It’s a common theme in science fiction, particularly in Altered Carbon and Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Humans find a way to stop the aging process and cheat death indefinitely. While Kim Stanley Robinson suggests this will accelerate overpopulation and send Earth spiraling into decline, Richard Morgan shows this is just one more confusing aspect of a future world as familiar as it is strange and unknown. Repeatedly, people say that such beings are now immortal or virtually immortal.
That’s actually incorrect. Immortal means one cannot die. The books Sapiens and Homo Deus, historian Yuval Noah Harari’s take on the history of Earth’s greatest ape, suggest an altogether different term: Amortal. What is amortal?
As long as one does what needs to be done to stall or reverse aging, mainly on the genetic level, death is only an issue in the case of violence or accident, maybe disease if it is still a threat. The idea treats death as a technical problem to be solved, not an inevitable limit on human existence. But how can that be achieved?
The Mars Trilogy suggested that shortening the “tails” on chromosomes, which grow with age, would reset the aging process as far back as 10 years old. This, of course, was a plot device to allow Robinson’s characters to survive to see Red Mars become Blue Mars. Morgan takes a different tact. The mind is downloaded into a cortical stack, a disk in the base of the brain, that can be planted into a new body, or “sleeve.” You can have a custom-made sleeve if you are wealthy enough, or you can take whatever’s available, which has its own consequences. (Try being a 7-year-old put into the sleeve of a middle-aged woman after a violent incident.)
I have my own system in my series. Every five years, starting at age 25 (sometimes earlier, though it’s not recommended), humans undergo “rejuve.” Genetically, they are frozen at the age at the time of treatment. Under some circumstances, age can even be reversed a few years. Some, like Admiral Eileen Burke, will wait until their thirties to give themselves an air of maturity or authority. As a result, there are many youthful-looking humans in their second or third centuries. One, Tol Germanicus, suggests that he saw the Twin Towers fall, which would make him an adult in our time. However, it’s also suggested Germanicus has survived five centuries through other means.
There would be consequences. If you could live indefinitely, would you ever retire? And how would wealth pass from one generation to the next? Yet, it’s also been shown that nations where people live longer grow their populations more slowly. Would amortality accelerate the arrival of a post-scarcity society?