Wake me up in a hundred years
How to Live Forever or Die Trying
Simon & Schuster £12.99, pp320
I belong, like Bryan Appleyard, to the first generation in human history to regard mortality as a personal affront rather than a biological destiny. Born in the late Forties, we grew up in a world that promised a cure for all diseases, along with a barrage of labour-saving gadgetry that freed us for the pursuit of pleasure. In the Sixties we cultivated the self, psychedelically liberating it from the constraints of reality. In subsequent decades we concentrated on streamlining the body with gym subscriptions and faddy diets. Now, despite our precautions, we can't help noticing the evidence of decay: fogged-up senses, mastiff-like jowls, creaky joints. Our response, inevitably, is to cruise the internet in search of a remedy for death.
Sceptical but as anxious as the rest of us to have the sentence commuted, Appleyard investigates the industry that caters to what he calls 'human life extension' (which sounds to me as if a lengthened lifespan were somehow related to those straggly synthetic fronds that Victoria Beckham weaves into her hair). The Greeks saw human beings as creatures defined by their mortality, which is why they invented tragedy. Gods do not need to die, and animals do so without knowing about it in advance; it is the special prerogative and the demoralising curse of our species to spend life in the anticipation of an end. So a society that more or less indefinitely postpones death or seeks to outwit it, whether by dosing us with pharmaceutical nostrums or by cryogenically freezing cadavers to await resurrection, is experimenting with a future that will be somehow 'post-human'.
We are advancing into territory staked out by science fiction. 'I got killed twice in two hours,' brags a clone in Roger Spottiswoode's film The 6th Day. 'Oh, we've all been killed before,' shrugs a resurgent colleague. But if we can continue forever, how will we combat tedium? Arnold Schwarzenegger in The 6th Day is dismayed to meet a copy of himself. 'Kinda takes the fun out of being alive, doesn't it?' growls the cloned, unkillable Arnie to the original. In the cerebral Utopia at the end of Shaw's Back to Methuselah, the deathless beings who frolic in Eden can change the shape of their bodies at will, but find it harder to tinker with the soul.
The would-be immortals encountered by Appleyard at academic conferences and in obscure American research institutes turn out to be not so much transhuman (which is how they define themselves) as transcendently geeky. One of them, Appleyard reports, is 'aggressively scruffy with tangled, heavy-metal hair and jeans barely clinging to his hips'. Another has 'a huge beard' and hair tied back in a ponytail, and gives monologues in a shrill, hectoring register. A third, so skeletal that his neck looks like a stalk, scuttles off to meditate while standing on one leg and nervously consulting a watch to see when he has to swallow his next handful of life-preserving pills. Unruly hair, an uncoordinated body and a wretched dress sense are, of course, the unmistakable indices of intellect, as every senior common room in Oxford testifies. But would you really want to share eternity with freaks like these?
Appleyard himself seems unsure. Personal testimony about his childhood dreams and adolescent traumas make clear his dread of death; nevertheless, the experts he interviews are shysters. The immortality they peddle is a specifically American fantasy, the product of a culture infatuated by newness and hostile to the very notion of history. The explorer Ponce de Leon named Florida after the fountain of youth which he expected to find there, and the Jewish retirees who dodder through Miami on their Zimmer frames appear to believe they have located that sacred source. The pity is that they're more like Swift's Struldbruggs in Gulliver's Travels, a race whose immortality is merely a protracted, impotent, useless senescence. At the very least, the cryonics company Alcor, which charges $150,000 (£76,000) to deep-freeze a body, nominates Florida as a good place to die: a trained response team can soon be on hand to drain your blood and prepare you for your refrigerated vigil.
Though Appleyard writes with his customary acuteness, his book seems to be something of a hasty assemblage. He cannibalises magazine assignments, and when the material runs thin he wanders off into digressions on spirituality, alchemy, 9/11 and blogging. Some anecdotes and bits of data are irritatingly repeated: poor editing, careless proof-reading, or - I wonder - early signs of the entropic softening of the brain that we baby boomers all nervously await?
Appleyard has a good head. I hope he also possesses the £40,000 that Alcor will charge him to chop it off and preserve it in a vat of liquid nitrogen coolant.
Source: This article first appeared in the Guardian
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007