Forever 35? Thoughts on a society of immortals

One of the challenges of writing speculative fiction (science fiction or fantasy) is that often, your characters are really fucking old and it can be hard to know what to do with that.

The most common solution seems to be to ignore the problem, and treat immortal characters as being whatever age they appear to be. See: every vampire romance story ever, where teenage girls date hundred year old vampires without anyone ever seeing a problem with it in-story (however creeped out some audience members may be). Note that while vampire stories written for teenage girls may be the most conspicuous offenders, the situation does sometimes get gender-flipped. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander can date a 1100 year old ex-demon without ever being teased about being into older women.

Even when the problem is acknowledged, few authors seem to do much with it (though I’d be interested to hear about exceptions). Cory Doctorow’s excellent sci-fi novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom features a narrator with four doctorates who at one point early in the story mentions that, “My girlfriend was 15 percent of my age, and I was old-fashioned enough that it bugged me,” but otherwise his age doesn’t show much. (Googling some of the details just now, I noticed someone describing it as a coming of age story.)

It’s interesting to think that some day, we might get to find out what a bicentenarian or even a millenarian (a person who lives to be a thousand, not an adherent of millenarism) really acts like. Whether we’ll develop the technology to achieve immortality anytime soon is up for debate, but there seems to be no reason in principle why this couldn’t happen eventually, if medical science continues long enough.

And yet… could immortals who don’t act like immortals turn out to be realistic after all? Though I can’t speak from experience, my impression is that many (most?) people don’t change all that much psychologically after age 35 or so. They get settled into a career. Their political and religious opinions are less likely to change while they are young. They often don’t seem to get any better at their jobs.

Even intellectuals and creative types, who you might expect to spend their lives boldly exploring new ideas and new creative frontiers, often seem to ossify. Not totally, but once they have their first great success–their first idea that gets people excited, their first successful novel, whatever–they often stick to variations on a theme, or at least working in the same general vein. (I actually settled on the number 35 for this post in part because that’s when Dawkins published The Selfish Gene; I think it’s fair to say that book has defined his niche since.)

That raises the interesting possibility that a society of immortals wouldn’t just look no older than 35, it could also be full of people who are stuck mentally wherever they were at 35. Imagine the old fundamentalists who will not budge on points of doctrine where even committed evangelicals of the younger generation are changing their views… and then stretch that out over centuries.

One argument I can think of for why this might not happen: the “not changing much after 35 pattern” may be an artifact of the incentives our society gives people, but the incentives might look different if you’re going to be living for centuries. Basically, the way things are right now, once you’ve found your niche it’s probably in your interest to not gamble by making any big changes, but such gambles might be less costly, or even necessary, in a future society.

For example, consider some old fundamentalist, Norman Geisler or Albert Mohler or whoever, trying to decide whether to compromise a bit on inerrancy. It might help them a lot with appealing to the younger generation of evangelicals… but it would only help a little there, too little to be worth the price in alienated existing supporters. But it’s one thing to stick to your guns for a few decades as you grow somewhat out of touch; it’s another thing to become centuries out of touch because you’re not willing to take some chances.

And maybe in a society of immortals, radically shaking up your life every few decades would be as standard as going to high school. Who knows! Obviously a whole bunch of things could affect the shape of a future society, and in some ways I’m offering up relatively conservative scenarios that could be made nonsensical by more radical changes in society (think some of Robin Hanson’s speculations), but it’s fun to think about.

  • Eric D Red

    I’ve often wondered about that, although probably not to the extent you have.
    There’s one aspect that’s dealt with a bit in some stories where extended life comes from some kind of rejuvenation. A big aspect of our mental and emotional function is derived from our physical state and it’s changes through life. Of course there’s feeling tired because of a degenerating body in old age, but also changing hormone levels over life. How much does that drive younger scientists to push harder or take bigger chances than older ones?

    There’s also the aspect of boredom. We progress from excited, to driven, to steady, to ossified in a culturally or phsycologically “natural” manner that matches our lifespan. But what if you reached that comfortable steady position and then realized you had another 200 years of it? Would you or could you get re-energized in your given field? Would you have to start something new?

    I’m going to be thinking about this one for days, now. I’d love to discuss this for a couple hours over a few pints, but alas reality calls.

  • Eric D Red

    And what about brain capacity? There must be some theoretical limit on what a brain can contain. And do neurons containing old memories last forever? After that do they become available again or are the used up? Can they be re-energized? And if remove old memories, are you really the same person after a couple of hundred years of replacing memories? I suppose we already have some of that progression. I’m not the same person I was 30 years ago.

    What about outside augmentation (implants of memory chips, for example)? That’s a whole other can of worms.

    • hf

      When I think about an AI making our brains young and active, I think of it as a step towards letting us (learn how to) increase our own intelligence and memory capacity. If we didn’t do that within some window of time, it would likely cause problems. The AI might wind up restoring us or making another copy from a backup, on the assumption that once that copy gets smart enough (with the AI’s guidance), we could safely absorb the memories of the first copy. I’m assuming that a super-intelligence would consider functionalism obviously true.

  • Hunt

    One argument goes that emerging brain resources and refining the logical structures of the brain just barely counteracts the biological decay of brain neurons so that if decay were halted we would actually be vastly superior mental beings at, say, 80, than we are at 30. 35 is merely a statistical average of when the balance of processes seem to fix themselves and remain stable, though it’s actually just an illusion.

    For as much as there is any meaning in theorizing about the propriety of sexual liaison between immortal beings (and I have a feeling there isn’t much), I think it will really boil down to easily characterizable moral principles pertaining to exploitation and personal boundary. Right now we seem to think that if two people are within a certain window of age correlation (say 20 years, 30 stretches it, often I think it’s closer to 10 or 15) then somehow they are sexually compatible. But that all hinges on what we provincially know about how one person can exploit another given the average human lifespan. It would make no sense at directed at two people of ages 1000 and 1200. Or would it?

  • Darren

    Being a long-time trans-humanist (and vampire fiction reader), the thought has occurred to me from time to time that, if I were 1,000 but appeared to be 25, would I really be interested in dating an 18 year old? And would she really be that enamored of my waxing nostalgic about DVD players, cell phones, Facebook, the common cold, and driving my own car?

    Being a fan of the British show “Doctor Who”, I suspect this comes into play.

    Assuming everyone knows the show, this accounts for why the Doctor never (or almost never) consummates his relations with his companions. I suspect he looks at them more like cats – fun to have around, cute at times, naughty at times, and even though he may grow very attached to them, there is never the possibility of a peer-to-peer relationship any more than between me and my favorite Thomas Jefferson Pussycat, III.

    River Song on the other hand… I have never been quite sure, but I believe from a short line on “Let’s Kill Hitler” that she is on the order of 400 some-odd years old just before the beginning of her and the Doctors relationship. So, still a younger woman to the Doctor’s 800 or so years, but close enough.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Do you mean apart from the fact that he is damn near godhood, comes from a civilization a billion years old, has genocided more races than anyone can count, comes out first best in arguments with freaking gods, deals out fates worth than death on a regular basis, is answerable to no one other than his own morals(or possibly the Laws of Time™) and is on record being squicked out by the idea of sex with a human? Oh, and despite the last 6.5 seasons, still treats humans as stupid apes?

  • Eric D Red

    It would have some serious cultural effects, too. It’s really easy to dismiss environmental impacts that will happen in 200 years if you won’t see it. And building up a legacy to hand over to your kids would be quite different. You’d still need the legacy rather than handing it over, and you might spend more time getting them going rather than launching them off in time to retire and die.

  • The Other Weirdo

    The Herris Serano series deals with ramifications of freely available, if expensive, prolong treatments for which the characters in-universe don’t even think there is a limit. What do you do with your life? What are the kids entitled to? What if your enemies–an aggressive expansionist group–also have access to these treatments?

  • McNihil

    I have often mused about the subject of very high age in fantasy and sci fi myself. Like you, I always thought the authors didn’t really give it enough thought and/or didn’t do anything of interest with the idea. Then I discovered Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. He extensively explores the idea of a society that is technologically so advanced that illness and death are virtually eliminated. I have a feeling you know him because you seem to know your sci fi but if you don’t then I can’t recommend him highly enough. The other day I found out that he’s PZ’s favorite author. For a most comprehensive exploration of death in societies that have overcome it with technological means, check out his “Surface Detail.” You might also find something on wikipedia, which has entries on all kinds of aspects of his Culture society.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I know of Banks. In fact, I may have one or two of his books on my Kindle. But I’ve yet to read more than a few pages of any of his stuff, not that it was bad, he’s just on the long list of authors I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t found the time for.

      • John Keel

        I hope you get around to it because I do think you’ll enjoy his books. I had never heard of him until a few months ago when I just randomly picked up “Matter”. I was hooked immediately and am now into the 6th of his Culture novels. The society he describes – The Culture – is an amazing, utopian invention/thought experiment and beyond interesting to explore. Well, in my opinion at least. Another thing I found so captivating was that “Matter” wasn’t just a good and exciting story. It was actually a piece of work, at least for my intellect. It was so complex and described such alien and wondrous worlds and races that it was kind of tough to keep up and put it all together visually and narratively in my mind but once I got the hang of it, it was hugely rewarding. I’m not sure if I’d actually recommend it as the first book to read from the Culture series because the complexity might turn some people off (unless, of course, it’s not as complex and difficult for others to follow as it was for me) but for me it was a real treat.

        It might also be of interest to you as a philosopher/humanist/skeptic that he’s an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland (copy-pasted from Wikipedia).

        Ok, enough praise. I think you can see I am trying to convince you that he’s worth prioritizing on your reading list because, as far as I can tell from your blog, I think you might get a lot out of his books.

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