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Forever Young? Visions of Future Humans
Life Extension and (Non-)Aging in Speculative Literature, Theatre and Art
The research group ALiEN (Alternative Lives in Experimental Narrative), situated at the University of Salzburg, Department of English and American Studies and led by Prof. Dr. Sabine Coelsch-Foisner, investigates literary and cultural phenomena with regards to the Fantastic and the strategies by which these are realised. Its work is organised along five research axes: (1) the Boundaries of Being; (2) Fantastic Body Transformations; (3) the Theory of the Fantastic; (4) Fantastic Literature as a Means of Communication; and (5) the Fantastic and Society. One of the chief interests of the research group is the examination of presentations of aging, non-aging and immortality, in fantastic, speculative fiction.

Immortality and life extension have always been popular topics of literary texts. In the speculative literature of the past two decades, new images of humans in connection with a change of their life spans are dominant. Images of humans as globally linked, digitised or made immortal with the help of nanotechnology show how already existing technologies and scientific experiments are pre-imagined and extrapolated from in literature. In the shift of how we think about future humans, literature plays an important role: literary speculations function as mediators of new ideas, they document intellectual debates about changes in our lives, and they can be seen as partners of the sciences: on the one hand because they supply scientists with new ideas, on the other because they use argumentative strategies to convey the unfamiliar effectively. Speculative literature deals with imagining the conditio humana beyond its present state and under changed premises: What does it mean if humans live longer without aging or if intelligence and beauty can be pre-programmed? How do individuals, and how does society, deal with such changes?

The research group ALiEN examines strategies of overcoming or dealing with aging as developed in recent speculative literature, theatre and art and how these strategies correlate with speculations and findings of the natural sciences. Eight recurring strategies can be observed, which will be briefly illustrated with the help of examples in the following.

1. Rejuvenation Treatments
Bodies are rejuvenated with the help of cosmetic or somatic procedures. They are inspired by, and constitute a development of, already existing techniques of cosmetic surgery. In speculative texts, such procedures usually do not only have advantages, however, but can lead to various problems. In Peter F. Hamilton's novel Misspent Youth (2002), for example, the rejuvenated, 70-year-old Jeff Baker manages to steal his son's girlfriend with his new youthful looks, but is devastated to find that his old friends no longer recognise him. The rejuvenation treatment employed in this novel is not without side effects, nor does it last.

2. Prosthetic Manipulations of the Body/Cyborgisation
In many texts, the human body is saved from aging and dying with the help of mechanical or biological "spare parts"; aging is postponed, the boundaries between human and machine are blurred. In Stephen Baxter's novel Ring (1994), for example, a character with whom an Anti-Senescence-Technology on the cellular level does not work is kept alive over many centuries with the help of various mechanical devices.

3. Cryogenics
Freezing the body with the help of cryogenics and thus preserving it over long stretches of time is a variant of life extension especially popular in space opera novels, in which long distances and time spans have to be overcome in the course of interstellar or intergalactic travels. Contrary to the real-life experiments in freezing bodies, cryogenics in speculative fiction are usually applied before the person's death. Cryogenic procedures often lead to discrepancies between a character's actual age and their looks or to tensions between characters who are in fact the same age, but, due to being frozen for a different amount of time, have aged to a different degree.

4. Age Stabilisation
Stabilising one's age at a certain point with the help of genetic engineering technologies may lead to similar situations, e.g. in Iain M. Banks' Culture series (1987-2010) or in Ken MacLeod's The Cassini Division (1998).

5. Modifications of the Human Genotype Before Birth
In Brian Stableford's Emortality Series (1998-2002), a gene-technological treatment, the so-called Zaman Transformation, is developed throughout the third millennium which, when applied to human embryos before birth, makes sure that they only age physically up to a certain point, but can live for centuries or even millennia if they are not killed in an accident. Such a long life does not only have advantages: there is the threat of overpopulation if births are not restricted, serious problems arise if one generation of political leaders is, due to a lack of necessity to retire caused by old age, not willing to abdicate.

6. Cloned or Nanotechnologically Created Bodies
In Charles Stross' novels Accelerando (2005) and Glasshouse (2006) humans can extend their lives at will by transferring their minds to new, cloned bodies, or they can reconstruct their aged or damaged bodies with the help of nanotechnology. What does this mean for the self-image of humans? Are all memories transferred from the old body to the new one? What does it mean if one lives through physical adolescence, adulthood and old age more than once? In his quartet The Fall Revolution, especially in the novel The Cassini Division (set in our solar system yet several centuries in the future), Ken MacLeod illustrates the consequences of such a technology. The protagonist Ellen May Ngwethu, for example, is, like many other of the dead, brought back to life by the transferral of a scanned version of her brain (complete with all her memories up to the moment of the scan) to a cloned body that was grown from her own stem cells. For such resurrected humans, death as the ultimate outcome of aging becomes inconsequential.

7. Mind Uploads, Saving One's Mind on a Digital Medium

In this variant of immortality or life extension the body ceases to be of importance, humans only exist as e.g. neuronal scans. Questions concerning e.g. the status of human rights concerning such scans arise: can such scans be switched off or erased? Do they still have basic democratic rights?

8. Group Minds
In speculative literature immortality often goes hand in hand with a transformation of the body or even the loss of the material, organic physicality. Some texts go even further and link immortality not only with a renunciation of the body, but with giving up individual identity as such. This happens when someone decides to join a group mind, like e.g. the historian Zephyr Duquesne in Justina Robson's novel Natural History (2005).

Such speculations are challenging in terms of narrative strategies. How are these alternative life forms conveyed in familiar language? Whose voice is speaking when a dead person goes on existing, when humans are cloned or lead virtual lives? In the case of first-person narrative situations, do the voices age, or are they rejuvenated along with the bodies?

It is the accomplishment of speculative literature to narrativise and creatively mediate visions of the future that deal with basic anthropological situations of humanity. Unlike philosophy and the natural sciences, speculative texts do not only reflect upon the social and ethical consequences new technologies might have on societies and individuals, but illustrate possible consequences with the help of concrete examples: the loneliness of the clone, the search for one's origin, the musings of an old mind in a young body. By sketching scenarios (of warning) and trying to imagine creative solutions, speculative literature manages to provide a kind of unique point of orientation in the present debate about life extension and anti-aging.

Link to ALiEN Website: www.uni-salzburg.at/alien


References:

Banks, I. (2005) Use of Weapons. Orbit: London.
Baxter, S. (1994) Ring. Eos: New York.
Hamilton, P. F. (2003) Misspent Youth. Pan: London.
MacLeod, K. (1998) The Cassini Division. Orbit: London.
Robson, J. (2003) Natural History. Pan: London.
Stableford, B. (1999) Architects of Emortality. Tor: New York.
Stableford, B. (2003) Dark Ararat. Tor: New York.
Stableford, B. (2000) The Fountains of Youth. Tor: New York.
Stableford, B. (1998) Inherit the Earth. Tor: New York.
Stableford, B. (2002) The Cassandra Complex. Tor: New York.
Stableford, B. (2002) The Omega Expedition. Tor: New York.
Stross, C. (2005) Accelerando. Ace: New York.
Stross, C. (2006) Glasshouse. Ace: New York.




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