Even pseudo-immortality, the thousand-year lifespan, has a nasty ring to it.
Not just because of what it might mean for the individual who’s rocking the forever-life, either — and there have been plenty of discussions of that idea, both in the vampire myth and in science fiction. One of my favorite authors to tackle this idea is Richard K. Morgan in his Altered Carbon series. In this universe people are implanted with tiny upload hardware, almost impossible to destroy, allowing your persona to be transferred from body to body. Not quite the traditional view of immortality, but the tone — the weary, noir sensibility of an endless dream-like loop — is spot on. People who’ve lived too long in the AC universe are fundamentally wrong in an alien way. They have seen and done too much. They’ve gone past nihilism. There’s an … absence where the fundamental connection to other humans should be.
No, what’s even creepier to me is what a society of such people would be. Look around us now. Boomers are freaking out over millenial values, just as their Greatest Generation parents freaked out over theirs. I have people working for me who’ve never even seen a dial telephone. Change hurtles ever onward, and the only thing more corrosive than the fact that the future isn’t evenly distributed is the fact that there are plenty of humans who don’t want this future at all. It’s all too much change, it may be literally too much change to process for human hardwiring. Many older humans are living future shock, right now.
It was ever thus. But the difference now is that those people are alive.
In 1900 the percentage of the American population over the age of 45 was 17.8%. In 1950 it was 28.4%. As of the last census the share of the US population over 45 is 36.4%. Hell, the 65+ share’s gone from 4.1% in 1900 to 13.3% in 2010. More and more people still in the society, with greater and greater influence, still constructing societal and legal norms based on emotional, psychological, cultural and technological frames of reference that are less and less relevant.
We’d all like to think we’d reinvent ourselves, re-assimilate, learn and grow along a constantly regenerative learning curve. But most of us wouldn’t. We’re just not cognitively wired for it. We crave stasis, because our lizard brains crave safety and security.
Now, am I bashing older people in general, painting them all as regressive? No, of course not. But the law of averages is the law of averages, and people are people, and the vast majority of we humans formed our core values in our adolescences, locked our social and political opinions in our early 20′s. Grudges dig deep. To call out a specific example: no matter who you voted for, wasn’t it a little goddam tiring in the 2000 election to still be refighting the 32-year old Vietnam War records of the two candidates for the US presidency?
Now imagine it was the Civil War.
Imagine it now. A functional lifespan of, say 200 years. Working with people who owned slaves. Trying to negotiate international trade treaties to deal with global warming by reconciling voters who watched their brother’s head get spun into a fine red mist by a Boston infantryman or a Georgian cavalryman. Getting funding for stem cell research from voters who grew up believing not only were black people a genetically inferior race, but other versions of white people were, too. 200 years is what Bruce Sterling posits in Holy Fire, a gerontocracy, and it’s a goddam mess.
Now make it 500 years.
Nothing ever forgotten. Nothing ever truly passing.
The death of history and the birth of the Long, Eternal Now.
So when you posit a race of beings who stare at us pitilessly, as so much mortal cannon-fodder in the midst of their centuries-long feuds, I do not fantasize about meeting them. I want them to sod off post-haste to the Grey Havens, good and gone. The prospect of them returning, and dealing with them as an enemy with reality-bending powers and millenia of strategic experience, does not fill me with elfin glee. That’s horror, to me.