Friday, June 22, 2007

Immortality for the Demographic

If we buy into my notion that the science fiction demographic consists of socially and economically mobile children of former working class families uprooted from their original support systems (immigrants to America, farmers moving to cities, etc.), the question to ask is “What do they get from science fiction?” What part of the former support systems does science fiction replace?

One obvious answer is religion, though that answer turns out to be not as simple and obvious on further inspection. Religion offers many things to people, a philosophy of life, a meeting place, a centralized organization for charitable and other works, an inspiration for art, a comfort to the sick, dying, or bereaved.

I have notions about how SF relates to all of those, but one aspect that I’d like to begin with is religion as a hope for immortality. Clearly it’s one of the things that many religions offer their believers, and just as clearly, science fiction also holds out that promise.

Again, there are many variations. The one I’d like to start with, I’ll call “Actuarial Immortality.”

I was on a convention panel a while back when one of the other panelists announced, “My life expectancy seems to be going up at a rate of about one year per year and I’d like to know what that means.” I said nothing at the time, partly because he’s older than I am and it’s rude to point out to people that you’re probably going to outlive them. Also, I was at a loss to explain to him just how many mistakes he’d made in the one short sentence.

The idea that rising life expectancies can hold out hope for immortality or even a fabulously long life is fairly common in SF circles. I’ve lost count of the number of writers and fans I’ve heard say, “By the time I get old, they’ll have a cure for aging,” or, ruefully, “I’m probably part of one of the last generations that will inevitably grow old and die.”

Average life expectancy did go up very rapidly during the 20th century, with a U.S. baby born in 1900 having a life expectancy of about 49, while one born in 2000 has a life expectancy of over 77. However, an awful lot of that increase was due to a reduction in infant and childhood mortality; life expectancy at age 65 went from about 12 years to about 18. That’s a similar proportionate increase, but much smaller in absolute terms. And “one year per year” requires an increase in absolute terms.

Assuming that my co-panelist was not delusional, I assume that what happened was that he’d checked his life expectancy near the times when the standard actuarial tables are updated, which happens once every ten years. If he got ten years worth of increase all in a year or two, it might look like the “one year per year” promise was being kept.

But you know, even “one year per year” isn’t nearly enough. Because even if you get that, you’re still playing Russian roulette.

Suppose that someone at age 65, with an 18 year life expectancy, suddenly gets “one year per year.” What does that mean? It means that he (or she) has a 50% chance of living past 18 years. The next 18 years also gets a 50% chance. Flip a coin every 18 years and if it comes up heads you die. Think you’ll live forever?

Actually, even that understates the problem. Look around at all your family and friends. Suppose that every 18 years, half of them are gone. How long before you are all alone?

I once said to my much younger niece, “If you live long enough, everyone you now know will be dead.”

“Thanks very much for sticking that image in my head,” she replied.


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