The following is a short excerpt from David Brin’s brilliant essay, “Do We Really Want Immortality?”
A number of eminent writers like Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson and Gregory Benford have speculated on possible consequences, should Mister G. Reaper ever be forced to hang up his scythe and seek other employment. For example, if the Death Barrier comes crashing down, will we be able to keep shoehorning new humans into a world already crowded with earlier generations? Or else, as envisioned by author John Varley, might such a breakthrough demand draconian population-control measures, limiting each person to one direct heir per lifespan?
What if overcoming death proves expensive? Shall we return to the ancient belief, common in some cultures, that immortality is reserved for the rich and mighty? Nancy Kress has written books that vividly foresee a time when the teeming poor resent rich immortals. In contrast, author Joe Haldeman suggested simple rules of social engineering that may help keep such a prize within reach by all.
More people could wind up dying by violence and accidents than old age. Might we then start to hunker down in our homes, preserving our long-but-frail lives by avoiding all risk? Or would ennui drive the long-lived to seek new thrills, like extreme sports, bringing death back out of retirement in order to add spice to an otherwise-dull eternity?
David Brin, a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War, is a 2010 Fellow of the IEET. Brin is known as a leading commentator on modern technological, social, and political trends. His nonfiction book The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association. Brin’s most recent novel, Kiln People, explores a fictional near future when people use cheap copies of themselves to be in two places at once. The Life Eaters—a graphic novel—explores a chilling alternative outcome of World War II.