Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Other Postmortal

Damien: I keep seeing doom&gloom about how overpopulation will very quickly ruin a longevous world. A couple of days after our basically optimistic Post Mortal Syndrome showed up on Amazon, I see a sort of populist science-is-so-evil thriller has just been published by Penguin, with the annoyingly similar title The Postmortal. The story starts in 2019 with a miracle cure that is restricted to a few countries. We haven't read the book yet, but the blurbs posted on Amazon are entirely predictable. Here are a few (with the blurbers’ names removed):

“The narrative comes to us through John's blog entries and collections of news bytes and pundit commentary. Through his sixty years as a 29-year-old, he experiences all the love, pain, grief, and terror of a standard lifetime and is still in good enough shape to kick some ass at the end....”

“Drew Magary's haunting first novel imagines a postmodern dystopia that would seem far-fetched if it didn't seem so possible. The Postmortal will make you regret ever wondering, even secretly, what it would be like to live forever.”

“A darkly comic, totally gonzo, and effectively frightening population- bomb dystopia in the spirit of Logan's Run, Soylent Green, and the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.”

"A startling leap forward. The Postmortal is dark, funny, and terrifying. This book draws such a vivid, convincing picture of immortality that it, quite literally, made me want to die."

Reading about extended life made this guy want to die? Look, I know it’s a harsh thing to say, but… hey, sir, if you feel that strongly about it, go right ahead, it's your choice. And p.s., you can already expect to live about twice as long as most human beings in history.

Note the droning repetition of fear and terror whenever people talk about extending healthy life. You’d swear they were discussing having their arms and legs hacked off. Somehow we are expected to just know in our bones that living a long time, with good health, is a dreadful punishment rather than a blessing.

But wait--It’s understandable why people think this way (or rather, react that way without thinking), because aging and death are such dreadful inevitable prospects that we need to console ourselves by treating them as desirable, rather than the vile accidents of evolution that they really are.

Meanwhile, there's a question embedded here that needs careful assessment and a clear answer. Must the end of death (except by accident or overwhelming infection or war) necessarily produce a vast population growth spurt?

My back of the envelope calculations suggest otherwise, or at least not for a long time--especially if many of the very long lived women are past their reproductive years. (Assuming it costs a lot for the initial treatments, and that longevity doesn’t also renew fertility. That seems a safe assumption; all of a woman’s eggs are present when she is a fetus, and they perish at an astounding rate until she reaches menopause, and then they are all gone.) But I'm hoping to see some numbers on this topic from the mathematically sophisticated.

Note the first blurb cited above:

“Through his sixty years as a 29-year-old, he experiences all the love, pain, grief, and terror of a standard lifetime”

Well, maybe by 2080 and beyond there would be some serious extra population bulge—if we assume every couple keeps having a kid every three or even 10 or 20 years, and then keeps doing so forever. But would they? Would you? Nowadays we don't all have 10 kids in a lifetime, as people used to when many of their children died young.

On the other hand, Barbara (whose only child is now a lovely, self-confident young woman who married recently) does sometimes express her yearning for the joy of another baby. That won’t happen without a drastic medical breakthrough, but suppose we could remain the age we are now, forever—

Barbara: I’ve started reading “the other” Postmortal on my Kindle. Only a few pages in, I find it well-written and engaging. It will be interesting to see if the author’s portrayal of long-term health is truly as grim as the reviews suggest. I would not want to be stuck at my 29-year-old level of knowledge and wisdom, but to have the knowledge and experience of 60 years together with a healthy body? I can’t imagine how anyone not suffering from MΓΌnchausen Syndrome could prefer arthritic to smoothly functioning joints, or clogged arteries to clear ones, or a lethargic to a responsive immune system. Maybe reading Postmortal will change my mind, and I will from that time forth be thankful for the lack of proper ligaments in my knees and the inefficiency of lungs scarred by pneumonia.

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