Monday, December 13, 2010

The Immortalist

Alan Harrington died of leukaemia on May 23rd, 1997, at the age of 79, leaving a scant 200-word obituary in The New York Times whose contents were lazily plucked from bits of old reviews and Harrington’s obit in his hometown newspaper. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, but if you were to search it for Alan Harrington today you’d only find the Welsh footballer, born 1933. Meanwhile, none of the Alan Harrington’s several books appears to still be in print.

Then again – to paraphrase Woody Allen – Harrington never wanted to achieve immortality through his works. He wanted to achieve it through not dying.

You’re looking at the cover of the 1979 Abacus edition – the second in Great Britain, where it had been first published by Panther Books in 1973 – of Alan Harrington’s The Immortalist. By this stage the book had lost its original subtitle (‘an Approach to the Engineering of Man's Divinity’) in favour of the more direct ‘How Science Could Give Humanity Eternal Life’. But note how the artwork on the cover undercuts the appeal to science: in the midst of a waste land, an adult foetus floats in an amniotic bubble; in front of him, also suspended, a mysterious green door, ever so slightly ajar; behind him, a dragon. Standard cheap fantasy or science-fiction Seventies fare, so cheap and so standard in fact that there’s no mention anywhere in the book of who the artist even is. But then, contrasting again with the picture you might have formed in your head at this point of a piece of sensationalistic and semi-lurid quasi-fiction, there’s Gore Vidal’s pronouncement at the top of the cover that what you’re holding in your hands is in fact ‘the most important book of our time’.

Such were the complicated beginnings of this idea – of immortality through scientific means – and such were the surprising difficulties in marketing it, in finding it an audience. The original proponent had been Robert CW Ettinger, who first wrote in a putative science-fiction story about the possibility that people could be cryogenically preserved upon death and wait in this suspended state for a futuristic cure. Ettinger reformulated this contention as an actual, feasible project in his 1962 treatise The Prospect of Immortality, which got significant attention from the media and is extensively covered in Harrington’s book. Yet at the time when The Immortalist was written only a handful of people had actually joined a cryonics organisation and undergone the procedure, including not Walt Disney. Three more decades later, the number worldwide is estimated at a paltry 200. Ettinger, who is still alive and does have his own Wikipedia page, predicted it would reach 40 billion before science became advanced enough to allow the thawing to begin, in three centuries’ time. I think it’s fair to say the project is running a little behind schedule, in spite of Ettinger himself having contributed not one but two dead wives to the cause.

Another cover from a Discus/Avon edition closer to the original publication date of The Immortalist (1969). Here the skin and clothing of a besuited and very elderly man are shed to reveal a naked young man inside, his hair neatly parted. The man is standing near the shore, evoking perhaps the idea of evolution from an earlier state of being, like when our primordial ancestors abandoned the ocean. The fleecy clouds in the background are a little reminiscent of Magritte. Ceci n’est pas un homme, perhaps? Except it is, that’s the whole point: to argue that man – the gender inflection on the two covers is not casual – can live forever and still be a man. Note however that both images portray a rebirth into adulthood, which is consistent with the cryonics project (in which most patients will need to be rejuvenated as well as brought back to life) but not with Harrington’s contention that medical science will simply stop us growing old in the first place.

So we haven’t even opened the book yet and the nature of its message and whether or not is to be taken seriously are already being cast into doubt. The New York Times review of June 20, 1969 echoes this frustration:
The sheer originality of "The Immortalist" provokes anxiety. One is never absolutely certain whether one is reading a bitter satire on inspirational self-help books, the obsessional mutterings of a compulsive, or a serious proposition.
The serious proposition, simply put, is that the time has come for humanity to kill death, ‘to put an end to mortality as a certain consequence of being born’ (3). After having launched into a lengthy and at times formidable elucidation of the history of the idea of immortality in religion and philosophy, and having rather sardonically dissected the vestigial need to keep a careful tally of one’s moral worth in the atheist West (‘Among the middle classes, God, supposedly dead, has reappeared in the form of a gigantic Computer of Excellence’, 106), Harrington gets to the point: can it be done, and should it be done? To which the answers are yes and yes. It can, because it stands to reason that it will: it might take some time, but we’ll figure out where the switch that triggers our senescence is hidden and how to turn it off; it should, because fear of death is in fact the cause of all major social ills, of violence and injustice and inequality; and furthermore, because not doing it would be tantamount to a betrayal of the species, just when we are so near to attaining the final victory against our cosmic enemy. In conclusion:
The immortalist argument holds this ground and will not step back from it: that death from deterioration of the body is an outrage and should be unceremoniously treated as such. "Do not go gentle into that good night" does not apply here. Rather aim not to go at all; mobilize the scientists, spend the money, and hunt death down like an outlaw. (208)

What Harrington proposes then is a sort of Manhattan Project for immortality, one of those endeavours for which Americans could claim at the time something of a track record, what with having just put a bunch of men on the moon and all. So long as you were prepared to mobilise the scientists and spend the money, it must have seemed that everything was achievable. But here’s the first rub: for like Ettinger before him, Harrington is quite aware of the imbalances in wealth and opportunity in American society, and that the prospect of immortality for the elites might seem abhorrent even to those who were prepared to scoff at the message of ‘Whitey on the Moon’. Ettinger is more sanguine in his response to this conundrum, but both men agree that it would be unthinkable to allow for social disparity in access to eternal life.
(Ettinger, 164): The stratification of society is resented by the people in the lower strata. Even such trifling distinctions as those between master and slave, or between commissar and worker, are only grudgingly endured, if at all. The chance of the masses holding still for the vastly greater split between mortal and immortal is nil. The elite have a fairly simple choice: share immortality, or be torn limb from limb.

(Harrington, 265): Consider a freezer program with affluent white people (their life insurance policies paid up) lying in neat rows waiting for the trumpet of science to return them to life, while the struggling black and brown masses continue to die as they always have. Do the cryonics partisans dare dream of the black and brown reaction to this final injustice? Not only are the exploiters oppressing us now, but they are planning to come back and sit on the world all over again—and on top of that they will not even die.

Hold on to these thoughts, for they’ll be central to next week’s discussion. For now I’ll observe that neither Ettinger nor Harrington – whilst maintaining that immortality will be achieved thanks to free enterprise and money – have actual suggestions regarding how society might be transformed into one in which health is a right guaranteed to all citizens, a problem far more complex and profound than even whether we’ll manage one day to defeat cancer or halt aging. Harrington appears in fact to take a chicken-and-egg approach to it, whereby without death we’ll live long enough to acquire the wisdom necessary to make the equal sharing of resources on a planetary scale and therefore immortality itself possible. For instance: rational solutions to the problem of over-population will be found by the year 2000, he argues, simply because nations ‘will have no choice’ (288), a contention that would strike most readers nowadays as risible, and bitterly so. In this respect the whole intellectual framework allowing for immortality to become syllogistically inevitable strikes one as wishful and naïve, beginning with the blind faith in the steady upwards trajectory of medical science: we know in fact that one of the great life-prolonging advances of the 20th Century, the organ transplant, is in danger of soon becoming impracticable; and we have learnt just today of a decrease in the average life-expectancy in the most wealthy and advanced country on the planet.

So what has happened to the most important book of our time? It briefly acquired a more sombre and authoritative cover, above, before going out of print. In the meantime, a new brand of far more creditable and persuasive transhumanists – the Moravecs and the Kurzweils and the Gordon Bells of this world – have supplanted those early prophets by doing away with the need for messy bodies, messier economies and wholesale political transformations: immortality will come to you by way of software, and your digital mind will occupy the world without dimensions of a computer network. Yet reading the early immortalists remains instructive if one wishes to trace the history of this extraordinary idea, and locate the contradictions that later, more shrewd proponents have been able to mask but not resolve.

The treatment of these ideas on this blog naturally will remain ongoing, but ahead of next week’s post I want to leave you to ponder the opening line of Ettinger’s Man into Superman (1972):
By working hard and saving my money, I intend to become an immortal superman.
It articulated two key propositions: that immortality is imminent and affordable, so long as you believe and are prepared to work hard for it; and that it is a belief in science and capitalism that defines those who are worthy of being saved, henceforth the supermen.

Alan Harrington. The Immortalist. London, Abacus, 1979.

Robert CW Ettinger. The Prospect of Immortality.
Robert CW Ettinger. Man into Superman.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. ‘Anybody Want to Live Forever?’ New York Times of June 20, 1969, p. 39. (With many thanks to Keir.)