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.)


Unknown said...

/Jaw drops/ there's alot here to ponder Mr Gio, and some very timely.

Andrew said...

Gio - interesting reading. I was glad you got to the bit on overpopulation before the end, as the word 'Malthus' was ringing in my ears from early on.

If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend Dennis Potter's parting gift to British TV, also on the subject of cryogenics, Cold Lazarus.

Congratulations on graduating, by the way. Read the citation of your PhD in the programme last night as I waited to go up and collect my piece of goatskin parchment. Guaranteed to last 500 years apparently, so there's still a chance I'll be able to use it when they revive me at some point...

Unknown said...

Go Gio, wuhooooooooooooo (surfer's cheer).

Giovanni Tiso said...

Guaranteed to last 500 years apparently, so there's still a chance I'll be able to use it when they revive me at some point...

Classics graduates won't even have to retrain. People should consider that before choosing a degree.

Unknown said...

Goat vellum? Gads.

comidi, half funny.

Keir said...

-- see, of course, Bug Jack Barron for a very good sfnal treatment of the issue from around the same time.

maps said...

Very interesting Giovanni. Have you looked at the Cosmist movement in the Soviet Union? They thought that Lenin's tomb was a way of preserving the great leader's body until he could be resurrected, and they proposed the establishment of a 'world cemetery' in Russia's northern wastes where everyone else could wait. Their ultimate plan was to turn the earth into an enormous socialist spaceship and cruise from planet to planet, resurrecting the dead and thus, ultimately, destroying the distinction between past and present. Gorky was a sympathiser...

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Keir see, of course, Bug Jack Barron for a very good sfnal treatment of the issue from around the same time.

And as it almost invariably happens the fictionalised version was a lot more acutely aware of the moral texture and social implications of the project (relatedly, I've been trying for next week's post to obtain data on the ethnic makeup of those 200 'patients', with no luck). But the genre barriers are harder to establish when it comes to the immortalists. Besides the visual semiotics of those book covers, I've spoken about how Ettinger first formulated his ideas in a science-fiction story. The single most remarkable book in the field, Hans Moravec's Mind Children, slips in and out of the narrative mode all the time. And almost every text on the subject since the Eighties treats nanotechnology as a real existing science, as opposed to an object of speculation. Without an end to scarcity the idea would immediately run into major difficulties; so post-scarcity simply has to be posited, in what is essentially a narrative as opposed to scientific or empirical mode of knowledge.

Giovanni Tiso said...


Very interesting Giovanni. Have you looked at the Cosmist movement in the Soviet Union?

No, and I must plead complete ignorance. I shall attempt to begin remedying forthwith. Thanks!

George D said...

Classics graduates won't even have to retrain. People should consider that before choosing a degree.

Historians don't die, we just become primary sources.

Very interesting Giovanni. Have you looked at the Cosmist movement in the Soviet Union?

The tombs of the immortal leaders are an interesting rejoinder to this attempt to defy mortality. The dead hand of the past in the present. Or equally interesting, the attempts of the British empire and its subsequent, less grand iterations (cf the tours that pop up in te Papa and elsewhere) to evoke the mummified remains of Egyptian boy-kings and solidified Pompeians, and simultaneously tie themselves in a relationship to timelessness and antiquity.

Unknown said...

No regime exists without the creation of forebears.

Giovanni Tiso said...

to evoke the mummified remains of Egyptian boy-kings and solidified Pompeians

I must be painfully pedantic and remark that the dead Pompeians aren't solidified, on the contrary, they are human-shaped pockets of air. The idea of the empty space left by a corpse will return next week, which is in part why I mention it, but I did write about the Pompeii exhibition at Te Papa here and it may connect with your comment.

Zunzster said...

The psychotherapist and novelist Irvin Yalom has a lot to say about fear of death (amonst other existential fears) as a major driver of much of human psychology and behaviour.

His book Staring at the Sun summarises a lot of that for those who don't want to read his larger magnum opus academic work Existential Psychotherapy.

I think there are strong parallels between singulatarians and cryonicists convictions as a form of secular/aethistic response to fear of death contrasted against the more familiar theistic and religious response.

For the record, I'm in the aetheistic camp myself so I think defeating death by biological means is an eventual scientific certainty - telomerase is your friend!

As a software professional by trade, I think Kurzweil's 'rapture of the nerds' is a far bigger ask. Nature has a few billion year head start on us with the underlying platform there :-)

I agree with you that access to this technology is not going to be distributed equally any time soon. That's wishful thinking.

Will the masses accept this coming injustice? Sadly, based on what they tolerate now, I think the answer is yes unless a whole lot of debate happens. The Digital Divide will be nothing compared to the Biological Divide.

For a dsytopic SF novel which posits worlds containing wealthy Methuselahs who can live forever surrounded by masses of dying Proles, I can recommend Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon.

Finally (hah!), Yalom points out that whilst death itself annhilates us, the fear of death creates the imperative to to do something meaningful with our lives.

As a well practiced (expert!) procrastinator, if I were immortal, could I resist that temptation and not squander my chance to explore and be creative?

Be careful what you wish for :-)

Giovanni Tiso said...

For a dsytopic SF novel which posits worlds containing wealthy Methuselahs who can live forever surrounded by masses of dying Proles, I can recommend Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon.

The thing that really gets me about this subgenre is that even the authors who embrace the immortalist project end up producing dystopias. My favourite example is probably Silicon Man by Charles Platt (1997), which is prefaced by an actual ad for CryoCare but then launches into a depiction of life as a digital construct that is unwittingly but nonetheless utterly terrifying.

(Terrible novel to boot, just awful.)

Iguana Jo said...

"The thing that really gets me about this subgenre is that even the authors who embrace the immortalist project end up producing dystopias."

what about Greg Egan? Or Necroville by Ian McDonald (well, not a proper Utopia, neither a dystopia, for what I remember)?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Egan has said in an interview that he actually believes in the prospect of mind uploading, but I wouldn't call him somebody who embraces the project in the way that Ettinger or Platt does. At any rate Permutation City opens with successive Copies of the protagonist committing serial suicide, and in fact the whole novel is a critical appraisal of the immortalist idea. (Well, let's say the first half - then it pulls the classic switcheroo.) To a lesser extent this applies also to Necroville as well. Perhaps a better exception would be Vinge's True Names.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(But then even True Names suggests an afterlife in which state and corporate controls could annihilate dissidents individuals more or less at will - I find that hard to enthuse about, although it's quite likely that Vinge himself is less bothered.)

Lyndon said...

It might be a convergence of your various interests here that a copy of a Kurt Vonnegut short story on the population-control aspects came with a ebook reader I tried on my cellphone.

And if I might mention some more escapist scifi, David Weber, who seems to enjoy his planetary sociology, has a nod at some of the interpersonal problems of prolonging life but not some much of the large scale ones.

I only mention this because the rptagonist in the books I'm thinking of is called Harrington.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, a homage, no doubt. I'm glad because in parts it is a bloody good book, and far more palatable and thoughtful than Ettinger without doubt.

Which Vonnegut story was that?

Lyndon said...

The Vonnegut Story: 2 B R 0 2 B

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Lyndon, I had never come across this one before. It predates Harrington by about seven years, but some interesting echoes there, especially of Harrington's appendix on population control, where he suggests that the elixir will be given only to those who choose not to have children.

(And yes I am tickled by the fact that it came with your ebook reader.)

Philip said...

Robert Silverberg's To Live Again sidesteps the population problem by postulating that personalities can be stored and re-housed in the minds of willing hosts who have the necessary strength of mind to prevent their guest "going dybbuk" and taking over completely. Unfortunately the story (various machinations among the unpleasant rich) is well below Silverberg's best, and amounts to little more than a Harold Robbins novel with better prose. Michael Blumlein's The Movement of Mountains is a much better treatment of the same basic premise.

Word Verification: disted. Placed on someone's diss list.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ohi ohi I am missing the Blumlein completely, another hole that needs puggin'. Thank you Philip.

Megan Clayton said...

We could never feel glad that he had died,
but waiting to turn right into the mall,

the incoming traffic choking the route,
left turners, give-wayers nosing forward

the worst of inconsiderate hauteur,
or dunder-headed, barely-licenced pique

she said

You know,
you know,
he'd find this hard.
He set such store by courtesy,
in the car.

linger said...

Leaving the science fiction aside, there's a fascinating account of the reality of the cryonics enterprise in the 1960s in episode 354 of This American Life, "Mistakes Were Made" (originally broadcast 18 April 2008). It can be listened to from the archives at the TAL site, or downloaded from the NPR podcast site (by following the "download" link and changing this week's episode number to 354).

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you very much for that linger. The NPR link didn't work for me (archive search leads to a not found) but I'm streaming it as we speak from the TAL site.

I'll respond in kind with a story collected by one of the cryonics firms, Alcor, called 'A Dream in His Pocket'. I meant to cover it in the post but it didn't fit - it's fascinating reading however.

linger said...

Ah. I forgot to include the "http://" in the NPR address, and it got autocompleted to blogger; it should have been this.

Giovanni Tiso said...

No, it's that it says page not available and then the search for this american life produces a link that leads to a page not found. You were so exact with the episode details I was able to find it in a flash on the TAL website though :-)

linger said...

Damn, you're right. One other vital piece of the NPR URL missing (identifying the specific programme).One more try! This is what I get for copying URLs manually (working on two computers, with different & incompatible browsers, simultaneously)...

Unknown said...

While as a religious believer I'm not in agreement with Harrington's goals, it was a very well written book and I read the original edition when it first came out. The book seems to offend people who are not religious, however, which seems to almost prove some of Harrington's psychological musings. The review on this page seems kind of condescending, dismissive and resentful, the same reaction I received when I was reporting on it in a college philosophy class in 1969 in which I was the only believer. How interesting that a religious believer like me wasn't offended by a book that takes atheism to it's logical conclusion, while actual atheists seem very threatened by the book. Perhaps it's their fear of death?

Giovanni Tiso said...

I don't feel threatened, for the record. I do find it interesting that these illusions of immortality have so much in common with religion ones but the connection is never acknowledged. (Although here I guess I'm thinking more of the likes of Minsky than Harrington.)