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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Monday, May 30, 2016

Following up on Immortal Engines

As previously noted I've been reading Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin. My impression remains, as I said in the previous post on this, that science fiction (not to mention literary fantasy) tends to be hostile to the ideas of immortality and life extension.

In "Alienation as the Price of Immortality" (pp. 125-34), S.L. Rosen discusses the unsympathetic approaches taken to immortality in Anglophone science fiction and fantasy. After identifying the negative way in which immortality is treated, especially when it is deliberately sought, this piece concludes that "The implication is that there is a basic cultural rejection of the idea of immortality and longevity."

However, some of the book's chapters do identify work within the SF field that presents immortality more positively. Perhaps surprisingly, some feminist SF falls into this category, not to mention more obvious examples such as Robert A. Heinlein's Lazarus Long.

I was surprised at the book's introduction by Rabkin, who is especially hostile - almost abusive - in his attitude to very the idea of immortality. This attitude may typify what we find in most science fiction and fantasy - and in much other literary work - but as I noted above there are exceptions, and in any event it's startling to see a literary scholar, writing in that capacity, lay out such a position, in such a tone, on a substantive moral and philosophical issue. He concludes by asserting that "Immortality is a self-defeating fantasy, a desperate defense against death."

Well, perhaps he's right. But not everyone agrees, and he doesn't put much in the way of argument for his position: it's more a matter of quoting various literary texts that he thinks support it. In any event, the introduction to such a volume would normally lay out the themes and issues to be discussed, giving some idea of what is going to be covered in the various chapters to follow. It's not a big deal that Rabkin has departed so far from expectations on this occasion, but it does look cranky and odd.

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