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If the pursuit to overcome death seems an unsettling prospect, the kind of people driving this quest are even more so, Leah McLaren writes. (Getty Images/iStock)
If the pursuit to overcome death seems an unsettling prospect, the kind of people driving this quest are even more so, Leah McLaren writes. (Getty Images/iStock)

Leah McLaren: Death might seem frightening, but so does an empty eternal life Add to ...

James, age 4, has started asking about death.

“When am I going to die?” he’ll say, just as I’m creeping out of his room at night. “Does everybody die?” And, worst of all, because I can see how much it genuinely worries him, “Are you and Daddy going to die?”

I know it’s fashionable to be honest with your kids these days, to treat them as little adults capable of absorbing difficult information, but on this occasion, I’ve resorted to what I assumed was a convenient lie. “Don’t worry,” I tell him. “The scientists in America are working on a way to make us live forever.”

But it turns out that by trying to shield my son from reality, I was accidentally exposing him to a far more unnerving truth. By the time James grows old, scientists may well have come up with a way to make death optional.

I am not talking about cosmetic companies shilling creams with human growth hormone as a two-bit “anti-aging solution.” I’m talking about billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin and Larry Page investing the combined GDP of a medium-sized country in biotech-research firms, all with a view to either extend life indefinitely or do away with death altogether.

We can all empathize with a small child frightened of death – but many rich and powerful men are still driven by this fear. And instead of trying to accept mortality, they are now determined to overcome it. It turns out, according to a terrifying recent piece in the New Yorker, that in the very serious scientific quest to extend life there are basically two camps, the “healthspanners,” i.e., those who are looking to extend life by a few more “quality-adjusted life years,” and the “immortalists,” who are hoping to do away with death altogether – or at least delay it indefinitely.

The healthspanners are a fairly reasonable bunch. They are people like you and me, by which I mean people who are having a fairly nice time at the party and would like the option of hanging around a little longer, especially if staying on means more time with loved ones or finally doing that dream trip to Bhutan. (Personally, I’d like to tack on a few more years in the hope of being able to enjoy my grandchildren – because if my children wait as long as I did to procreate, it’s looking pretty dicey.) After all, what reasonably well-adjusted person wouldn’t want to live a few more years if it could be done in good health and a state of relative financial security?

But the immortalists are a far more unsettling group. They can be subdivided into two schools of thought – those who believe we can all be rejigged by replacing failing parts as we rattle on forever like restored vintage Model T Fords, and those who believe the path to eternal life will be a biological merger with machines, either through shiny new robot physiques or a digital collective consciousness. So when you’re looking at a realistic solution to death, it’s either an eternal future of Frankenstein-style transplants from a vast bank of genetically engineered organs (“First let’s just update those raggy old eardrums, then get you set up with a fancy new liver!”) or we all turn into RoboCop.

And if that sounds depressing, there’s an even bigger problem. And that is that the kind of people who seem to be driving this quest to end death – the powerful billionaires and preening celebrities, the full-time residents of the bubble world of the rich and famous – are exactly the kind of people you really wouldn’t want to stay on past their natural sell-by date. Can you imagine a future in which Bashar al-Assad or Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump could find a way to hold on to power for 1,000 years? Or even just one in which Kate Hudson could have a centuries-long Hollywood career? Can you conceive of what it would mean for the Earth’s resources – not to mention opportunities for the young – if the richest and most powerful among us were able to stick around on the planet as long as they wished?

You might assume that immortality would be a good thing, a chance for ordinary people to live extraordinary lives, but I rather doubt it. Instead, I foresee a new kind of class system in which the privileged few live on, endlessly enriching themselves and their families, while the masses continue to succumb to dust. The interesting thing is, it’s impossible to envy them – the billionaires and dictators and movie stars who would choose to live in that expensive and tedious netherworld of immortality. Like all narcissists, they will find themselves endlessly yearning for something – the promise of love – just out of reach. Because what’s the point of existence if it simply goes on forever? If the clock isn’t actually ticking, it’s hard to see the point of doing anything. Why seize the moment when the chances for redress are endless?

Death might seem frightening to a small child on the brink of sleep, but do you know what’s far more terrifying when contemplated in a serious way? The painful and expensive tedium of an empty eternal life.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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