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Utopian Problems

Just how long can you go getting everything you want?

Pretty, but utopia is overrated.

The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.

Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.

Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?

In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.

So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?

If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.

I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’

What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.


There is a price to knowledge.

It is more dearly bought than thou thinkest.

A son wishes to know his father’s secrets. To learn them is cheap – time, patience, vigilance, cunning are all in ready supply. These are not the price. The price is in the knowing.

The son learns the father is a cheat, an adulterer, a coward, a liar. Or the son learns the father is a hero, a paragon, a faultless man of integrity. Or the son learns his father is exactly as he appears, and nothing more. The exact fact does not matter.

To know is to cease to hope. Learn, and kill possibilities with broad strokes. Slay thy dreams with every learned fact. Build thy prison out of truth and evidence. Watch thy youth die at a pace with thy tutelage.

Think thou that I and my brethren were ever thus? We once walked with men in an age before thy reckoning. We were scholars, prying at the seams of Truth, seeking the answers to all questions. We learned them. We Know.

The Knowing had a price. Death became our slave, pain our tutor, power our currency. We were undone; our humanity withered with our imagined wisdom. We cared not. We wished to Know, and there was no price too high. It is only now, with the perspective of aeons, that we can savor the rich irony of our quest. We wished to become gods through our learning. Instead we have become servants; slaves to the Truth. Custodians of the Answer.

The wonder in our souls is but a half-remembered whisper. Our curiosity is as dead as the cities that birthed us. We are men no longer. We are husks, hollowed out with secrets. Thou cometh hither to seek such secrets; for them thou shalt pay. This, though, I give thee for free:

Ask not. Let thy secrets lie. Dwell in the possible.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

 The spec-fic world, be it Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or one of its hybridized relatives, has an obsession with immortality. It’s perfectly natural, of course–death is widely considered to be the most terrifying thing one can be presented with. Humanity and, indeed, all life is obessively preoccupied with not dying; it’s hardwired into our systems. The idea of circumventing death, whether via technology or magic or deals with Below or Above seems glorious, wonderful, even ideal.

In the end, however, it isn’t all that bad to die. I don’t mean that it’s a wonderful experience, per se, or that it should be desired before it’s time, but the idea that we are mortal isn’t such a bad one. Immortality, personally, strikes me as a pretty terrible fate for a human being. This idea isn’t new, of course–various properties have explored the concept in varying amounts of detail. The Highlander television series, in particular, explores the alienation and perpetual lonliness inherent in a never-ending life, as do various vampire stories. They also couple it with a fair amount of glamorous living, richness of experience, wonder, adventure, etc..

Don't forget being hit by lightning. Major perk of immortality.

  We kind of perfer to forget the real cost of immortality, and it isn’t a permanent feeling of ennui. It’s that we will, by all reasonable measures, cease to be human. Hell, we won’t even really be ‘alive’. Think about it–death is one of the defining, constant characteristics of all living things. With the exception of certain cancer cells (which are abominations) and viruses (which aren’t even really alive), everything dies eventually of old age or wear. The idea of permanence–of never needing to contemplate mortality outside of the odd swordfight (which, as Methos shows us in the Highlander TV show, are easy enough to avoid for milennia at a time)–would change you irrevocably. You would not understand things that humans instinctively react to, as you would have no frame of reference. Even if you had one, you’d eventually forget it.

If you can’t die, how do you understand fear? Can you appreciate Shakespeare? Do thrillers remain exciting? Yes, you can understand on some level how mortals might find them thrilling, but you will move from empathy to mere sympathy to simple alienation. It isn’t simply that you can’t have friends for very long before they age and die, it’s that all of your friends suddenly become boring. The only people you can have real, satisfying conversations with are immortals like yourself, and they’re both rare and (in the case of Highlander) want to cut off your head. Vampire societies aren’t much better.

Add to that interpersonal boredom and new level of boredom–running out of interesting things to do. Give somebody eternal youth, and how much can they experience? Travel (sure!), study (yes!), have fun (probably), but just how long do you keep that up? A century? Two? At what point does everything just look like everything else. Furthermore, consider what you no longer can experience–aging, illness, death.

Sounds good, right? Well, not to my mind. Aging, illness, death, decay–these are things all of us go through. They teach us, they build us, they make us who we are. Our emotional and physical connection to death are difinitive for the human experience. What’s more, they are essential to narrative. Every story needs an end; immortals, by their very nature, are robbed of a kind of catharsis their mortal counterparts can only experience through their demise, no matter how it arrives. They trade that in for what–a lifetime of partying, learning to kick ass, and sex with a never-ending stream of comparatively shallow and clueless creatures? An eternity of solitude?

No thanks. I’d rather die.