April 6, 2014

POSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: How Does Speculative Fiction Deal With Aging? It Doesn’t…

In general, science fiction deals with the issue of aging one of two ways: it somehow involves Humanity finding a way to “live forever” or it ignores old age and goes right for swashbuckling youth.

There are notable exceptions.

John Scalzi, a young whippersnapper himself at a current age of a mere 44, devotes his Old Man’s Universe to the idea that older adults would be glad to leave Earth behind and serve in the Colonial Defense Force as shock troops for a slow expansion of Humanity into a hostile universe. He also deals with the transhumanist immortality in his novel THE ANDROID’S DREAM.

It’s not, however that our search for avoiding the ravages of old age is a 21st Century thing (as we seem to think just about every concept in science is…something “new” that the real scientists of this century are the first Humans to ever think about or try or discover…ahem…stepping down off soapbox.) “The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character's search for a way to live forever.” Actor, writer, and generally eccentric personality Woody Allen summarizes it nicely, “‘I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.’”

But as far as I can tell, science fiction has spent more words discussing the inevitability of defeating death or aging than it has learning to deal with aging gracefully. In her book, “Aging Gracefully with Dignity, Integrity and Spunk Intact: Aging Defiantly”, Norma Roth says, “Your longer lifespan heralds the continued storage, absorption and retrieval of an enormous database more like the Renaissance model that is still much admired. Think Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Newton and the magic of that time we so admire, when people seemed to absorb so much knowledge and be successful in so many fields over a lifespan. With lifetimes being extended, the Silver Generation may have the time over the anticipated extra span of life to duplicate that magnificent period of learning and creating. Only few people have done so since that remarkable time. Ben Franklin, scientist, inventor, statesman, scholar seemed one of our rare examples of a Renaissance man. There are others of course, but I think you will agree, it is not a commonplace phenomenon. Given the gifts that are on the horizon, the possibilities of the Silver Generation seem endless.” (http://books.google.com/books?id=Xr7B8niz7dsC&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=science+fiction,+aging+gracefully&source=


If I may be so bold, the thought I’m most ashamed of is when I hear my age peers speaking of retirement in terms of travel, rest, and recreation. With the continued drought in short story sales and the fact that my YA novel has been with my agent for nearly two years with no nibbles of hope, I’ve begun to spout the same party line.

While it seems unrelated to the rant above, it gives a frame into which I painted my thought picture. The original root of my Possibly Irritating Essay series for the past several months was in the Diversicon 2013 speculative fiction convention I attended and my intent was to bug people with my speculations, writing this essay has kicked me in the teeth.

Entranced by STAR TREK’s suspended animation survivor, Khan Noonien Singh and the REALITY that life-extension is currently indistinguishable from wishing for a magic spell, I have ignored my own aging and like Woody Allen, I preferred my immortality magic as opposed to literary.

I ignored an entire branch of the Human experience because most everyone else did.

I’ve ignored the POSSIBILITY that aging might create new opportunities rather than signifying the “shutting down” of my life and a retreat from knowledge. After all, with the hue and cry that “…we see an information overload from the access to so much information, almost instantaneously, without knowing the validity of the content and the risk of misinformation.” So warned, I gave in to the fear that because we can’t learn everything, why learn anything now that I'm getting old and will just forget it all?

“Even Leonardo warned against being spread thin. The other day Robinson came across one of his late notebooks, in which he had written, ‘Like a kingdom divided, which rushes to its doom, the mind that engages in subjects of too great variety becomes confused and weakened’…A new orthodoxy, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius…[but] innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline…breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields.” (The meme I hear most often is that Humans didn’t know much “back then”, so there wasn’t much to learn and one person could be a Renaissance Man because they could learn everything there was to know about a subject…REALLY? REALLY? The worst part is that I’ve already charged the attainment of this knowledge to my account, so apparently there’s no going back.)

However, I can remedy that situation. I am going to start exploring the fictional possibilities inherent in an extended lifetime leading to, not “retirement” but becoming a Renaissance Person, a polymath, an intellectual polygamist.

Anyone want to join me?


No comments: