Saturday, July 12, 2014

Classic 90s biological immortality

Absolute Sandman, Vol 2
I've been working my way through Sandman in its Absolute collection.

Niel Gaiman's story of Dream of the Endless remains the seminal series of the 1990s for me. Just mind-blowing in how much storytelling terrain it covers. And in how it subsumes the act of telling tales of all types into the overall meta story.

I also love this series because it refuses to give into the angst that suffuses much of modern literature. It takes the highs along with the lows and mundanes of existence and mixes them into something that approximates life's uneven good and bad.

Ah, the 90s. You were a season of balance. As always, such dynamic stability proved fleeting.

If you're unable to make it past the horror stories in the series' early arcs, you owe it to yourself to jump ahead to some of the more fantastical volumes. The collections Fables and Reflections and Season of Mist hold a strong appeal for a general audience.

Now that I've Got That Out of the Way

Revisiting Sandman has got me thinking more about biological immortality and how one would go about living with it. Not so much dwelling on the series's Endless, who are made for eternity. Rather the mortal Hob Gadling who denounces death as a failure of the imagination. And who ends up not dying as century after century of English and then British history plays out.

Hob goes so far as refuses the gift of death when historical shift and a subsequent century of upheaval shatter the good life he's built. When he's forced to start over in every way.

One of the most refreshing things about the thirteenth issue of Sandman, is that it doesn't devolve into a horror story. Immortality in literature and movies almost never fails to throw up its hands and moan out some variation of "we we're fools to play God." Rather, long life in Sandman's "Men of Good Fortune" is in part something made sustainable by the web of connections we make with other human beings. And in large part a mater of choosing an upbeat perspective.

That Spiffy Forebrain

The most recently evolved area of our gray matter, riding just behind our eyes is combinatorial and modulary. It fabricates perspectives by combining memory, concepts, and sensory information. Then it gives those perspectives the weight of emotion. Ultimately one of those freighted points of view comes to dominate our consciousness.

In doing, so it modulates our initial reaction to the situation. Both on a conscious level and the physical hardware level of inhibiting or modulating signals feeding back into the rest of the limbic system.

Creating new perspectives beyond the immediate animal response to stimuli is one of the most quintessentially human acts.

By way of example: On occasion we might feel like the worst person to have walked the Earth when the realization sets in that we've acted the part of an ass. That ugly sinking moment of: "Shit! Why did I say that to her. Why did I treat him that way?"

A broader point of view, however, can bring much needed moderation. Yeah, the rash word or careless act was bad, but not necessarily worst-human-ever material in a world that's had its share of Hilters, Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots.

The choice of perspective is infinitely fascinating. Both neurologically and philosophically. Sometimes the decisions on how to see events takes place with little or no thought. At other times we bring the full power of our faculties to bear.

Some people are good at it. They're fluid thinkers who weigh many perspectives, then embrace one, live it, and if need be discard and chose again in response to new data. Others only come to a new way of seeing things after battering themselves bloody on the wall of what is.

Fluid or Crystal?

So what would living for multiple present-day human lifespans do to our ability to generate perspectives?

On the worst case side of the scenario-spectrum is an obvious ossification. A hardening of views and attitudes. An inability to adapt that's destructive to both the self and others. Societies of the long-lived in which the innovations, reforms, and fresh points of view associated with youth are perpetually stifled.

That's certainly something to be considered. Especially as I like to go on in this blog about how the young generation that fought in World War II here in the US was also the one that affected many necessary and long-fought reforms. Changes that vastly improved race relations and addressed the constant economic turmoil that had blighted the industrial economy for several preceding decades.

Then again, looking at all the negative changes made to the economy and politics here in the US wrought by their children, the Baby Boomers, there's also something to be said for keeping youth-driven changes reined in.*

"Woe to greybeards when the young men lead the war parties," and all that. 

The best case scenario for long-life and perspective is that we'd grow more fluid in the generation and choosing of viewpoints. More skilled at coming up with and deciding between moment-to-moment short-term perspectives.

When it comes to long-duration worldviews -- the durable overlay of emotions mapped onto our knowledge of the world -- I like to think there could be increased stability. Osculations of the feelings embedded in our beliefs over the course of the first few centuries. Then a leveling out into something with greater dynamic stability in the long run.

Major perturbations to a long-lived person's perspective would come from significant scientific discoveries, instances of historic shift, or theological revelation or some variant of the mystic's experience. Additional slow-burn change might come from episodic adaptations to a world that shifts a little each decade, and a lot every century

While the attainment of a sage-like serenity with a capacity to enjoy the worlds of sensations and ideas might be boring to observers, it could be a good deal more pleasant and productive than our current system of recurrent upheavals. Besides, our present preferences for drama as well as what we find interesting could end up looking grossly childish and irresponsible to future generations of biological immortals.

There is some precedent for the hope that longer-lives can lead to an improved dynamic stability of the mind. Most of you reading this blog live in societies where violent crime has decreased markedly over the past two hundred years. And in which individuals live on average for far longer than their predecessors. Countries with accelerating rates of technological innovation and waves of adaptation to social changes that would have been unthinkable to the nearly all the generations of humanity who have gone before us.

A combination of circumstances that provides much to thinks about.

*Yeah, this statement is a little unfair. While I do believe the Boomers have inflicted significant damage to the economy, political moderation, and the institution of family, here in the US, most of that harm wasn't done in their youth. The bulk was carried out in recent decades, though it's stemmed primarily from an immensely destructive inability to let go of youthful idealism. An unwillingness take up the practical wisdom of pragmatism since their parents generation began to pass away in large numbers during the 1990s. A potent combination of greed and inflexible ideology. 

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