Today, a tale of two book reviews, both of "How to Live Forever or Die Trying: On the New Immortality." But let us look upon them as two knees - for my, how the left knee jerks.
Bryan Appleyard's How to Live Forever or Die Trying offers an intriguing look at the geeky, freeze-dried, pill-popping world of people who want to go on and on
see when he has to swallow his next handful of life-preserving pills. Unruly hair, an uncoordinated body and a wretched dress sense are, of course, the unmistakable indices of intellect, as every senior common room in Oxford testifies. But would you really want to share eternity with freaks like these?
Appleyard himself seems unsure. Personal testimony about his childhood dreams and adolescent traumas make clear his dread of death; nevertheless, the experts he interviews are shysters. The immortality they peddle is a specifically American fantasy, the product of a culture infatuated by newness and hostile to the very notion of history.
It seems to me that the right knee, sadly shielded behind the firewall of failing publishing models, has thought things through a little more carefully - diverted further from that grand human tradition of deriving truth from the gut within rather than the much more productive realms of fact and endeavor without.
The title of this book, and the cover, which depicts the Reaper in a bow tie, look like they are trying to make you laugh. This is a book about the possibility of immortality, and, when you pick it up, you imagine fun being poked at mad scientists with their potions and regimes and freezers full of body parts. But it’s not a mocking book, even though, by the end, you might wish it were. This is a serious, frightening, at times brilliant book on immortality. 'Death,' as Appleyard tells us, 'is being attacked on many fronts.'
Most people, when faced with the possibility of immortality, have two immediate thoughts - first, that it’s a good thing, and second, that it’s impossible. Appleyard will make you question both of these convictions. He has spoken to scientists who have studied the science of mortality and found it lacking. They are not mad - or only as mad as, say, Crick and Watson must have sounded, or Heisenberg with his proof that things change when you look at them. Of course, reading about people like this does make you smile sometimes, because challenging death sounds so naive. But soon you will be smiling on the other side of your face.
There is Bruce Klein, of the Immortality Institute, whose aim is 'conquering the blight of involuntary death'. Klein calls death 'the Silent Tsunami'; he explains that 100,000 people die every day, and yet we accept it. His point is that if this was an actual tsunami, people would get their act together. There’s also Ray Kurzweil, who describes nature as 'dramatically suboptimal'. Perhaps most fascinatingly, there is Aubrey de Grey, the long-haired, beer-drinking genius who is applying an engineer’s approach to the problem of death, and whose organisation is called SENS, which stands for 'Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence'.
Oh yes, very funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at these nutters. That’s how many of us will want to feel. As you read this book, your willingness to laugh will tell you something, namely that you are rather more attached to death than you thought you might be. One becomes defensive when death is challenged. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
"Immortality" is such an abused word these days, loaded with meanings. Aging, and the frailty and death it brings, are the real targets of the coming biotechnology revolution - understand the human machine and you can repair its worn parts. Why do people defend death by aging and the suffering of billions, or say that aging is impossible to tackle, all the while believing that the biotechnology revolution will soon defeat the complexities of cancer - a similarly challenging problem? It is indeed interesting, the attitudes that exist towards longevity - and a life of years and health - in an era so close to engineering agelessness.