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Immortality
Dr. Ben Bova
Avon Books, 283 pages


Art: Amy Halperin
Immortality
Ben Bova
Ben Bova received his doctorate in education in 1996 from California Coast University, a master of arts degree in communications from the State University of New York at Albany (1987) and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Temple University, Philadelphia (1954). Bova has taught science fiction at Harvard University and at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, where he has also directed film courses. He was editorial director of OMNI magazine and, earlier, editor of Analog magazine. He has received Hugos for Best Professional Editor six times. His 1994 short story, "Inspiration," was nominated for the SFWA's Nebula Award.

Ben Bova Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Moonwar
SF Site Review: Moonrise

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Jackson

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Written by one of the grand names of both science fiction and science writing, Immortality resembles K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation in being an informative look into a technology that is likely to revolutionize our world -- soon. Bova speculates that various biomedical advances could coalesce into the achievement of human immortality within fifty years. Happily, you wouldn't have to be born "fixed" to benefit; human immortality, once possible, would be retroactive. You yourself might be an immortal, writes Bova.

This is the sort of topic that makes one giddy with excitement -- if you're the sort to piss and moan about such possibilities. My bet is that you wouldn't be reading a SF website in the first place. Appropriately, the book's tone is sober, if quietly confident. Bova's style is brisk and conversational. You certainly don't need to be a scientist to read it, but he does provide very extensive discussion of the science behind his grand claims. Here you'll learn all about telomeres, apoptosis and the Hayflick Limit, necrotic cell death and hormone replacement therapy. Bova clearly delineates each of the roads which will (because he's got me convinced) lead first to extending the human life span, then to human immortality, and he outlines the current status of biomedical research along each of these roads. This is the perfect book for anyone who isn't a specialist but is interested in science.

Bova also considers the social impact of such technology. He moves briskly through several topics: the effect of immortality on marriage, the effect on the environment, and on retirement and global economics generally. He often raises potential problems and then offers creative solutions (I especially like his solution to the problem immortality would present to our notions of retirement) but this book is finally more valuable for raising issues than offering detailed solutions. As in his presentation of the research that should lead to human immortality, Bova inspires a sense of comprehensiveness -- the sense that he's covered all the bases. Perhaps the only obvious topic I found missing was that of space colonization. Although Bova offers a fairly extensive discussion of the impact of human immortality upon population growth, it seems likely that immortality and space colonization would necessarily intertwine. Time and space, together again: an infinity of the former requires an infinity of the latter. Bova's discussion of reduced fertility among life-extended lab specimens is interesting as far as it goes, but it still suggests a spatial framework in which this planet is, for all practical purposes, the entire human universe. It seems more likely that immortality would be the thing that finally makes space colonization not just wonderful but necessary. Perhaps Bova, already writing on such an esoteric subject, simply chose to fight one "giggle factor" at a time.

Breezily confident about humanity and human progress;

"Yet the human spirit will not be denied. What our minds can conceive, our hands will eventually build.";
Bova probably underestimates the public reaction such a breakthrough would face. He tends to reduce the objection to the religious objection, and the religious objection to a concern that immortality would rob humankind of its divinely promised afterlife. For Bova, this concern, in turn, depends upon a particular interpretation of Scripture, which presumably can be simply interpreted in some other manner -- problem solved.

I believe the resistance will come from more quarters, and that it will be much more fierce. There is a common impulse shared by movements, institutions and attitudes that have often been beneficial. They include religion, most mainstream (non-SF) literature since Greek tragedy, New Ageism, white liberal guilt, Afrocentrism, and the ecologically-conscious wing of feminism if not feminism itself -- anyone even slightly touched by what Friedrich Nietzsche would have called the spirit of ressentiment. This is an impulse which suggests that humankind's appropriate relationship to nature is one of humble stewardship. We ought to live within limits, not just for materially obvious reasons but for moral reasons. There are an awful lot of people who are going to resent any notion that we can make ourselves in such a radical manner as this book suggests. They say, "Earth does not belong to us. We belong to the Earth," and human immortality is going to seem to them like the supreme hubris. If you thought you heard a lot of reactionary crap against cloning once Dolly was announced, wait till this hits. With respect to Dr. Bova and his fine book, there are a lot of people out there who will not have the clarity to recognize that it is better to be alive than dead. Immortality will arm those of us who are more ambitious about the human future -- it'll be nice to be able to tell naysayers that, for instance, once people thought surgical anesthesia was a violation of God's will. It's a fine first step into a bigger world.

Copyright © 1998 Todd Jackson

Todd Jackson teaches a course in Science Fiction at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, while writing the first of a series of African-American science fiction novels, titled The Lou Douglas Network.


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