Dancers at the End of Time

In two posts, Jason Kuznicki here and here, expresses affirmation of the notion that if technology could defeat death, then this would be good. He notes, for example, “society would not collapse.” Well, that depends on what you mean by “collapse”, I suppose. Europe is currently undergoing a radical change of 1 child per couple … a society in which there are essentially no children, no parenting is one which is not recognizably like our society. The main similarity is that the people populating each have the same number of limbs and fingers in common and some other gross features. A complete and utterly radical change of society not being called “collapse” is purely semantic. Yes, there would be a society of some sort. It would however, not likely be recognizable as anything like the society today so “collapse” might indeed be appropriate.

Mr Kuznicki writes:

Worth noting: The worst antisocials in the world are not the old, who are generally quite decent, gentle, civic minded, and scrupulous. The worst antisocials — forgive me — are the children, who aren’t able to act on their impulses, for which we should all give thanks. Add to these the young adults, who commit more of the violent crimes than anyone else, and it’s fortunate indeed that we have the old as a counterweight. A nation of centenarians and older would largely without murder, rape, or robbery. Vandalism would be almost unknown, and wars would probably be fewer too. An aged but ageless world would be a sober, calm, wise, and fastidious place. I would love to live there rather than in the impetuous young world we know today.

As noted in a comment, is the maturity and responsibility of age the result of waning hormones (and perhaps the experience of child-rearing and watching parents or grand-parents die) or is it just the passing of years? Our novelists things pretty uniformly when depicting societies absent death, of which two come to mind readily Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time and two of Dan Simmon’s series, the Hyperion/Endymion series as well as the duology Ilium/Olympos. A third author to soberly consider this is Tolkein, but his undying immortals (the elves) are not men. Mr Simmons and Mr Moorcock uniformly envision that without the threat of death (and in both, the further success of technology to conquer our natural world regarding our control of it), leaves society not wiser in their ageless-ness but the reverse. The occupants of that society are uniformly emotionally stunted and childish.

A society of immortals (or ones with an effective anti-senesence solution) loses the impetus for family and children. I had been somewhat taken aback when considering the birth rates of some regions in Europe and Japan where their birth rate approaches 1, an exponential halving of the population every generation. The notion that the average child would have no aunts, no uncles, no cousins and all 8 great-grandparents, 4 grandparents, and 2 parents have only one child to share. If that doesn’t cause any measure of concern … there is a gulf of understanding of the what society consists of between us.

In Mr Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time, our protagonist is very unusual in his society. He’s the only person who anybody knows who was “born,” his parents having undergone out of whim an unusual elder practice of “giving birth.” This is likely
Blog-neighbor David Schraub, had some time ago, noted that in Black communities a number of single women forgo birth control, abortion (and of course celibacy) and have a child. When asked, the reason is that having a child might force responsbility into their lives. To help them grow up. Alstair McIntyre writes that we men are best described as Dependent Rational Animals, anti-sensence might cut this chain and attempt give some truth the currently false implicit assumption so often made by those in their 20s and early 30s of personal immortality. The point being, Mr Kuznicki seems to think it’s the reflection, reading, and other study we perform as we get older is what gives us that wisdom, decency, and civility that the elderly display. As the great majority of our fellow travelers are not counted in the “self-examining” set, how that wisdom came about comes into question. Is it just a waning of hormones? Is it the habit of a past culture which had a notion that politiness was important? Is it instead, raising family, burying friends and relatives?

He wonders as well:

But by the same token, social liberals might want to worry considerably more, particularly those given to the impulsiveness of youth. And there are certainly darker possibilities to eternal life: What would today’s world be like if all of the deplorable racists living in the mid-twentieth century were still with us? Not to speak ill of the dead, but aren’t we much better off without the folks who got squeamish over sharing a water fountain with a colored person? Killing these people outright is too harsh, but I’m mighty glad I don’t have to live with too many of them.

Now in my one sentence tag line and link on my morning linkage to this post, I amplified on this remark, noting in particular the notion not of an immortal racist, but in immortal (evil) autocrat, e.g., Josef Stalin in that case. For it’s not just the racists one has to worry about. Cuba, North Korea, and perhaps Venezuala as well as many other countries are in the grips of autocratic dictators holding their posts by whatever means. If they, their sycophants and supporters control anti-senescence drugs in their country how much firmer might be their grip on their subjects? Dan Simmon’s Fall of Endymion/Rise of Endymion pair features a hierarchy in control of their immortality solution.

Mr Kuznicki thinks if there is an issue with the society it would “self-correct”:

No, society won’t collapse. And no, we won’t become antisocial. And you know what? If it started to, we would all just go off our meds and die. Modern medicine is usually one of the first things to go when a society really does collapse.

Collapse in the sense of the post Roman Europe is not the only way in which society can go off the rails of course. Anyone who was just a bit awake during the 20th century should be ready to admit that notion. There are more than just a few autocratic regimes in the world, those regimes control much of every day life. It is not too much to imagine that immortality treatments might be included in that control. If society itself instead of becoming more staid, responsible, and adult became (as our authors predict) less responsible, less adult … who is going to voluntarily cease medication. What if that medication was not a constant treatment regime but a genetic alteration which was permanant and required no future treatments? Who is going to reverse their treatment voluntarily?

Of course, the notion of living forever in this sense is very non-Christian. I just read a very interesting remark toward the end of  For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann, but … two things stop me from remarking futher at this time, first, I lent the book out to discuss it with a friend and as well, I need to think about it some more. However, it should be remarked that Christians might look at the example of the occaison of death in monastic communities … which is generally a loving joyous event. That should be what we aspire to, not life on earth forever. It is very common in Christian homily and discourse to refer to this as a “broken” world, filled with pain, and anguish, loss and other evils. If your pain lasts forever, is that good? Tolkein made note of that explictly in his Silmarillion, if I recall, noting that in his mythos, death for men is a ultimately a blessing … not an evil to be countered. But, on death and the Christian and the Christian response to health care and health technology is a post I hope to write … but in the future. (this is not it)

I should note, of the books mentioned above, the Dan Simmon’s books I’d recommend highly if you enjoy science fiction, if you enjoy Homer and sci-fi … the Ilium/Olympos should be required reading. Amazon’s description of Dancers is:

Enter a decaying far, far future society, a time when anything and everything is possible, where words like ‘conscience’ and ‘morality’ are meaningless, and where heartfelt love blossoms mysteriously between Mrs Amelia Underwood, an unwilling time traveller, and Jherek Carnelian, a bemused denizen of the End of Time. The Dancers at the End of Time, containing the novels An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs, is a brilliant homage to the 1890s of Wilde, Beardsley and the fin de siecle decadents, satire at its sharpest and most colourful.

which is now marketed as a sci-fi “masterwork”. The notion that ‘morality’ and ‘conscience’ disappear with the absence of death and real consequences of actions is not one which strikes the reader as unlikely.

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  1. Jim Anderson says:

    I would differentiate between the absence of the fear of death through aging and the absence of the fear of death, period. Disease, war, murder, foolish risk-taking: the four we will always have with us, to borrow a phrase.

  2. Mark says:

    I don’t think 20 somethings (in this country) have much of a fear of either.

  3. Brandon says:

    In novels one thinks also of Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey novels (a.k.a. the Robot novels), where vastly extended lifespans are portrayed as radically slowing scientific progress in general by (1) massively increasing the incentive for individuals to keep their discoveries quiet or arranging to have a monopoly on applications; (2) increasing disincentive to potentially fatal behaviors like exploration; (3) and reducing the sort of change of scientific attitudes that comes through older generations dying off (which people have argued, since the nineteenth century, plays an important role in keeping the scientific community open to new ideas).

  4. tilts_at_windmills says:

    Jim’s point stands, though. Jason isn’t talking about the end of death, only the end of old age. People would still die by other means. Count all the annual deaths by murder/suicide/accident/warfare and we’re still talking about a lot of people making their final exit.

    For that reason, and for the reason of sheer human instinct, people would still be making babies–probably far too many for replacement purposes. In fact, my first thought on reading Jason’s post was a line from an old Don Henley song: “We’ll all be as old as Methuselah, but where are we gonna park?”

  5. Ivan Mosolov says:

    I, as an european only child in a decaying small nation, actually quite enjoy living in such a situation. I am a perfect example of which you write in your post. Being the centre of attention is not at all a bad thing for a child. In a society where all eyes focus on the one child the child gets a much better education, has more time to spend with the family and grows up much more intelligent, although irresponsible.

    On the subject of Dancers at the end of time, I personally found the decadent society not immoral as such, but acutally quite efficient and pleasing. It is the fulfillment of humanitarian desires, a society where work is not a nessecity. The people at the end of Time were happy people. I hope we will achieve such a humorous and positive future, as it is in fact much better then the current society. I’d also point out that all the characters in that book had actually died many, many times.

  6. Mark says:

    When I, as part of a “small family” heritage (two children) look to the grass as greener on the bigger or smaller family as being better, growing up and presently it seems to me that perhaps bigger might be better in a lot of ways, I guess the “greener” seemed to weight on the larger side, not that there is nothing to be said for the single parent household.

    My guess (sans actual data) is actually in the “decaying small nation” demographic what is occurring is lots of people are choosing to not marry and have any children whereas others are having more often not having just the one.

    I too enjoyed Dancers although it’s some 25 years or so since I read it.