I’ve been problem solving since I was little. That’s what I called it, for lack of a better word. Dreaming up some weird new thing in my head and then figuring out how it would actually work, allowing for this or that complication, what materials it would be constructed from, how much it would weigh and how the design would impact or hamper movement, various construction complexities, so on and so forth.
I’ve never actually built anything with my hands and I don’t have the slightest grasp of metalworking, electronics or robotics. I failed 6th grade algebra and repeated it every summer of every year until I graduated high school and did so twice again in two colleges until I finally gave up.
But I’ve had the following streams of thought bouncing around in my head for the past 34 years and I wanted them o-u-t.
SECTION A – The Created Man
The engineering and biomechanical aspects of a man-made immortal
I’ve always been fascinated by stories of time travel and the lives of fictional immortals. My own take on the concept of combining engineering and immortality began in the back seat of a rental car, late summer of 1993. I was half-asleep, stretched out in the flickering zoetrope of sunlight flashing between the support beams of a train bridge when the idea came to me; an eternal being, influenced by the Terminator and Highlander movies my nerdy friends and I were all fans of. What if I could somehow build and send such a character back to the end of the Paleolithic Era? History is written by the winners. His mission would be a neutral one — a true and unbiased account of mankind. An ultimate record, everything that comes in through his eyes and ears uploaded to an archive.
I imagined him running through the jungles and living in caves, gathering solid visual evidence of dinosaurs and other now-extinct species … recording the first human sounds and taking pictures of still-wet cave paintings … one-minute videos of mankind’s first metal smithing efforts … frantically reading each and every scroll in the Library of Alexandria knowing that in just a few years it would be burned to the ground, just absorbing everything …
The 800-lb. gorilla in the room
The critical piece to this puzzle is the seemingly unsolvable problem of time travel. How the fuck do you get him back there in the first place? The closest methods we have available to us include sending particles across short distances, or the theory that we could somehow identify, isolate and pry open a quantum thread wide enough to send nanites through to complete some brief, specific mission. So, let’s say we’ve cracked that egg.
(Please ignore the fact that we’ve yet to see an actual time traveler, which implies that either they’re damn good at hiding or this era simply isn’t interesting enough to visit, which further implies HOLY SHIT, what do time travelers from the future consider “interesting” if not the chaos of the early 20th Century? Do things get worse? Or wait, maybe they get better and that’s where they’re all vacationing? Someone should tell Stephen Hawking to throw another time-traveler’s party.)
Back to the Historian; an augmented human brain living in an artificial body designed to last hundreds of thousands of years. Designed tough and built to last, his skeleton would be a porcelain and carbon fiber alloy, his skin composed of a polymer made from spider’s silk, nature’s own ballistic armor but mimicking human skin in every way. I designed his eyes to read every spectrum of light from infrared to UV and access the macro and micro with a series of tiny lenses wrapping vertically around the inside of his eyes like diamonds in a wedding ring, but undetectable to even close scrutiny. I gave him a direct link to a reinforced communications pod hidden in an Earth-facing crater of the moon. The solar-powered AI would learn with him, talk to him, guide him through the centuries, play music for him, preserve his videos and notes and essentially be his best friend. The hub would need a baseline storage capacity of 500 yotta-flops (A-ha! One, that’s impossible. For now. But my version is constructed from a crystalline membrane so it could feasibly grow additional storage cells and be fully capable of containing everything the historian uploaded, organized to the nth degree.)
I’m assuming that if we can tackle time travel and biomechanics (not to mention the computer engineering Olympics of creating a super-secure device with enough storage space to record all of human history!) that we’d have by then mastered the flawless mimicry of human movement in robotics. This advanced life form would need to be able to move exactly as a human being. But as we know, the hardest part of any design is moving parts, the weakest part of any structure. Would this time traveller need a tune-up occasionally? I never solved that problem because I can’t think of a single mechanism or material that doesn’t require some sort of maintenance. (Look at the design for the Clock of the Long Now, constructed to meet the timekeeping demands of the next 10,000 years!) Software glitches and updates could be addressed by the hub. The historian would need to find a remote place to sit and meditate for a few days once a year while his OS was rebooted and refreshed. The rest of the infrastructure would be built from technology decades ahead of our present state of the art technology, possibly utilizing alien designs.
The OS in the hub would to talk to him and to guide him through history. What if he got tired of the OS? Would it need to change personalities? Would having a voice in his head for millions of years drive him mad, or would he not know any better? What about the stress of living so long? Would he go crazy? Would he get sick of his own reflection?
He’d have memories of pushing stones for the pharaohs colliding up against those of sipping a pint with Isaac Newton while sitting in a pub discussing the concept of gravity, forbidden to alter the course of established human history and doomed to sit perfectly still on the bleeding edge of reality with the rest of us. No better, no worse. Just the wisdom of vast experience looking out through ancient artificial eyes, taking it in, recording it for posterity. (Would knowing the truth about history change our perception of ourselves in much the same way a time traveler could alter reality by interfering with events?)
I’m making a lot of jumps here, I know.
The fuel cell in his chest, a super-compact, sodium-cooled fast-reactor based on an already modified Toshiba 4S design would keep him alive for well over a million years. He wouldn’t get sick, he wouldn’t grow old and he wouldn’t die. That sounds all well and good but he’d have to learn to hide himself from prying eyes. When the age of the camera finally dawned, he’d have to find a way to “die” and reinvent himself every forty or fifty years since he’d never physically age beyond 33. I chose a male for this role because simply (and sadly) historic inequality issues would hamper a woman far more than they would a man.
Life in the biomass
As I began to flesh out a life for him, the flood of questions and details began. One, is this an acceptable life? Is it ethically okey dokey to send a person through a never-ending existence? Is immortality enough of a paycheck? Does he have the right to call this whole thing off 1,000 years in and commit suicide? Is his advanced life still his own?
Suppose it is. Other considerations lie in wait. What about food? Could he eat? I’d need to make him blend into history even as his job was to witness every important human event from an unbiased vantage point. He’d need to be able to in order to blend in, wouldn’t he? How carefully would he actually need to cover his footprints from future generations of archeoligists capable of extracting volumes of data from fossil prints of trilobites, or the DNA of a mosquito trapped in amber? How far does the secret project extend?
Mission and Products
How would the Historian know where to be in order to capture historical events from the best possible perspective? He’d need an immense calendar and map program, a version accessible by thought. To open the window, he’d direct his eyes around a “workspace” and think about the words he wanted to write. Just imagine! Daily log reports stretching back thousands of years, billions of carefully organized photos with date time and Lat/Long stamps detailing tours of ancient ruins on the day their construction was completed, Atlantis forever solved, millions of casual conversations with the long-dead citizens of forgotten cultures captured in their native tongue.
SECTION B – The Time Traveler
Studying the impacts of interfering in time from the perspective of an “intruder”
I’m not much of a Springsteen fan but the first line from “Thunder Road” has always resonated with me. “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways…” Fast forward to one night not too long ago: I dreamed I’d traveled to the deep past as an observer, loathe to change a single detail because I knew the moment anything was different from what I’d left behind I’d be the only one who remembered the end of an entire civilization. Somehow that Springsteen lyric became a safety net, a mantra. I kept repeating it to make sure nothing had changed.
When our lifelines finally intersected again and I was able to track him down, he claimed we were living in an alternate timeline from the one he’d departed:
“I changed everything,” he said. “I altered the course of human history at every turn. I broke the rules. I know that many hundreds of thousands died or were never born because of what I’ve done, but I know that millions more have lived good lives without the threat of ignorance or war. I know that generations of people have known only peace prosperity. Ours is now a culture of science and truth and the pursuit of enlightenment. It was not this way before.”
“I began as early as possible. At first, my job was only to record. But I couldn’t just stand by and watch the whole thing play out the way it already had. I repelled the church at every turn. I preserved languages. I murdered despots in their cribs. I saw Egypt at the height of its ancient technology and recorded every nuance of its achievements. I have welcomed visitors from other worlds and heard their songs of greeting in my head. I observed the frequency of their return trips. They are coming back. We are not the barbarians they’d heard about. We have a real shot at evolution now. It’s just around the corner. I did it, and I would do it again…”
SECTION C – The Immortal
Studying the psychological impacts of a man who’s discovered he can’t age – a thought experiment based on Jerome Bixby’s “The Man From Earth”
I don’t think we have the capacity to truly understand what it means to live forever. Not yet.
Our minds are accustomed to the short feel of living for less than one hundred years. We get tired at the end, mentally and physically in natural tides. We expect to grow old. It’s a reward. There’ve been so many reports of people feeling “tired” and “ready to go” when they grow frail, old and wan but does that only address the physical point of view? What if you could slow our growth to one year per century. Would you still feel “ready to go” when you’d lived long enough? Would you get bored when you’d lived long enough to have done it all?
Where would we get all the resources needed to sustain a population that refused to make way for new life? Who should receive this gift of immortality? It shouldn’t have a price tag attached to it but instead be awarded via the “cost of actions,” meaning the smartest, wisest, and the truly great among us would be permitted to continue while the shallow, weak or flawed would continue their trajectory into the earth. (Oooh, dangerous ethical waters!)
How exactly would you announce to the world, “Oh, by the way! We now have immortality in a bottle, so who wants some?” and not expect the masses to rush forward, each demanding the gift! Would they really want it? Or, being that we’re still saddled by the superstition of ancient religions, would they shy away from it? I’m sure there’s more than several passages in each of the spiritual 3-ring binders that frown on such a thing.
So let’s talk about living forever and the problems that idea represents. I believe we have a limited capability for sanity in our lifetime. That is, we understand what is tangible, what makes sense, and what can be proven. We understand that everything has a beginning and an end. So what happens to that understanding when life has no end?
Population problems resulting from mass immortality aside, suppose you were the only one to receive this gift? And suppose that you weren’t aware of it until many years past 33, say the age of 60; how do you finally understand that you’ve ceased to age? Not only are you born in the great human riddle of not knowing your purpose in the universe or what we’re meant to do in this world but now it’s become apparent that you aren’t aging.
Do you mention this to your friends or family? Do you take it in stride for the first decade, attributing your youthful appearance to good genes? What about when you’re 70 and you still look 30? What about when you’re closing in on 100 and you have no grey hair and no aches and you’re occupying the same body?
Let’s say, during those first 80 years, that you had several accidents that should have proved fatal but somehow you walked away without a scratch. Ordinarily you’d rush to the doctor for tests, so we’ll make it interesting…
You were born in a small village. The local life expectancy isn’t much beyond 50, so once you pass that threshold you’ve got something to hide. You’ve never been alone in your life. The members of your tribe have been there by your side for as long as you can remember. They’ll notice that you’re not turning grey and feeble like them. At first they revere you as a shaman. Until they grow old and die — and you don’t. Then they fear you. Hate you. Seek to drive you away. You don’t want to be cut away from your tribe. They’ve protected you, they’ve raised you. You believe what the rest of your tribe believes: there are animals in the night sky that tell you when to hunt. But things are different now. Things have changed. You must embrace the first rules of survival: Keep moving, and keep quiet because you’re gonna be on the run forever.
Being immortal doesn’t make you powerful. It makes you a target.
If you’re lucky, you find a quiet little cove far away where no one can find you and you’ll spend years fishing and hunting, living in a hut, desperately waiting to age, waiting to grow pale and thin like those you left behind. You’re about 75 now. You still look 30.
You’re 80. 90. 100. More hunting, more fishing. You watch the stars pass by, all the while asking, “Why me?” What are the limitations to your immortality? You’re not in a rush to find out what kills you but the question eats at you. Would you go mad? How will you avoid being captured and killed or thrown into captivity?
What is the purpose of human existence? Why are you the only person afflicted with this strange ailment? What purpose do you serve? Will you avoid relationships? Will you have the heart to raise a child and watch it die of old age?
(Who are we kidding? Your mind probably isn’t advanced to ask these questions yet. Press the “I believe” button and let’s continue.)
You summon the courage and throw yourself off a cliff. The next day, you awake full of aches and pains but you get to your feet and walk back to your meager camp, unharmed. Simple injuries heal quickly. Can you grow a new limb? You need to know, so you take a knife and cut off the pinkie finger of your non-dominant hand. A year later it’s back, pink as a newborn.
Keep moving, stay quiet. Stay out of conflicts. Eventually you are found, captured and conscripted into an army for battle. You’re more afraid of being discovered than you are of dying. You’re about 110 now, and no signs of aging. You try to slip away from the battle but they bind you, and herd you into the fight. You don’t know how to fight. Immediately, you’re run through with a spear. “This is it, this must be how it finally ends. It feels good.” You exhale a sigh of relief as you close your eyes, imagining your spirit leaving you. But you awaken that night on the empty battlefield and crawl to a river, letting the current carry you to safety. You hole up in the woods downstream and eat whatever comes near you until your strength returns. When you can travel, you vow to steer clear of mankind and all their woes.
Times passes. Civilization is leaning toward cities, giving up its wandering ways. What does that mean for you? The questions multiply. Who are you? Where do you come from? Why are you here? What god should you worship or thank for this gift when, as time passes, you watch as gods are invented, praised and forgotten.
You’ve stopped counting your age at this point. You wonder if your very existence will in some way threaten the rest of the world or if it will let you pass unharmed, provided no one discovers your true nature. You’ve long learned to embrace the notion that you’re never going to be normal. Your first and only children died a long time ago; your natural desires to procreate died within the span of your first life. Attraction is no longer a problem. Whatever you are, whatever your purpose, it is bigger than you can fathom, easily overshadowing the natural ebb and flow of humanity.
Where once you avoided cities, you find it’s easier to get lost in them. You spent a great deal of time in the city of Alexandria, drawn to the endless activity and all that you could learn simply by walking the streets or reading the scrolls in the library. It’s as if the entire world could be known there without traveling and seeing it firsthand.
There are very few places on this earth you’ve not wandered. You’ve crossed the Seven Seas time and again. You’ve seen the stars in the sky shift above you and watched meteors streak through the sky. Once each century you feel the pull of sorrow as another of human lifetime comes and goes, leaving you as it found you, lost and without answers.
The times are changing. Wars and skirmishes are coming to a halt. The inventions of the stirrup, the plow, the loom and the fireplace have had a profound impact on the world around you. Gathering technologies are rippling toward each other like circles on a pond, exploding into accidental ideas. New tools are being invented. Man has currency, writing, art and architecture. But the threat of superstition remains. Don’t get comfortable.
With the invention of the printing press you’ve considered writing your story as a work of farce of contemplative fiction but what’s the point? Besides, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.
The ancient color of the world at dawn is beginning to fade and change. The scents are different, the foods are evolving, the spices and notions progressing. New maps of the world as imagined by explorers are being redrawn every day. New rituals. New beliefs.
Nothing lasts forever except nothing and forever — and you, apparently.