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How to Live Forever: Science Fiction and Philosophy.

Stephen R.L. Clark. London: Routledge, 1995. vii + 223 pp. $69-95.

In How to Live Forever Stephen Clark provides examples of stories concerning immortality drawn from the genre of science fiction--"our century's greatest gift to literature" (5), immortality as not only its abiding, but "almost the only theme" (5). These stories are offered as literary thought experiments, as "ways of making vivid to ourselves what we can say more laboriously" (98) about the nature of human selves; their diachronic conditions of identity; and in what, if anything, a desirable immortality might consist.

Having said this, on the issue of what it is that (logically) must survive for us to survive, what insights Clark himself has gained from his study are difficult to extract from amongst the theories of the authors he considers. His comments that "[p]recisely because this body, or this bodily material, certainly lasts and `I' quite possibly do not, I am not this body" (84) and his acceptance as evidence transcendent truths concerning identity, consciousness and sentience, move him, one suspects--especially towards the end of chapter eight--a long way in the direction of Cartesian Dualism. He does not however at any stage explicitly state what he believes the conditions for personal identity are, although he is certainly generous (in comparison with many current philosophers) in considering as `possibilities' that one might live on as a spatio-temporally discontinuous human--teleported and altered in the process (30); as an "energy being" (118); or even as a "set of programs in the world network" (45).

On the issue as to whether any everlasting life could be bearable, Clark is more decisive; he argues (persuasively) that immortality can only be worth it if we are, through that immortality, to be transformed into something better, or alternatively if only the better are made immortal to start with. However, in arguing this Clark seems to suppose that he can explore the question of whether living forever could be desirable simply by reference to the nature and goals of the persons concerned (qua individuals) and without reference to the type of society in which they will live--does the worth of an immortal life really depend solely on the nature of the immortal individual? Whilst Clark does, towards the end of the book, look to the possibility of survival as part of a larger inclusive being--as part of a generation, species, `Overmind,' etc., no detailed study is made as to how a social and political set-up might affect the desirability of immortality, and only marginally more attention is paid to the question of how immortality might affect social and political structure.

Clark leads us from philosophical arguments as to why we may or may not wish to live forever to envisage a variety of `identities' through which we might do so. The possibility of living forever, he tells us, has been traditionally explored through one of four perspectives: i) Resurrection, reincarnation or disembodied survival; ii) The moral or affective meaning of hopes and fears for immortality; iii) The possibility of imitating the mind in neural networks; and iv) The prospect for genetic engineering, transplants, anti-aging drugs and other devices for prolonging `natural' life. Through science fiction we are drawn to question the locus of personal identity, what does `I' refer to: a higher self; a self which can be identified with projects outside the self, e.g., the creation of beauty, influence and so on; a self that might return through time; a soul; a self for whom this `life' is simply a dream; or a self as part of a larger mind/community?

We are told in the introduction that science fiction stories explore not only the actual or empirical possibilities of science in extending life but by looking also at the merely conceivable, reveal complexities and implications within our ethical and metaphysical thought. Given this, the actual impossibility of certain fictions becoming realities in any foreseeable future will be in many cases irrelevant. Frequently however, Clark evaluates the stories he presents by reference to science fact and one is left unsure as to when such fact is relevant and when not. The unclarity derives perhaps from Clark's occasional reluctance to draw the philosophy out of the science fiction, at one stage of Crowley's Little, Big, he says "Since it is ... one of the greatest neglected works of twentieth-century literature, I will not contaminate it further with philosophy" (128). Whilst this reticence would not be disappointing if Clark purported only to trace ideas of immortality within science fiction, it is perhaps not sufficient if the reader is to be persuaded that philosophical insights, analytical or otherwise, can be gained from that science fiction.

Clark's knowledge of a wide range of science fiction is impressive and any utopian scholar interested in ideas of immortality or in science fiction in general would do well to read this book (the bibliography, split into `science fiction,' `poetry' and `other works' is a useful tool in itself). As I have mentioned however, there is disappointingly little extrapolation from this theme to broader concerns of how we might want to live. Clark determines that an immortal life might be worth living if immortality involved some sort of beneficial transformation, but we are left relatively ignorant as to what Clark conceives such a transformation should involve. This theoretically non-committal and exploratory approach is perhaps not ultimately a failing in a book which purports primarily to represent the views hinted at or presupposed by writers of science fiction and which seeks to provide, not the author's pet theory, but the literary resources and tools with which the reader may construct and express his or her own.
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Author:Madge, Caroline
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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