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SciFi Round 17: Highlander, Methuselah’s Children, and Immortality

You may call parts of this fantasy rather than science fiction.  Sorry for the blurry genre boundaries – Michael

People don’t like to die.  That seems to be the basis of one of the oldest attested tropes: immortality, or at least far-longer-than-normal lifespans.  Like The Hero With A Thousand Faces, this one shows up in very old cuneiform tablets from 2600 BCE or so.  There may be some underlying neuro-psychological reason for this trope being common, but I cannot speak to that.

Instead, let’s talk about how immortality is presented in some more recent works and how those would play out if things were handled more consistently.

Examples

We mentioned Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children before – it is the namer for The Masquerade.  The Howard families there aren’t immortal, at least not at first.  They are simply long-lived, due to genetic factors.  But biotechnology develops to the point that the longest-lived Howards born in the early 1900s live effectively forever.  Heinlein was born in 1907.  I deduce Author Appeal.

To take a more extreme example, consider the Highlander  franchise – the first movie only.  Scattered around the world, born at various times over the last several thousand years, are a population of immortals.  They appear like normal people until they “die” – or rather experience something that would kill a normal person.  They then stop aging, which is convenient for explaining why some immortals are portrayed by old actors and some by younger ones.  There aren’t any immortal children, so this must be a Puberty Superpower.  The immortals are also nigh-indestructable, with nearly perfect memories for thousands of years of life, and only decapitation will kill them.  Clearly, they have very unusual brains.

Ramirez, who was born in Ancient Egypt, demonstrates to Connor MacLeod what he must never let happen.

Ramirez, who was born in Ancient Egypt, demonstrates to Connor MacLeod what he must never let happen.  Yes, Sean Connery is playing an Egyptian with a Spanish name and a Japanese sword and a Scottish accent.  Don’t ask about that.

We’ve previously mentioned a common problem to both of these: why is there a masquerade?  The Howards didn’t need to keep their life expectancies secret, and should have been discovered far sooner.  The Highlander immortals run around having sword fights to the death for no adequately explained reason.  Why didn’t one of them set up as a philosopher-king or an unkillable gladiator or a legendary drinker two thousand years ago?  The real answer is meta-fictional: the authors didn’t want to consider alternate history, at least not for the past.

But what forms of immortality are more or less plausible in reality?

Plausible Immortality

Extending human life expectancy, both for people alive now and in later generations, is obviously possible.  After all, in many places, life expectancy is now about twice what it once was.  There are genetic contributions to longevity, so a selective breeding program like that of the Howard’s isn’t implausible.  But the program in Methuselah’s Children is implausibly rapid.  The requirement for being inducted into the Howards is having had four centenarian grandparents.  That’s not a strong enough selection criterion to increase life expectancy to 150 years over a half-dozen generations.  Longevity is determined more by environment and luck than by genetics, so many people with good genes would not qualify and many with bad genes would.  And longevity probably wouldn’t present as an overall slowing of normal aging.  It would be more like “you are less likely to get rapidly-progressing fatal cancers” or “your hormonal balance is a bit different than normal and you probably won’t get osteoporosis”.

But massively increased human life expectancy could be plausible, provided it either developed over enough generations or from very sophisticated biotechnology.  The limiting case might be “biological immortality” – a cell or larger organism can persist indefinitely without passing through a reproductive phase that would count as a new generation.  For example, hydras, the jellyfish Turritopsis nutricula, and perhaps even lobsters appear to have an indefinite lifespan with no senescene.  This is not “true” immortality, of course: the animals die by injury, disease, predation, or out-competition for resources.

Turritopsis nutricula, a jellyfish that can revert back to a polyp after have been sexually active.  In theory, it could live forever.  In reality, most are eaten in short order.

Turritopsis nutricula, a jellyfish that can revert back to a polyp after having been sexually active. In theory, it could live forever. In reality, most are eaten in short order.

Why isn’t biological immortality more common?  One model is the Red Queen hypothesis, which says that a population of organisms needs constant changes in genetics and overall biochemistry to survive in an environment while competing against each other (this also gets invoked to explain the evolution of sex).  A population of short-lived organisms that can adapt to take advantage of the environment and changes in it will often have an advantage over a longer-lived population that doesn’t adapt so quickly.  So while biological immortality is possible, it is not likely to naturally appear in that many species, especially not in humans – none of our ancestors for the last several hundred million years have had that skill.

Technological immortality is another possibility.  Should someone create strong/Turing-test-passing AI, it would be possible to just keep copying the AI program to new substrate – subject to all of the usual considerations when porting software to new hardware.  But, to the great disappointment of people like Ray Kurzweil, human brains can’t be uploaded into computers with any approximation of continuity of consciousness.

Implausible and Impossible

The immortals in Highlander have problems, mystic “Quickening” superpowers aside.  Connor MacLeod is thrown overboard and sinks to the bottom of a lake.  He walks ashore, after spending a long time underwater.  Brain damage aside (the water in the lake was relatively cold), where are his muscles getting the oxygen for that exercise?  And when he is surviving being stabbed repeatedly or shot by a submachine gun, how is his body patching everything back together?  He has to have some Wolverine-like healing factor.  Which means Wolverine and the Highlander immortals have the same problem: food.  It takes a lot of energy, protein, fat, and calcium phosphate to rebuilt an arm or a shattered rib cage.  Why aren’t they constantly swallowing protein shakes and bone meal?  And why isn’t there a huge temperature increase as all of that energy rapidly cascades down into heat?

A related question: McCloud dies if his head is cut off, but what if he loses a toe or an arm or a leg?  A bunch of other works have explored possible answers to that one.  And what happens if a disease appears that the healing factor doesn’t protect against?  Etc., Etc.  There is really no way to make a blanket healing factor like that plausible, at least not without imposing very steep associated costs.

Even more durable immortals, like Wolverine or vampires or some zombies, are right out – they aren’t completely consistent because there is no way to do so without immediately violating some of the laws of physics.

Fantasy League Round 6: The Masquerade

We’ve talked about how many different fictional universes would be dramatically different if whatever characters or technology they have in them were to be publicly known in real life, with a particular focus on economics and sociology.  This obviously poses a problem for an author: how can you write a straight-forward detective story featuring a vampire detective when the readers will be focused on the incongruity of nobody using magic to make a million dollars?

If any of you are hiding super-natural powers, this is why you should confess. The Randi Foundation doesn’t actually keep a million USD in cash. They have something closer to 1.5 million accumulating interest in a third-party investment portfolio.

One way to do this is to establish a convention that while the world may look like the real world, that is just the outward appearance.  There is a Masquerade – an organized effort to hide the flying saucers / vampires / wizards / witches / parallel dimensions / alien space bats from the muggles.  But this has its own problems.

Why is there a Masquerade?

Why are characters with fantastic skills hiding from the world?  There have been many different in-story reasons for this, ranging from the all-too-realistic to the entirely absurd.

The reason many mutants have secret identities in the X-Men comics is all-too-realistic.  Society sets up the Masquerade, forcing the mutants to either hide their skills or be discriminated against for not being ‘normal’.  In real life, society has forced masquerades into existence for no good reason at allThis analogy is not lost on the Marvel comics staff.  But this form of masquerade only goes so far.  It only works as long as the population has some idea, however distorted and mistaken, of who they are forcing into hiding: the world has already been partially unmasqued.  In the Marvel comic universe, everyone knows that mutants exist, even if they don’t know who the mutants are.  Why would a group hide from the world so well that nobody believes or even knows to not believe that they exist?  And why would someone discovering something extraordinary not tell others about it?

Perhaps the default version is “but they wouldn’t believe me if I told them”.  That one might work for the first time Lucy Pevensie goes to Narnia, with the portal to the other world opening and closing at the whim of a not-particularly-kind deity.  But it’s absurd when the group with the supernatural skill can prove what they have.  We need another motivation for people to stay silent.

The term Masquerade as we’re using it here comes from Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, where it is used by the Howard Families, a small group of people selectively bred for longer lifespans, to refer to their hiding from the ephemerals around them.  There the motivation was to avoid attention and people trying to steal the secrets of their immortality.  In that story, the Masquerade is eventually broken and society is angry at the immortals, not believing that they were simply selected for long lifespans – although there is no good reason for that, since the Howards’ lives are well documented.  Here the Masquerade came from fear.  But if someone had been public about living longer in the past, then the Masquerade would not have been necessary.  So the fear was misplaced, and doesn’t work as a motivation.

In Harry Potter, we’re told the wizards hide because otherwise “people would want magical solutions to their problems”.  That’s not a good reason either.  People wanting magical solutions to their problems is a great opportunity to make a lot of money.  In order for the Masquerade to make sense, it has to be in the self-interest of the groups that are hiding to stay hidden.

Slayer with rockt launcher

This is why the vampires are hiding.  (Yes, the slayer is not tactically dressed.  But that doesn’t matter much when she has a rocket launcher).

In Buffy The Vampire SlayerVampire: The Masquerade and some other vampire settings, the Masquerade is justified by the various groups of vampires agreeing to hide from humans because otherwise we’d all gang up on them and kill them until they died from it.  That’s a pretty good reason, and it’s enforced in Vampire by a group of vampire enforcers taking down anyone who does try to go public and in Buffy by stakes, scythes, and rocket launchers.  A similar reason is invoked in The Dresden Files.  And in Mage: The Ascension, there are non-sympathetic Men In Black hunting down anyone who is doing unsanctioned magic.

But even these self-interested Masquerades tend not to work out, because while it may be in the interest of the group to remain unknown to the world, there is always a million-dollar incentive for each individual to be the one who goes public.  We’ll come back to this at the end, after we show that even the best-maintained Masquerade couldn’t survive anyway.

How is there a Masquerade?

How do you prevent Muggles from walking into Hogwarts?  Sure, it may be impossible to label on a map and loaded up with nothing-to-see-here, but why doesn’t it and all the other wizard enclaves show up on airplane and satellite imagery?  A Wizard Did It only works so well.  If high concentrations of unspecified “magical energy” fry electronics, then people will notice the bizarre dead spot on the train platform where their cell phones suddenly crash and start tapping on the wall.  Dragons flying around will set off air-traffic control radar, to say nothing of people’s reaction to a flying car.  Actually, Harry Potter’s masquerade has more holes than the Menger sponge.  It’s as bad as how almost everybody misses that Superman is obviously Clark Kent and Batman is almost as obviously Bruce Wayne.  Let’s try something else.

In The Dresden Files, the masquerade is maintained by the “Unseelie Accords”, a set of agreements between various magical groups to not reveal their presence to the world.  The different groups all hate each others’ guts, but aren’t willing to risk total destruction by angry normals (or by vampires or faerie who are angry at being revealed).  This is an okay setup, but somehow it survives vampire bodies showing up in a Chicago morgue, a wizard fighting horror-movie monsters in a hotel convention center, and a horde of zombies being hunted through a city by a resurrected T. Rex.  That’s bad enough.  Then Jim Butcher turns it up to eleven.

Harry Dresden (listed in the Chicago yellow pages as “wizard”) and a group of his friends are fighting an army of vampires at Chichen Itza.  Near the beginning of the fight, Dresden briefly negates gravity over a large area and focuses the force into a very small area, smashing a field of vampires into the ground.  It produces a minor earthquake.  Cool story, isn’t it?  The problem for the Masquerade is that there are several different global seismic monitoring networks specifically looking for small near-surface earthquakes emanating from point sources well away from established faults – because that’s what a nuclear detonation looks like.  Everyone with a seismometer now thinks that a nuke went off in the Yucatan.

From there, the Masquerade would fail quickly.  30 minutes or less will put blurry spy-satellite imagery of Dresden’s team fighting vampires on a large number of computer monitors.  If I read the US-Mexico airspace and joint defense agreements and approximate aircraft base positions correctly, within an hour there would be high-speed jets from US Air Force bases along the Gulf over Chichen Itza doing close recon, closely followed by Mexican aircraft and probably some curious private planes and helicopters from Cancun.  And then neither the vampires nor the wizards could hide from the world, even if they all teleported away immediately.  The Masquerade may have been set up by the Wizard Who Did It, but Muggles Do It Better.

Why Isn’t The Masquerade Brought Down?

If Masquerades are so easily broken and there are such large rewards for being a whistleblower, how can a Masquerade last in a story for any length of time?  This one is actually easy to answer: if the Masquerade fails, the story changes too much and the author(s) can’t write a sequel.

There may be in-story reasons why nobody has brought down the Masquerade, especially if there is an organization dedicated to maintaining it.  If showing the world that aliens exist will summon the MIB and lead to you and everybody else in the world being immediately mind-wiped then perhaps fame and wealth isn’t as much of an incentive.  But where is the supernatural equivalent of Wikileaks or radical open-source?  And if there isn’t a penalty for going public, the Masquerade doesn’t make any sense at all.

Even if there is a penalty for going public, you just need to do so untraceably.  Gather compelling evidence of whatever The Masquerade is hiding.  Use dummy email accounts and free wifi to get copies of it printed and mailed to hundreds of different groups at once.  University science departments may be deluged with crackpot manuscripts, but most get looked at for a few minutes, so you have a chance of being taken seriously.  Once again, Wikileaks is the model.  For physical evidence, shuffle it through mail forwarding services a couple of times and not even you will know exactly where it has been before it gets where it needs to go.  A few pebbles from Narnia would be enough for the geochemists; a dragon egg makes the biologists go wild;  vampire skulls sent to an anthropologist shows that they exist.

How to prove you were in Narnia / Ferryth / any other non-Earth world: bring back a pocketful of pebbles (Chassigny meteorite fragment, originally from Mars, with a 1 cm cube for scale).

Granted, it’s not quite that simple.  It would be a huge leap from “you found a place with isotope ratios that don’t match anything in the solar system” to “you were in a land of talking animals ruled over by C.S. Lewis’ version of Jesus personified as a lion”.  And “there are humanoids with large retractable canines and strange bones that disintegrate in sunlight” isn’t the same as “we need to find the vampire leaders and convince them that they and their followers should drink pig’s blood rather than human”.  But as soon as the basic supernatural element of whatever Masquerade you are bringing down is illustrated, everyone would be willing to listen and to invest considerable effort in what you say.

So it is very hard to have a convincing Masquerade in a story.  I suppose you could specify some sort of universal law that the Masquerade cannot be broken, but that would be an arbitrary law enforced by a trickster god.  It’s probably best to simply go with authorial fiat and acknowledge the inconsistency.