Guest Essay: ‘Machine’ Author Jennifer Pelland on Mechanical Immortality

 

machineMechanical Immortality and Machine

by Jennifer Pelland

So what would you do if you got a chance to live in a machine copy of your own body — one that looked and felt just like your flesh body — only you couldn’t make any adjustments to it, it would age just like your flesh body, and you’d have to go back to that meat sack after only a few years?

Sounds like a raw deal, doesn’t it?

This is part of what I explore in my novel Machine. In it, a woman named Celia Krajewski discovers that she has a nasty form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and has her brain copied into a medical replacement body so she can carry on with her life while her body lies in stasis, waiting for a cure. The bodies are a controlled technology, given only to those with life-threatening illnesses, with no modifications allowed. So, of course, within a week, Celia falls in with a group of illegal body hackers and starts making upgrades, first to her software, then to her hardware.

If I were ever put in her place, I don’t think I’d be able to resist the temptation to tinker either. Who among us wouldn’t? I’d probably start out with superficial things like a smaller stomach, a more flexible body, stronger legs, perfect teeth, and breasts that looked good without a bra. Yes, I’m shallow in all those ways, but I’m too much of a chicken to have any of those things done to my flesh body through risky surgery with long and painful recuperation times and nasty scars. In a machine body? I can’t imagine why any of those things would be risky or painful to one’s hardware.

But why stop with such slavishly human things? For instance, why be ruled by a pointless sleep cycle when a machine body surely wouldn’t require rest? Why be ruled by my stomach when I could instead eat whenever and however much I wanted? Why not have an eidetic memory upgrade? Why not be able to connect to the internet with my mind? Why not have eyes that can zoom in on tiny details, and fingers that are inhumanly dexterous? Why not be able to run somewhere faster than I can drive there? Hell, why not be able to “think off” whenever I wanted to?

If I were a more adventurous person, which I am not, I’d consider some of the modifications the people in my novel try. One can shift between having a female or male body, or stop somewhere in between. Another plates himself in metal. Still another has been converted into a giant art school doll, with no face, no fingers, no gender. Several of them have tweaks that make them act robotically, either through the stillness or jerkiness of their movements, or the flatness of their expressions and voices. If the world of the novel were to continue, I imagine that before long there would be people with extra arms, or with completely animal bodies, or with fantasy bodies of their own creation, or in something that didn’t resemble a body at all. People might share bodies, or swap them, or have different bodies to wear for different occasions. And someone would eventually get the bright idea to copy themself, maybe enough times to create an army.

And, of course, there’s the really big question. If you can live in a mechanical body, then why die?

I know I don’t want to.

But I don’t think that would be such a good idea. Bodies like that would initially be very expensive, as all revolutionary technology tends to be. Imagine just how much wider the 1%/99% gap would get if the 1% were immortal and had centuries to build up their wealth. Still, maybe these bodies would eventually be affordable for the general public. But if people stop dying, then what happens to the future of the human race? Who has the babies? Are there some flesh humans kept around as breeding stock, or does breeding become so distasteful that it stops altogether? Does the future become overrun with immortal methuselahs? What would a future without new minds be like? Would we stagnate, or would a human mind kept alive for thousands of years be a beautiful, creative, transformative thing?

I’d say that the good money is on “stagnate.”

It’s probably for the best, then, that friends of mine who actually understand neurobiology and computers tell me that copying a human brain into a machine is pure fantasy. So for the foreseeable future, we’re stuck with bodies that can only be augmented through plastic surgery and cyborg add-ons, which brings cowardly me back to that whole pain and scars problem that keeps me in the body I was born with. Still, I suspect we’ll be able to alter our sense of what it means to be human just fine without going purely mechanical. And we’ll have an expiration date, which means we’re still likely to have future generations, which is probably a good thing for the species, even if it might not be the best thing for our planet.

In Machine, Celia doesn’t really get a chance to think about this big picture. All she cares about is obliterating her humanity in an effort to kill the pain of her wife leaving her. But the people around her do. And if you read it, I hope you do too.

(To learn more about Machine, visit Apex Publication’s website: http://www.apexbookcompany.com. To learn more about Jennifer, including why she wants better knees and a more flexible body, go to http://www.jenniferpelland.com and check out the photo at the top of the page.)