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The Life Of The Dead (An Essay From The Future)

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(Original appearance on my Patreon page, 04 July 2017)

To understand our ancestors and the Natural Lifers, voluntary and involuntary, throughout the Solar System, you must understand first that they are all dead.

For our pre-Longevity ancestors, that’s literally true. But I mean something  more profound than a simple observation of the state of being of those who formerly lived and died. I’m talking about people and whole societies that were and are dead in the depths of their souls and worldview from birth.

We share with them the technical fact of mortality. We, too, will all die. No matter that our organs, unlike theirs, continually rebuild and reengineer themselves from the inside, that we enjoy continual in-depth health monitoring built into our surroundings, clothing, bedding, skin, flesh, bones, and blood, every single moment of every single day. No matter that our brains and memories are tended like gardens and backed up like documents.

Sooner or later the Reaper will reach us. It happens. Statisticians and actuaries disagree amongst themselves but most give us between five and fifteen thousand years before chance delivers us a body-obliterating end. It happens to an unlucky few every year already, in fact, among the tens of billions protected by Longevity.

But our ancestors (and today’s Natural Lifers) grew up assuming that their lives will be over very quickly indeed, and that there’s nothing of consequence they can do about it — which never stopped them from trying to micromanage a few extra years our of their short spans. Few ever succeeded in truly taking a view longer than their own lifespans, and usually that longer view consisted of trying to lock the future into living in the comfortable past of their own youths. For most, “long term” consisted of thinking a bare handful of years ahead, literally. No more than a person could count on their fingers.

Imagine what it’s like to be born inevitably and rapidly terminal. After the normal human childhood frenzy of learning, you must hurry on, hardly pausing. Spend your twenties in frantic acquisition of career skills. Your thirties and forties in frantic acquisition of expertise and professional networks. And then you have perhaps twenty good years to enjoy the fruits of that hard labor before the inevitable decline of body and mind begins to steal that hard-won enjoyment back. You’ll be very lucky to live beyond ninety without Longevity. Ninety years. That’s it. And in the past, there wasn’t even the option to change your mind, which many Natural Lifers do around mid-life when the recognition of immanent mortality really solidifies.

Short-lifers hardly had time to accomplish anything, and they were the entirety of society for most of human history. A society built around the recognition of swift and certain death. For them, everything must be a headlong rush, even the most careful and thoughtful long-range planning.

And a personal failure at any stage of life often meant a literally fatal delay of ambition and enjoyment of life success.

No wonder schadenfruede and sadism and suicide and Amok and warfare were rampant.

Not that those things are extinct in Longevity society. But they’re enormously rarer, aren’t they? Because we not only have reason to plan for the long term, but we know we’re here for the long term. We know we are alive and will continue to live, deep down in our flesh and bones and blood and souls. Tomorrow is coming for us, but short-lifers could never be certain that even tomorrow would come for them.

We’ve got more to lose, more to gain, and more to hope for. Just this first half-millennium of Longevity has revealed a slower progress, which the Natural Lifers jeer at, but it is deliberate and broad and lacks the error-forcing frantic quality of ephemeralism. We’ve more caution in deploying new ideas, but enjoy an unprecedented range of pure research and great reliability in the new developments we add to our lives. For why would a person facing ten thousand years of life worry over a decade or two spent chasing a dead end? But the prospect terrifies Natural Lifers, because two decades in a dead end is a waste of the bulk of an advanced professional life with no chance for recovery. It’s also easier for us to admit errors, for that very reason. A twenty year long mistake is a blush for us, but the ruin of everything for them.

As they point out slower overall progress, Natural Lifers are also quick to point out other shortcomings and controversies within Longevity — sometimes with justice, but often out of that schadenfreude mentioned earlier.

In our society it is easier to consolidate wealth and power for those willing to devote all their centuries to doing so — and so far we have several prominent examples of that. The definitions of “career criminal” and “life sentence” have shifted in ways our legal systems have still not fully adapted to. There is still enormous debate and controversy among creatives and legal minds over what copyright and fair use should look like when a creator might live longer than the current age of all human civilization to date. Mental illness and attitudes toward it are also experiencing a sea change — it seems that over a lifetime of centuries we all are statistically certain to experience mental illness in one or several forms.

While these are all real concerns and ramifications of Longevity, none of them are reasons to ignore the advances of technology and rejoin the Natural Lifers. None of them are reasons to embrace a swift death, surely.

Every human advance has brought new benefits and new difficulties hand in hand. Cheap, powerful ion-drive spacecraft changed our entire society and outlook on life. The internet changed everything with its advent. So did the motor vehicle. Rocketry, airplanes, telephones, electricity, railroads, rifles, gunpowder, crossbows, credit, printing presses, steel, aqueducts, sewers, iron, bronze, domesticated horses, writing, agriculture, brewing, fire. Every one of these innovations, and more besides, radically changed human history, society, worldview, and reasoning. Every single one. We adjusted to them.

We’ll adjust to biological immortality too, and all the new innovations it brings us.

Hurricanes And Tornadoes And Floods, Oh My, Will It Be Easy To Flee…

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…or at least that may be an upside of an ever-more-connected world. The “Internet of Things” future will have to ponder if that and other pluses offset living in a world where any of your belongings might rob you.

In a WiFi saturated world, it may be more than your phone or local news weather report that warns you of imminent weather threats like hurricane, tornado, flood, blizzard, and so forth.

Your refrigerator and thermostat and eyeglasses and bathroom mirror and shoes and – who knows by 30 years from now – the earbuds that semi-permanently reside in your earlobe piercings will keep you updated.

Linked to the hyperlocal weather reports aggregated not just from satellites and airports and weather stations, but from sensors integral to the solar and wind power arrays that feed electricity into every building’s batteries, your belongings will keep you appraised of the weather and what it means to you.

“Close the windows,” your windows will say, possibly via your microwave, showerhead, or belt buckle. If your house is posh enough, they’ll say, “shall we close?” and they’ll do it themselves without orders if rain starts coming in to threaten the carpeting.

“Dude! We need to get out of Dodge right now!” your car (set to “casual” mode, obviously) will exclaim as deadly weather ramps up nearby. Your shoes will wail at you to head for the car, or for the curb where a self-driving Unter can collect you – if only you acknowledge you’ll be there to be picked up for evacuation.

But what if you don’t?

“Acknowledge,” the hall light prompts as you stagger by to find a place to collapse. “Acknowledge,” your thrift store sneaks beg, hearing you, from their home tucked in under the front of your second hand couch. “Acknowledge?” your front door asks querulously, but there’s no answer.

Your snores rise from the couch where you slump, utterly zonked. Maybe you’ve hit the sauce too hard, or been at the recreational drugs, or whatever you’ve been prescribed was just too much for you today. After all, you’ve been preparing for a storm and worrying all day.

And maybe your shirt notices that you’re not waking up and the state of emergency created by the weather allows the Unter car to send in a helper bot to bypass your door lock and carry you out to safety. The Unter takes you smoothly away from the danger despite widespread service outages – it’s not dependent on a centrally coordinated net by able to function as cleanly as a fish in a school…

…to take you to a designated shelter through a flood of traffic far more dense and swift than any human driver could navigate.

And you wake in a high school gymnasium shelter thirty miles away, confused.

But your wristband wearable can tell you what happened. And you’re alive.

#

My God, what a nanny state hell! you say to yourself as you finish reading the above, horrified that the humans of the future might be so helpless and coddled. Hopefully not because you’re a goddamn eugenicist, but surely some of you are. Regardless…

…let me tell you how helpless you really are, roughly from near past to distant. You may be able to contradict a couple statements below. Maybe. But how many? And as a way of life, not a hobby? Are you sure? Read on.

You save your children and yourself from death, pain, infliction of disability, and long-term malaise with medicines and vaccines, most of which were unknown a mere century ago. There’s a fair chance that you, reading this right now, would not be alive without them. I wouldn’t.

You don’t know how to ride, feed, or otherwise care for horses and their harness, because you ride around in automobiles.

You can’t organize a household based on the relatively difficult and time consuming weekly or monthly or seasonal (depending on your distance from civilization) grocery runs. Nor do you know how to keep the things people used to buy from spoilage. Could you buy one cheese wheel per season and keep it good so you could enjoy the last bite three months later? No. You buy a brick of cheese from the store and devour it two days later. Or if you forget it, you find it with a bit of mold and past the expiration date and chuck it straight in the trash.

You buy your food in supermarkets. You don’t know how to dry, salt, pickle, ferment, or can your own food to sustain you through the year. Nor do you know how to store those foods correctly.

You don’t know how to set a bone, stitch shut a wound, or birth a baby.

You can’t make your own clothes from bolts of cloth, needle, and thread.

You don’t know how to spin thread and yarn from cotton and wool or hemp or whatever fiber is local to you.

You don’t know how to winnow chaff, parch grain, grind it by hand, and bake it into bread in your own wood or dung fired hearth.

You don’t know how to bring ten children into the world and bury five of them before their fifth birthday without going mad.

You can’t accept life as a serf, slave, or even vassal – which, historically speaking, the vast majority of people were. You, like everyone else today, assume you’d be some sort of noble because you’re so damned smart. Well, smart wasn’t worth anything if you were born to raise beets. Except maybe getting your smart, restless ass killed.

You don’t know how to build a hut from scratch, or make and keep clean a packed earth floor.

You can’t form a phalanx or ply a sling.

You can’t ride a chariot nor craft a balanced wheel from pieces of wood.

You don’t know the best way to dig edible roots with a pointed stick.

You can’t till and plant a field with a wooden plow, or a hoe, or an adze.

You don’t even know how to save seed for next season’s planting, nor how to figure out how much seed you need to plant your acre.

You don’t know how to rotate crops. You don’t know how long to leave a field fallow. You may not even know what the hell “fallow” means or why it’s a concept.

You don’t know how to slay aurochs and bears with a spear.

You can’t cure hides with brains and piss, nor chew them soft, nor scrape them properly, nor stitch the finished product into decently-fitting boots and cloaks.

You don’t know how to layer for the weather without space-age insulation, processed wools, and garments involving stretchy artificial materials.

You don’t know how to carry embers all day so you can make a fire without having to fool with a bow and drill or flint and pyrite or something.

You can’t tell what kind of animal you’re stalking by looking at its poop.

You don’t know how to stalk an animal, so that last point wouldn’t do you much good if you did know.

You can’t catch a fish with just a length of gut, a bone, and a worm.

You don’t know how to make iron from scratch. Or bronze. Or how to pound native copper into a usable tool. Or knap a knife or spearpoint from stone. You don’t even know how to pick a good stone to knap, the right stone for a striker, and knock off flakes without cutting your fingers open or smashing them.

You don’t know how to cut down a tree with a rock.

Once you’ve cut it down, you don’t know how to make it into a canoe.

You don’t know how to live your entire life on foot, outdoors, in the weather, as a nomad, without even the knowledge of letters or numbers greater than you can count on your fingers.

Maybe you think you do, and it would be an adventure. Well, you don’t. And adventures are awful things that happen to other people that you enjoy listening to when you’re warm and safe.

The “the people have grown soft” of yesterday is today’s “we can get along just fine as we are, thanks.”

Unless we get all obsessive about how great the past was. In which case we may get what we wish for, warts and all.

END

This was posted to my Patreon a week before it appeared here. If you like what I do, help me do it more by contributing!

A Couple Of Centuries Makes Aliens

I had some fun with this hashtag, but the underlying idea is pretty important: it wasn’t the case in the distant past so much, but these last couple of centuries our rate of technological advance has been so rapid that time makes aliens of the people of the past quickly. It’s hard to conceive that they’d be so different from us, that we’re so different from them, only two or three centuries separated in time. The language has changed, but not so much we couldn’t understand it. We still run the USA on the basis of the documents they wrote. But the worldviews of people now and then are so different, I wonder if they’d even grasp how we interpret them now, or if we even truly grasp what they meant when they wrote. Certainly we have some clue. Certainly our legal scholars do. But really, one would have to be a historian and a lawyer and an anthropologist and maybe a psychologist and a few other things to really get it.

We have a vague idea of who and what people from a past so far removed from our present in time and technology and ideas were. But it’s a shallow idea, like a US founder might have had of the culture of Beijing at the time. A tissue of stereotype and rumor.

They’re aliens in a very meaningful sense. Or we’ve become aliens to them. The people of the 2300s will be just as alien from our point of view, whether they’re more advanced or the survivors of a civilization-destroying apocalypse.

Even if we never meet extraterrestrials, we walk in the footsteps of aliens every day of our lives.

New Short Story Ebook: TORNADO GIFT

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Available on Smashwords — FREE! No sign-in needed, you can even select “online reader” under “Download:” and read it as a webpage — just as you’re reading this page, with nothing to actually download!

You can also find it on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Google Play Books, Kobo, and others.

This is a short tale of weirdness after a storm — I’ll let the opening paragraphs speak for themselves:

Eventually, the walls-strumming throb of the tornado passed and the family emerged from their storm nest in the hallway. They had ridden through the storm—the hail and rain hammering on the walls, the gusts rocking the trailer home side to side on its blocks, the thunder shaking the roof, and finally the open-throated steam engine chug of the funnel cloud itself—encapsulated in the mattresses rushed from their beds and stood up against the hallway walls to cushion them in case the trailer rolled over. But it hadn’t.

The storm had been black, choking off the little bit of light that illuminated the hall from the living room on a sunny day. After the hail the electric lights had failed. The lights were still out, but now a weak sun filtered in again, gray.

Paul rushed ahead of his parents and little brother on the energy of thirteen, threw open the door and the screen, and burst out onto the open porch. Twigs, leaves, and small branches torn out of the big maple between them and the next trailer thirty feet over crunched under his sneakers. From the maple, from the woods engulfing their end of the trailer park, branches and leaves covered the grass and the gravel road, a green and brown carpet with only a few worn patches showing what lay underneath. Paul looked up. The clouds trailing the storm were high and thin, ragged, sending down random momentary sprinkles. The air was fresh, washed, green with the sap of bruised leaves and broken trees. Paul sucked in a deep breath, alive in the wake of the storm’s fear.

“We made it!” he shouted as his family crowded onto the porch. He ran down the steps into the yard, and from there he saw it between the back of the trailer and the woods. A refrigerator, tall and white but not square like all the ones he’d seen before. This one was rounded and smooth like an enormous bar of soap. The handle on the front was short, chrome worn dull on one end and attached to the fridge only on the other. The fat and round black power cord disappeared into the undergrowth of the woods’ edge as if it were plugged into the ferns and sticky sundews that grew there…

I Got Hoaxed While Writing About How Hard It Is For The Future To See The Past Accurately: Theory In Practice

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So, just a few days ago I was writing about a prime consideration for the science fiction writer: imagining how the future may see their past (our present) inaccurately. I mentioned the fact that time is a bit like distance in terms of what can be seen; whether we measure in years or meters, the more distance between you and what you’re viewing, the fewer details you see, and the fuzzier the image. I also mentioned that ‘fuzziness’ in terms of viewing the past — and an aspect to consider when writing about how your characters in the future view our present or the deeper past — means that things get lost. Like, I thought, this bizarre-yet-plausible video game and 8-track music tape driving game:

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…except, as Twitter friend @webmonkees was kind enough to point out, the game is a hoax. What makes my falling for it even more stinging than it already was, I had actually looked at the reference @webmonkees pointed out: a comedy site. Caught up in rapid research, I read only far enough to get the gist of what the ‘double-ender’ was supposed to be: a device for matching background music to themed games. Well, games tend to have background music. Marketing types love things that fit themes. And so, the package was credible enough that my ‘no way’ sense did not engage, and I did not click ‘about us‘ on the comedy page to discover that it was, in fact, a comedy page, and the ‘double-ender’ is a spoof product that never existed.

Which brings me to my subject today: in my earlier post, I missed something other than the hoax. I missed the role of the hoax in making the past fuzzy to us.

Hoaxes, along with assumptions and plain old errors, also cloud our vision of the past. Writing science fiction, it might be worth considering how a hoax or mistake could affect the future’s vision of us today. In fact, there could be fertile ground for inspiration here, and for social commentary. A future that believes that the 8-track ‘double-ender’ was real probably doesn’t offer much in the way of stories, but what about a future that believes, due to a clever montage photoshopped headlines, that aliens destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11? Or in the various ‘reptile humanoids hiding among us‘ theories, or that the moon landing being faked is fact rather than conspiracy fiction, or…

…the possibilities are endless. I wonder how many hoaxes, lies, and mistakes are already presented as fact in the history books we have today? And I’m not even counting arguments, soluble and insoluble, among historians over the ‘correct’ version of controversial events.

Part Of Writing Science Fiction Is Asking What The Future Will Forget

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Do you remember this being a thing? I don’t. I do remember the Atari 2600 — plenty of people do. They were all over the place, one of the earliest and most popular video game systems.

But this ‘double-ender’ thing… really? I had no clue before I saw this image. But apparently they saw some success and were an early attempt to mate theme music to games in a way that made sense (and sounded better than the often-cheesy SFX of the 2600).

But my point isn’t “look at this weird thing from the past”… although it’s admittedly a side-point.

My point is, we forget a lot about the past. We’re here, and it’s back there. As with seeing and hearing, the farther something is from us, the less detail we perceive. The same is true of time. The farther back in time a thing is from us, the less we know about it (in general — historians generate specific and focused exceptions). When I’m writing a story that takes place a century or two in the future and the past becomes relevant to the characters, I have to ask myself what they might know and what they might not. What is important to us now, or at least present in our general knowledge, that will be lost to non-historians or entirely lost to the people of the future? If I’m writing something set fifty years from now, maybe they have no clue what Glee was, or that you couldn’t hang a TV on the wall with thumbtacks like a poster. Ten thousand years from now (and I have a couple of stories set that far ahead), and maybe they don’t know what a ‘nation’ was.

Knowledge, like the proverbial pebble dropped in a pond, casts a ripple effect. Knowing one thing implies knowing what a thousand other things are, and it shapes how a person behaves in entirely unrelated matters.

Lack of knowledge acts the same way. And the way you handle that and understand that in your stories about the future will have a ripple effect upon the quality of those stories.

I’m A Thanksgiving Literalist: I Give Thanks For Stuff And Ignore Our Weird National Fables

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I WILL EAT YOU. YOU ARE A DELICIOUS TRADITION.

The title pretty much says it all: I take the word “Thanksgiving” at face value, and I give thanks. Some folks might — and do — question how an atheistic sort like myself can give thanks without giving thanks TO something, by which they mean to a deity. Well, I answer, it is entirely possible to feel thankful for something without there being an object to hang the thanks on. I’m thankful for my wife. I’m thankful to have three awesome kids. I’m thankful for what my parents did to help me grow and I’m thankful that when they made mistakes, they were mindful and thoughtful enough to own those mistakes and say ‘whooops’ in a good and productive way. I’m thankful that when I make a parenting mistake, my kids are good enough to listen to my saying ‘whoops’ in what I hope is a good and productive way. And I’m thankful for delicious food, and a warm home, and…and…and…

…you don’t want to listen to all this. It’s a big laundry list, and you have your own laundry list of thankfulness to tend to. Suffice it to say, there is much in my life that is good and positive.

It means something, for me to have this day to focus on thankfulness. Its existence helps me remember to work it into the other 364 days of the year (your mileage may vary on leap years), and many of those days it is not easy to remember. Because I can be pretty darn pessimistic sometimes. Just as there is always something to be thankful for, there is always the potential for something to go wrong, or at least not right. And those things loom large in my vision. It has been like that for as long as I can remember. When I sell a few books, my mind wants to focus on how many more I had hoped to sell, not on being happy that the ones who bought them, bought them. When one of my blog posts gets five likes, my first thought is a grumble that it’s not fifty, rather than being thankful for the five who were good enough to pull the trigger on the positive reinforcement button. When the car is running well, I worry that it could break down tomorrow. When the bills are paid, I worry about next month.

As my maternal grandmother put it once, “we are worry warts.” To one degree or other, worry runs in the family. And yet, it’s not entirely a family thing. I read news and tweet on Twitter and look at what people post in various online forums and I see worry warts all over. Maybe it’s a human thing. Well, I’m all too human, and it often makes me grumpy. It’s important for we grumpy worry warts to take some time to focus on what there is to be thankful for.

And as for the portion of the title pertaining to “weird national fables”: what? They’re weird. They were built in a time when our nation was trying to pretend that genocide of First Nations people wasn’t part of this nation’s history (not that plenty of people — too many — aren’t trying to pretend so even today). Giving thanks is good, a ‘first Thanksgiving’ fable that glosses over the wrongs in our history isn’t so great, to say the least. So, I’m glad to cut those fables loose from my household. On other days, I tell my kids about history, and I tell my kids that people or nations that do not acknowledge their past wrongs are hurting themselves and inviting more wrongs. Honesty with self, human or nation, is vital to doing right today and in the future. Period.

But we don’t talk about that much on Thanksgiving. We’re too busy being thankful for each other.