This month’s postcard from the future comes from a 23rd century medical practitioner…
My area of speciality is the old, or Senetics as we call it, a word which will be unfamiliar to you people of the past, if what the scientists are saying is correct and they can indeed send a message back to you. In your time when people became advanced in years they had no choice but to decay slowly, their skin giving way under the onslaught of the sun’s radiation, their bowels becoming unreliable, their bones brittle. In short, by one route or another, they usually died a slow, painful and undignified death. I have great admiration, even astonishment, at how people were able to suffer such a situation, since it is scarcely necessary any longer in our present.
But as for everything else of course, there is a price to pay. Not everyone is wealthy enough to afford the same level of Senetic treatment. My clients tend to be highly successful businessmen and women, many of whom have outlived their own children. That brings with it a terrible irony of course. Would it be better to die believing your children could live forever somehow, out-of-sight, beyond your own comprehension, than to live so long as to have to witness the horror of their demise first hand? The maximum human age achieved so far is 204 years, the same age, not coincidentally, as the treatment method itself. Old Alfred Rubens, or “Young Alf” as he insists on being called, just keeps paying for the best and latest of our breakthroughs, and staying ahead of the game, one step ahead of death. He is something of a media figure of course, and was briefly a patient of mine some twenty years ago. Most of us Senetics specialists have worked on Alfred at some point or another. I replaced his lungs and nose of all things. The greatest achievement so far was the replacement of his entire brain in 2209 by Doctor Bernard Lesivic, achieved in ten discrete stages, so as to allow his consciousness to slowly decant itself, as it were, from one vessel to another, as the new brain tissue was grafted in.
This raises ethical questions, still being hotly debated every year in The Lancet. Where does the human soul and mind truly reside and does it merely disappear upon death? We had certainly thought that was the case, until the trace memories of the donor brain came through… a tramp named Vladimir. At first we thought it was Parkinsons or Tourette’s, Young Alf finally succumbing to a mundane disease after all these years, but the vocalisations were soon seen to be too specific, too coherent. A successful investment banker, Alf would be chairing a high-flown board meeting on energy shares or the gold standard at the top floor of a soaring glass towerblock, when suddenly Vladimir would erupt through, calling everyone in the room lousy bloodsucking reptiles, smashing his way into the drinks cabinet and attempting to rape the receptionist. Who among us might not behave similarly however, if having thought ourselves dead, we were suddenly thrust back into life in a position of power and potency?
The ghost of Vladimir had to be expunged slowly, since there were surprising signs of his and Alf’s consciousness beginning to intertwine and fuse. Removal, cleansing, and replacement of brain tissue is a very delicate process, we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and be left talking to Vladimir, who apart from anything else, wouldn’t know the identity codes for Alf’s credit cards and well-stocked bank accounts. Indeed rumours still abound in the press, given Alf’s recent unexpected spree of charity and new-found taste for alcohol and sex workers, that the dubious influence of Vladimir lives on in the head of one of the world’s most wealthy men.
Of course some people find the thought abhorrent that only the rich and wealthy can now afford to buy themselves immortality. If only we were just talking great scientists and ex-presidents here. But celebrity plumbers, chefs, and gardeners and the like are now able to flaunt their mortality, while the man on the street makes do with lesser tinkerings. In our average 23rd century street these days, we will rarely see an aged man or woman hobbling with a stick, Zimmer or wheelchair. Even wrinkled faces are rare. More commonplace are the strange bronze and burnished complexions of the Senetically-enhanced with their oddly lightweight sauntering walks. They would look to someone of the past somewhat like kippers, Arbroath Smokies, tanned Egyptian mummies, cured hams, living dolls. In some cases the skin almost turns to a translucent black, a highly fashionable effect in exactly the way wrinkles were not.
But all this, and all we have achieved, is only to counteract the effect of wear and tear, now that mitochondrial DNA and telomeres have been suitably mapped and adapted. Although all human beings are now theoretically immortal (they always were potentially, if the telomere shortening could but be counteracted), the reality is that accidents and the remaining fatal diseases (and a few new ones every year) are always likely to catch most of us in time unless we have the financial means to react to them with the large-scale grafts and transplants that the likes of Alfred Rubens routinely resort to.
If only I could say that I thought the very best minds of today were going to be preserved infinitely into the future. At least the vast sums of money required to pay for Alf’s surgery means that should his fortunes ever falter in the future he may have to face a squalid death of the 20th century variety.
It may surprise you to learn that my wife and I have agreed to die naturally, hopefully some time in our 90’s. I’ve seen too much of all this tanning and pickling and preening. The human vanity that has lined my pockets these last thirty years, has somewhat soured the once-sweet taste in my mouth. Some people call us old-fashioned. Much as I love my wife and would hate to see her suffer in the latter stages of old age, I think I would hate more to see her parodied by her own fear and self-regard and turned into a living wax doll. To fear and fight age, to fear death at all, it has always seemed to me, is to underestimate Nature’s genius. And as a doctor and surgeon I have had more opportunity than most to appreciate the incredible sophistication of whatever force constructed our bodies and this world. To this day, I keep the last remnants of the ghost of Vladimir the tramp in some brain tissue in a jam jar in my fridge freezer at home, although Serena finds it a little creepy. It serves to remind me that much as we think we may have conquered the darkness of this universe, the hands that created it still hold much more beyond our reach.