Lately I’ve been reading books from the 90s. The books by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially the Mars Trilogy are, not surprisingly, set on Mars and span a period of several hundred years. It seems Robinson is not inclined to write about earthly events and characters, focussing his attention instead on Mars, her moons, and the asteroid belt that he has also transformed by technology to support human life. The book of his I’m currently reading is called Aurora and is about the travels of humankind outside the solar system for the first time. Their destination is the Tau Ceti e system some twelve light years from the Terran Solar System. It takes them many generations and 170 years to get there, a scenario packed with angst about life and death.
In an earlier work, Robinson confronts mortality straight on. He concludes about the characters in The Mars Trilogy that:
A long life is not necessarily a good life.
Their lives were long, very long indeed if they took “the treatment”. They could not yet know just how long they could live because few of them had died of causes relatable to an ordinary life, of ‘natural causes’ not that they were invincible. It’s true that most inhabitants of Mars were over two hundred years old. Two had died in an explosion, one had died by violence, another by being swept into a roaring river of ice into the depths of a swift moving glacier. In his Mars Trilogy Robinson has cleverly endowed his protagonists with very long lives. However longevity does not equal high quality and death will not be denied.
“There were all kinds of madness, evidently. Ann wandering the old world, off on her own; the rest of them staggering on in the new world like ghosts, struggling to construct one life or another. Maybe it was true what Michel said, that they could not come to grips with their longevity, that they did not know what to do with their time, did not know how to construct a life.”from “Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 3)” by Kim Stanley Robinson.
Mars colonists may not know what to do with their two hundred or more years of life. What about us? How do we decide what to do with our lives? How do we construct a life whether we have a month left to live or two hundred years?
This is really an unfair question given the vast range of possible answers along a plethora of trajectories. But it’s a question that can generate some critical thinking about our lives and how we live them. For that reason I feel justified in asking it. Still I think that narrowing the focus of the question could be valuable.
The questions that interest me the most concern our relationship with death and immortality. These are ‘intellectual’ questions that have nothing to do with the material requirements of life. Of course, no matter how we look at it, life means movement. Death implies stillness. That may be why so many of us are gripped with the need to do…something…anything. Doing justifies living. Stillness or inactivity reminds us of death.
This photo is of me at a very young age, not sure exactly how old. That said, I am not the person you see in the photo. In fact, although arguably I am the person depicted in this photo, I have very little in common with that person. I could say that in the photo you see an embryonic version of me and that may well be true. We, the little dude in the photo and I, are obviously related; we share a life trajectory. But there is not one molecule in my body now that existed in the little dude back then. And the little dude hadn’t read Marx or Darwin. According to Milan Kundera in Immortality little dude would be in the happy first stage of life. The second stage is the preeminently active stage when we realize that death is real and that it is hounding us. To fend it off we must do, build a career, a family, a community. The trajectory in this stage is characterized by growth and the morality of the time expects material production from us. I am in the third and final stage of life, or at least I can be found transitioning into the final stage, the WTF stage, I call it. It’s the stage when strength is fast being replaced by fatigue and exhaustion. Kundera writes:
“Fatigue: A silent bridge leading from the shore of life to the shore of death. At that stage death is so close that looking at it has already become boring.”1
I’m bored, but only to tears, not to death. I’m just now standing on the crest of the bridge but I can easily make out the shore of death on the horizon which is becoming clearer and more distinct every day. According to Kundera, this third stage is where freedom can be found. If I knew what freedom was I might be more eager to actively pursue it. The third stage will come or I will die in angst fussing over the quality of my life experiences and my immortality which, of course, can only exist after my death.2
1 Kundera, Milan. 1990. Immortality. New York: Harper Perennial. page 71.
2. Kundera considers immortality as that view that encompasses an entire lifetime but is also restricted to it. It is a fixed entity that has no place except in the memories of those left behind. It is not soul based unless you can think of the soul as the totality of what we leave behind. It is not eternal life but the memory of a whole life lived. Death completes my life.