In his story Mortal Gods, Orson Scott Card postulates a race of aliens whose physiology allows an individual to essentially live forever. Reproduction is accomplished by some sort of cellular division, and RNA carries memories of the original organism to the new creature. Because the individual is replicated so effectively, loss of an individual does not seem to be feared within the alien society.
However, because the aliens do not experience death, they are not equipped with mythology the way that human cultures are. No mythology seems to mean no religion, at least as we understand religion; it also means no artwork. The aliens’ viewpoint is one of the most startling and original of any that I’ve read on the subject of the effects of immortality: death engenders creativity.
There is something about our impermanence that drives humanity to paint and build and sing and write—not just functional structures, and not merely aesthetically pleasing songs. Something in us strives to make a lasting mark, to imprint ourselves on the shifting cosmic tide.
If we remove death, what happens to that impulse? While other speculative cognoscenti might say that the advent of a truly self-aware computer program is the demarcation of post-humanity, for me, it’s the moment when humanity defeats death once and for all. At that moment, those who choose (or are forced, or whatever) to partake of the death-reneging technology can no longer be considered to be human. Whatever else, there is an essential component in death that all humanity currently shares. Not being capable—or opting out of—dying puts up an irrevocable barrier between humans and post-humans. Of course that barrier, and the friction it might generate, is the fodder for countless science-fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.
None of which we would have, I submit, if we’d been immortal beings capable of passing our memories through RNA… :)
--Scott M. Roberts
Asst. Editor, IGMS