Immortality, Dr. Ben Bova

Avon, 1998, 283 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97518-1

Immortality has been a staple of Science-Fiction for as long as the genre has existed, from at least Greek mythology onward. Most of the time, Immortality was presented either as a goal for mad scientists (“With this ingredient, I shall live forever and enslave the world!”) or, perhaps more ominously, as a curse bestowed on an unlucky few.

Eventually, given SF’s own tendency to pervert its own assumptions, more balanced work have emerged. Increasingly realistic biomedical advances in the real world have helped to steer fiction away from the “mad immortals” cliches. The SF of the nineties has seen a renewed interest in the concept. Kim Stanley Robinson made it one of the keystones of his grandiose “Mars” trilogy, even though some will argue that it was a mean to develop the story with the same characters, not an end in itself. More recently, James L. Halperin vulgarized the subject in 1998’s quasi-mainstream novel The First Immortal.

Ben Bova’s Immortality, despite Bova’s solid reputation as a Science Fiction author, is a non-fiction work. It explores the avenues by which medicine may reverse aging, the consequences of such a scientific triumph and the desirability of immortality.

Doctor-Bova-the-scientist has meticulously distanced himself from Ben-Bova-the-SF-writer in Immortality. Indeed, his “Other books by Ben Bova” blurb lists only non-fiction works and even then it’s staggering to see that he has written more non-fiction books that most writers will write novels in their lifetimes. But Bova has carried to science writing the same limpidity of thought and writing that has earned him his legions of SF fans.

Immortality is an unusually accessible work about a subject that is unusually complex. It’s no coincidence if it take more than a hundred pages to get at immortality itself: Bova has to carry the reader through elementary chemistry and biology before really tackling immortality. Fortunately, it’s a much more pleasant read than the prospect of “a hundred pages of basic sciences” might imply. Side-bars, personal anecdotes, catchy headers and other techniques make Immortality a model of good scientific vulgarization. As might be expected, Bova’s research is meticulous. At the end of the book’s first part, we can’t be anything but convinced that immortality is just around the corner. The scientific evidence so far is overwhelming.

As stunning as is this conclusion, it’s the second part of the book that will fascinate. Here, Bova explores his previous assumption by looking at the social repercussions of Immortality. He reasonably intuits that not everyone will welcome this revolution with equal fervour. He also posits “what-if?” scenarios based on the costs of immortality treatments, availability and continued medical research on the subject. Alas, this part is over much too quickly; if the book has a weakness, it’s that this examination of social impacts could have been expanded. Bova makes simplistic assumptions that will give ammunition to overcritical readers.

But no matter. After finishing Immortality, it’s difficult to disagree with Bova’s assertion that death will eventually become, not obsolete, but far less implacable than today. It’s a breath of fresh air in a marketplace of end-of-the-world predictions.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Immortality is not the prediction of immortality -after all, it’s been a common fantasy for a while now-, but the fact that this prediction is detailed, quite reasonably, in a popular science book. Even long after first reading the last lines of the book, they will resonate as strongly as before:

The first immortals are already living among us. You might be one of them.

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