The following text is Part I of a five-part series on the subject of individual immortality. The writing process was the most difficult I ever experienced, as on numerous occasions I felt disillusioned that the text will never be to my liking. It may have taken one year, but now that it’s finally done, I can say that I’m very happy and proud with the final outlook and I sincerely hope that it makes for an interesting read!
Part I: Introduction
Villeneuve’s Dune: Yet Another Formulaic Blockbuster
Would you like to live for a thousand years?
How about forever?
The subject of individual immortality has been living rent-free in my mind over the last two years, ever since I accidentally returned to the Dune book series. Everything began one faithful night when me and my girlfriend decided to check out the new Dune movie while quarantined at home. I’d seen the trailer, which showed some promise, despite oozing the familiar blockbuster tropes that make every new film or TV series almost unwatchable (at least in my opinion). Sadly, our viewing only confirmed this initial suspicion.
I’m not going to discuss the specifics of partly adapting a several hundred-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour movie, nor the difference between watching it at home and experiencing it on the big screen, where the cinematography, costumes and effects can truly shine. While these are important factors, the key to any successful film adaption is communicating the essential elements of the source material (world, characters, interpersonal dynamics, atmosphere, etc.) to the audience, and I personally thought that Denis Villeneuve’s creation fell incredibly flat in that regard. However, this is just my opinion and if you enjoyed the movie – great, that’s why it was made in the first place!
Since we’re already on the topic of personal impressions however, I suppose there’s no harm in sharing my grievances with Dune (2021). The primary feelings the movie reaped in me were disappointment and frustration, because I felt it misrepresented or omitted many crucial aspects of the original novel, specifically in terms of the characters, story world-building, etc. My gripe with the majority of contemporary films or TV series (regardless of whether they’re original or adaptations) is that they’re formulaic, dull and hollow, as the original ideas which make them attractive and appealing are inevitably and viciously sacrificed at the altar of intolerable social justice propaganda that sells counterfeit compassion and shallow sugar-coated slogans of equality, diversity, freedom, et. al., despite being the product of an industry, where the only significant metric is net profit. The most common result of this duplicitous approach is an adaptation that superficially follows the contours of the source material to the necessary minimum, but inevitably sees that the heart, soul and undertones that give any work its originality and unique character are gutted, replaced or modified to fit whatever is deemed to be most appeasing to the public in the current moment.
Plot-wise, such productions are often purposefully simplified to the point of incoherence for the sake of visual effects and dramatic one-liners, to the effect that most of the mainstream movies & TV series coming out today all carry the basic storyline of the Rambo franchise – all is well within the world initially, then something bad happens, which introduces the audience to the main character who is an amazing, charismatic and extremely capable person, then the movie puts forward an even larger and potentially apocalyptic villain/threat, then the amazing hero/heroine gets to show us just how amazing and extraordinary they are by outperforming everyone else (including the villain) and dropping at least one marketable one-liner, then the whole thing thoughtfully ends, just as some members of the audience are becoming overtaken by the need to relieve themselves and all is well once more – both within the fictional world and the real one.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but unfortunately they seem to be getting increasingly rare. The pursuit of box-office numbers to cover the costs of ever-increasing marketing and production budgets has shifted the focus away from character, world & story development, which give these works their originality & artistic significance, for the safety of the formula that guarantees certain numbers, i.e., as a means of ensuring its financial survival, cinema has adopted the quantity over quality approach. As a result of this adherence to formula, both movies & TV series are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from one another, which is especially obvious and detrimental for literary adaptations that contain original and mesmerizing ideas.
While Villeneuve’s Dune certainly isn’t the worst example of this trend, the symptoms of the disease are apparent – replace the desert setting, names and the title, and most of what happens on the screen becomes a recycled iteration of scenes and characters that we have already seen thousands of times. Naturally, the same criticism can be aimed at virtually any form of artistic work, especially those based on a literary narrative, and that’s why it’s critical for any artwork to carry sufficient originality, novelty, craftsmanship, style, etc., otherwise it won’t be distinguishable from its counterparts.
Regardless of these criticisms, for some reason my frustration with Dune (2021) was noticeably higher than expected, considering that all in all it was a typical blockbuster – not great, but no shockingly awful either. I believe that my increased frustration was due to three reasons – 1) I had actually read the original Dune novel; 2) the movie had already received high praises from both audiences and critics, which further fuelled my irritation; and finally 3) I felt that the movie represented a failure both as an adaptation to the original novel and as a standalone artwork, perhaps with the exception of the cinematography. However, there was a problem within the paradise of my self-righteous frustration and desire to simply reject the movie as another piece of cinematic junk food – I’d read the original book years ago and didn’t remember anything but the major plotlines and characters, and therefore lacked the necessary arguments to pinpoint the exact mistakes and omissions, so as to triumphantly crucify the movie in my own head. So, fuelled partly by the desire to affirm my sense of moral superiority and partly by curiosity1, I decided to go back to the books and expose all of the movie’s heresies like a fanatical medieval inquisitor. Kind of sad, really, but true nonetheless.
And just like that I was back to reading to Dune.
I re-read the original book, along with three of the initial five sequels, which I had previously overlooked, since the first of those (Dune Messiah) had failed to capture my interest. My curiosity to see the progression of overarching plot, in combination with the accumulated inertia from the movie, eased me through the books in several weeks and I eventually got to the point where the series’ most influential character and principal protagonist, the God Emperor Leto Atreides II, is introduced.
For those that are unfamiliar with Leto Atreides II – he is the son & heir of Paul Atreides and succeeds him as the political leader of the planet Arrakis (Dune), whilst also inheriting the power of prescience2 from his father. In addition to the superpower of prescience, Leto II later transcends the human species by merging himself with the creature known as the sand-trout (the precursor to the sandworm) to become a human-sandworm hybrid. This transformation provides an immense boost to his mental & physical capabilities (such as extending his lifespan indefinitely) and allowed him to become the God Emperor of human civilization within the Dune universe.
But why is any of this important and what does it have to do with immortality?
By merging with the sand-trout Leto Atreides II sacrifices his humanity as a means to an end. His prescient abilities3 allow him to peer into both past and future and recognize that humanity faces the threat of complete extinction from the Universe. He determines that the nature of the threat isn’t immediate nor direct, but stems from the slow and continuous degradation of an interstellar human empire that has been infected by blind obedience, complacency and comfort. Through prescience Leto II foresees that this decrepit civilization would slowly but inevitably enter a state of permanent regression, culminating in its collapse and the total extinction of humanity from the Universe. Furthermore, he becomes aware that the only potential remedy to prevent the fall of humanity is a complete change of the established socio-political order, beginning on Arrakis and eventually spreading out through the rest of the empire.
However, for this change to become permanent, it had to be accomplished gradually and had to be accompanied by the simultaneous abolishment of all the harmful traditions and practices which have pushed human civilization to the edge of the abyss. The God Emperor seeks to overhaul both the political structures and prevailing system of moral values in the empire by establishing something like a universal theocracy founded on his own rule and worship, in addition to artificially engineering political crises that would push society in a certain direction. And herein lies the kicker – such a massive all-encompassing change can’t be achieved in years nor decades, but requires millennia to be accomplished. In order to oversee these changes, Leto II consciously merges with the sand-trout and increases his lifespan to thousands, possibly tens of thousands of years, thus buying the necessary time to alter the course of history and guarantee the survival of human civilization.
He refers to this process of continuous change and eventual salvation as the Golden Path4 and rules as God Emperor of humanity for approximately 3,500 years. The underlying idea of the Golden Path is that by the end of his reign human civilization would gather enough inertia, so that it would be impossible to stray from the chosen course of safety even after his death. Naturally, prescience also allows him to anticipate his own demise, which he sees as the necessary conclusion of long and painful transition process – like a kid turning 18 and finally being able to buy their own booze from the liquor store.
Overall, I found Leto II to be a really interesting protagonist and although he sometimes goes off the rails with his monologues, the dude has dropped multiple philosophical bombs worth checking out. His complex and multi-dimensional character, along with the monumental task of leading humanity to safety & prosperity via the Golden Path inspired me to seriously think about immortality in the philosophical sense, which ultimately resulted in the creation of this text. Even though the Golden Path eventually achieves its principal goal of saving humanity from gradual extinction, the development of Leto II as a character and the challenges he faced throughout his quasi-infinite reign as God Emperor in the Dune universe made me realize that the actual consequences of attaining immortality are far more complicated and bleak than they appear on the surface.
I became obsessed and sunk my teeth deep into the subject of immortality. While the topic wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind, I regularly contemplated what immortal existence would look and feel like and how it would affect the individual over the course of time. Before going on further and presenting my thesis however, I want to clarify that this text isn’t a comprehensive examination of all the aspects and possibilities of immortality – the topic is already huge and expanding it any further would require me to a become a full-time writer and do a massive amount of research. Consequently, this text covers only the hypothetical consequences of individual functional immortality (as explained below).
But hey, if you want to offer me a full-time gig of writing the best book on immortality, which extensively covers every possible practical scenario, as well as the political, societal and economical changes in society… I wouldn’t do it in a million years5, because writing this little piece took almost as long as the God Emperor’s reign on Arrakis!
The next section contains a brief summary of my thesis, along with a set questions that I use to build my argumentation upon in the forthcoming parts.
So, what is the dream of immortality and what makes it so appealing to us?
The Dream of Immortality
The dream of immortality is the idea that an indefinitely prolonged lifespan will release the individual from the uncertainty and limitations of ordinary life by extinguishing the constant yearnings for personal authority, security and independence, along with the universal yearning for cosmological order, which are the primary causes of all existential suffering. By eliminating the constant worries for survival and personal well-being, immortality will allow the individual to experience the infinite oceans of boundless pleasure, glory and everything else that Universe has to offer, essentially releasing them into a bliss that is painfully absent from ordinary life. Immortality is the vehicle through which humanity transcends the weakness and vulnerability that dominate its existence and ascends to claim its rightful status of divinity that is currently withheld behind the empty promises of spiritual traditions and a supposed afterlife. Put simply, immortality promises a cure for existential suffering by granting humans the one thing we can never obtain – permanence. Permanence to live, love, feel pleasure, accumulate wealth, power, knowledge or simply the permanence to follow one’s aspirations, while being shielded from the chaos of the brittle and unpredictable surrounding reality, that is the temptation within the dream of immortal life.
However, despite the undeniable appeal of this purported eternal bliss, I believe the attainment of immortality would actually result into the complete desolation of the immortal individual6, the annihilation of their personality, and most frighteningly of all – the loss of their humanity, with only one scenario as a possible exception. To be clear, I’m referring to the so-called functional immortality, i.e. stopping the ageing process at a chosen point, combined with the indefinite prolongation of the human lifespan, where one’s death can only result from an accident7 or if they’re killed. No fatal or debilitating diseases, all health conditions can be cured, limbs and organs can all be replaced. The term digital immortality or transferring the totality of human consciousness into computer-readable data is an altogether different question and by necessity is outside the scope of this text. In addition, my focus is strictly on the potential effects of immortality for the individual and does not extend to groups or society as a whole.
Specifically, my belief is that individual immortality will inevitably result in one of four possible outcomes, with the first scenario being transitional, as the full retreat into one’s habits can only be temporarily sustained in the context of infinity:
- No initial significant change to the Self’s life, as it continues cycling through its personal habits through infinity until it eventually experiences insanity, cosmic alienation or an unlikely transcendence of humanity. Consequently, this is not a permanent, but a transitional phase;
- Insanity caused by the erosion of the internal motivators (explained in the following parts) and other factors;
- Cosmic alienation as the Self’s attachments to the current of the living Universe are severed;
- Transcendence of humanity – this requires the Self to undergo a permanent transformation that takes it beyond the capabilities of present-day humans, similar to what Leto II experienced in Dune. The transformation doesn’t have to be strictly biological, i.e. it may be of a psychological, technological or similar nature,
Evidently, only the fourth scenario sees the Self survive the attainment of immortality, albeit in a radically changed form. In all other cases, the immortal individual will eventually suffer a collapse that will result in the annihilation of the immortal Self and sentence them to an existence of either insanity or cosmic alienation due to the irreconcilable differences between human nature and the experience of infinite life.
As outlined in the following parts, the inevitable outcome of the attainment of immortality is the detachment of the Self from the current of the living Universe and the loss of its humanity and human sensibilities.
To support my thesis, I attempt to uncover the actual consequences of the attainment of individual immortality by providing answers to the following questions:
- What is the human ageing process and what is the current scientific stance on immortality?
- What is the dream of immortality and why is it essential to our existence?
- What are the consequences of immortality and what is their impact on the human condition?
- Why do I believe that the attainment of immortality results in the annihilation of life?
These questions are answered over the course of the text, which will be published through four subsequent parts. In these I also provide my own definition for existential suffering, take a deeper look at the appeal of the idea of individual immortality, as well as the related concepts of heaven and infinity.
In Part II I cover the ageing process, why it occurs and whether the attainment of immortality is actually possible from a biotechnological standpoint, perhaps even in the not-too-distant future.
Surprisingly enough, it may very well be…
- Undoubtedly provoked by the movie itself – credit where credit is due! ↩︎
- Prescience is the ability to see into the past, present and future. The grade of the ability depends on various factors – genetic predisposition, use of narcotics (the spice.), etc. Although not limited to the line of the Atreides, Paul and Leto II are the most notable individuals in the series that possess the ability ↩︎
- One of the aspects of the power of prescience is that it also enables its beneficiary to unlock genetic memories of their ancestors and virtually any other human that preceded their existence. These personalities exist within the beneficiary as separate entities and there’s a constant latent danger that they might try to overtake and destroy the individual character of their host. ↩︎
- As per Dune canon, the Golden Path is supposedly the only causal chain of events that would result in the survival of the human race. ↩︎
- Unless of course, it’s an offer I can’t refuse… ↩︎
- From heron referred to as the “the Self”, “the immortal Self” or similar. ↩︎
- Car crash, falling off a cliff, drowning, asteroid obliterating the Earth, etc. ↩︎