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Ask HN: Which scifi authors to interview about immortality?
40 points by kieckerjan on Sept 25, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments
The producers of a serious informative show on Dutch national television are looking for scifi authors to interview on the subject of immortality. Which authors do you think they should pick, and why?

Peter F. Hamilton

Besides writing marvelous sci-fi which I would recommend everyone to read, many of his books center around a world where humans rejuvenate. Basically you go to a clinic where your body's age is turned back to whatever age you desire (or maybe a new body is grown, can't remember). When you are there your "brain" (memories, thinking patterns etc) is backed up meaning if you are killed the clinic will simply clone a new body for you and download your consciousness to the new body. It's been I while since I last read his books so I can't off-hand remember what moral/social aspects of immortality he focused on.

If you want to read his books I would recommend you start with Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Those have to be some of the best books I've ever read. Speaking of which, I'm off to re-read them a third time.

In reading his stories, I couldn't help but think that either immortality/rejuvenation leads to a very static society, or he has difficulties in trying to think of what a future society might look like.

His stories felt very much like the present, or the near past, projected into the future, with very little change.

This could be deliberate. The some of oldest people are also the richest (including having their own family planet), and least likely to want cultural change. The entire civilization could be bent to their desire to prevent change. But I don't think so. I think he just writes the present into the future.

Of course all authors find it hard to really think about a future culture different than their own. Take Heinlein, whose future worlds are often American pioneer or mid-20th century. But Heinlein added a few things to remind you that it is the future. Kilts are a trend in Methuselah's Children, white gloves for men in Double Star, nail polish for men in Beyond this Horizon, and at the end of Time For The Stars we realize that women throughout the story were always wearing hats, while back on Earth that fad had passed and women had naked heads "like an animal."

While in Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained, the future was now, with a few extra gadgets, and a view of sexism which already feels dated. (I agree with the comment about sexism at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/149949969?book_show_ac... . And yes, Heinlein's stories were also sexist. I like the description that he write about a future with woman's lib, with women characters as doctors and engineers, but the reality of women's lib was quite different.)

On a technical side-note, the power sources really bug me. There are super-duper capacitors that can be charged over a century in order to change the weather, and incredible power sources that can be surgically embedded in humans so that a fight between two such augmented human ends up knocking down walls, but there are still diesel engines?

I think you may have picked up on something there, talking about a "static society". I remember reading a comment from Hamilton at one point (possibly in the fore/afterword?) that the goal of the Night's Dawn trilogy was to write about a society so stable and stagnant that change has to be forced upon it from without. And while the Commonwealth saga may not have shared the same explicit premise, there were definite parallels.

Favourite author by a long shot, but I wish he'd give the endless sex scenes a rest. We can do a space opera without his weird fantasies about zero-G boning with a space princess.

Also Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained are fantastic, towards the second half of JU I could not put it down - literally took a day off work to finish it.

I'm so glad to see this as the top comment. In particular, his "Fallen Dragon" really resonated with me.

If I may, I'd also like to suggest Richard K. Morgan for his Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, which is currently being turned into a TV series named after the first book, "Altered Carbon".

It is premised on backing up human consciousness to a "cortical stack" that can be recovered when a person is killed or dies, and downloading them into a new body, or "sleeve". It covers the rich overclass that effectively lives forever with a clone bank, criminal punishment being "put on ice" while someone else uses your body, and crack soldiers being deployed across planets digitally by being downloaded into new bodies. The whole series is a must read if you are contemplating the ethics and implications of immortality via digital backup.

And there is in Hamilton's books, IIRC, that idea that one unique sentient entity could share it's consciousness across multiple human bodies, in real-time, so you could add new young bodies and let the older one dies and still, as a sentient entity, never really die.

That works across long distances, and even when different bodies travelling at different percentage of speed of light, thus experiencing different 'speed of time' (but that's marked as 'a rather unsettling experience' iirc).

Vinge as well. The Tines in "Fire Upon the Deep" were similar pack creatures. Different configurations could lead to different types of people. Though they never went near light-speed, switching to radio instead of the normal ultrasonics also affected them, as did walking in narrow canyons (due to echos) or firing a canon.

Also, the group personality is affected by the individual tines.

The traeki in Brin's Uplift universe are a related example.

I was actually coming in to say this.

The Common Wealth and Void Sagas are great and sound to be what you are looking for.

Aging can be reversed, bodies can be clone and have a back you installed, genes can be modification. Death exist, but is almost always temporary.

His Night's Dawn Trilogy also explores souls coming back to possess the living.


Going to second Eliezer Yudkowsky. He wrote the most popular Harry Potter fanfic in the world, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (I know it's funny, but it's probably been read more than most of the other scifi in this thread). The whole theme was about the philosophy of the rejection of death as the natural order.



Mr. Bruce Sterling authored "Holy Fire" in 1996, a novel which deals with the topic of radical life extension through a protagonist who is an elderly woman. Contemplative, and a fun read.

Were he alive, Jules Verne would have been an excellent choice. Verne's tomb has a statue dedicated to immortality and eternal youth, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jules_Verne#/media/File:Verne_...


Try Charlie Stross (@cstross), if he's not interested in being interviewed himself I'm sure he'll still give you an interesting reccomendation set.

Toast, a collection of his short stories, has a story about some brains being uploaded to a computer and being used to run tech support. In the years since I read that, I've often thought back to it.

The ending of A Colder War hints at the rather bad possibilities of virtual immortality...

And he doesn't actually think the singularity or mind uploading will happen:


Well, who knows exactly how Cthulhu (or K-Thulu) eats souls?

Greg Egan, but he probably wouldn't say yes.



Yes, I understand he shuns the spotlight. Too bad, because he was the first one who came to my mind as well.

I haven't read most of the authors here (this thread is doing double duty, being great for finding more authors/books to read, thanks) but from what I know so far, Egan is the best at writing about true immortality. Like trillions of years to actually infinite time level.

Diaspora (my favourite book) goes so far as to just stop counting time anymore because it just goes so unimaginably far.

1. Jacek Dukaj [0] - virtually unknown due to refusal to write directly in English :( "Perfect Imperfection" is imo the best sf book about trans/posthumanism there is.

"Dukaj has interesting take on post-humanism, both as a state of being and as a process. If you recall Accellerando, even though Manfred Macx was a futurist and trans-humanist he was hesitant to augment himself past certain limits. Stross pretty much drew a line in sand and said: up to here, you are human and if you rewire yourself further you will become something both incomprehensible, inhuman and frightening. Dukaj is very aware of this problem, but in his universe there is no line – there is a blurred spectrum of humanity. Yes, if you continue augmenting yourself for pure performance you may eventually lose track of your humanity." [1]

2. Hannu Rajaniemi

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_Imperfection

[1] http://www.terminally-incoherent.com/blog/2011/07/08/perfect...

Although not very known outside of Russian-speaking people, I would recommend Sergey Lukyanenko. He deals with mortality/immortality in several of his novels: "Line of Delirium" [1] and "The Stars are Cold Toys" [2] dilogies immediately come to mind.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_of_Delirium [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stars_Are_Cold_Toys

Translations into English have happened in the last few years, which is why I've enjoyed several of his books.

Daniel Suarez in Daemon and Freedom (tm) writes about a game designer that creates an AI that restructures the world. Very similar in idea to Ready Player One, but a very different take.

Interesting choice since the “AI” in the first book was grounded in reality, and was explicitly neither sentient nor sapient.

John C Wright

Wrote the Golden Ocumene trilogy which explores a post-post-singularity society where not only is immortality taken for granted, post-humans can swap between species and lifestyles, IRL or virtually, pretty much at will. Essentially the book itself explores the will to push boundaries in a world where everything conceivable is plentiful and readily available, and as a result, most of humanity and culture has grown stagnant, because how can you get better than perfect?

John Varley - His "Eight Worlds" future history has combined the concepts of backing up and restoring human consciousness with cloning a new body to house that consciousness in stories going back to the 70's.

Perhaps he would be most famous for his short story "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" which was dramatized on PBS. This production was later to be soundly mocked during the original run of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

And he has a new book coming out in August 2018, so he's probably interested in some publicity.


Dennis E. Taylor, mainly for his Bobiverse Series (only thing I've read by him).

I think he's not very well known, but his Triology fits the theme very well: It is about the engineer Bob, who is uploaded as a "replicant" into a spaceship. Humanity mostly wipes it self out using nukes after they got the Bob failsafe away into space, and Bob gets too deal with the remnants of humanity. He replicates himself, too the point that the Bobs can host a Bobmoot and vote on things. Due to being immortal, some Bobs starts calling humans ephemerals, wheras others are offended at the implication that they're not human.

It's a very interesting and entertaining read. I'm also writing this from the top of my head and have only read this triology by him.

It is not scifi, but I think some mention of Tuck Everlasting should be made. The book was really important to my understanding of death when I was growing up.

Unfortunately it looks like the author, Natalie Babbitt, passed away last year. So they can't interview her.

Richard Morgan. His first trilogy, the one that starts with Altered Carbon, is set in a society where people can move to new bodies. Rich people are effectively immortal, leading to interesting societal effects.

Strong second for Richard Morgan and Altered Carbon. The story is gangbusters action fiction, but the thought he's given to the implications are spot on.

Iain M Banks, the culture series touches on immortality and choosing / not choosing it. [edit: didn't read carefully enough. Sadly, he won't be available for interviewing]

James L. Halprin His "The first immortal" from 1998 is the best example I've ever seen of the next 150 years. It's amazing to go back and reread this and see what he predicted is unfolding in our current time.

Free download: https://coins.ha.com/information/tfi.s?type=-FIRSTIMMORTAL.C...

I was going to say that Heinlein did a wonderful and poetic try at immortality with 'Time enough for love', before quicly realizing that, alas, this great soul has passed away almost 20 years ago.

There's authors that achieve a sort of personnal connection with readers through their stories. Heinlein did that for me, along with the also greatly regretted Iain M. Banks.

Ferrett Steinmetz

His book The Uploaded deals with the consequences of a world where the dying are granted digital immortality in a fantasy filled utopian adventure, but they still get to vote. The real world is falling apart, few people care about their bodily existence, looking for any excuse to die, and the uploaded have all the political power.

That brings to mind a short story where only those under a certain age were allowed to vote or hold political offices or command position, while the clinically immortal elders were still allowed to have advisor and observer roles. It might have been the one with the baby-eaters, but I can't recall now. It also brings to mind the Futurama where Prof. Farnsworth ages out and is forced to move to the retirement planet.

Even our ancestors feared rule by the dead, which is where the rule against perpetuities comes from.

Jonathan Swift wrote masterfully about that in Gulliver's Travels (1726), which is one of best SF works ever written, in my opinion. He describes a nation in which some people are born immortal (called the struldbrug):

As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal, not even for the decision of meers (metes) and bounds.

Eliezer Yudkowsky

Nick Bostrom if Eliezer counts as a scifi author.

Howard Tayler - http://howardtayler.com/ He has been writing a sci-fi comic for 17 years and has spent some considerable time investigating and exploring the concept of immortality in the last couple of years of comics.

Honorable mention: Roger Zelazny https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Zelazny

It's a sad irony that an author who's work was so focused on immortality died at 58.

Cory Doctorow's first book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is about a society in which everyone is pretty much immortal thanks to brain back up technology. I would definitely add him to the list.

Also: Hannu Rajaniemi - author of The Quantum Thief

Damien Broderick, given his related non-fiction on the singularity and other topics.


A close related subject is the technological singularity because it would mean we would more or less melt together with technology. People like Ray Kurzweil and the writer Vernor Vinge are famous for this.

What broadcasting company is this? VPRO?

I am not supposed to tell (yet). I understand the show might still be canceled and they don´t want people spending eternity waiting for something that doesn't materialize. :)

As a fairly recent author in the genre, look at Dennis E. Taylor and the "We Are Bob" trilogy revolving around brain scanning and self-replicating von Neumann probes. I thought it was a great series.

Way to many pop culture references for my taste. There are a few plot holes, especially in the first book.

Still worth reading.

Alastair Reynolds has numerous stories dealing with astronomical distances and ages. He has dealt with characters facing and using a variety of life extension methods and how that affects their attitude.

Thanks for the great tips, people. The producers something to chew on. The show will likely air in January. It should become available online as well. If someone is interested, I can toss them a link.

Ramez Naam, for the Nexus trilogy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nexus_Trilogy

Claire North (aka Catherine Webb). Her book "The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August" addresses a different "type" of immortality than we typically think of.

Philip K Dick. Somehow there's a new Blade Runner so he must be alive still.


They built a robot clone of him and his head made a run for it and is still on the lam.

John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke both wrote on the topic. Good luck.

Both are dead.

I know.

John Scalzi

Why? I mean I like his books a lot but he doesn't exactly ponder immortality all that much. "Old man's war" maybe touches on this a little - but I think it's more about regaining youth than immortality.

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