As I get older, fatter, balder, and generally dilapidated-er, it’s probably natural that I reflect on science fiction’s answers to aging. By the 21st Century, I was sure people in some of the more technologically advanced countries would be extending youth into the triple digits, enjoying active lives up until the end. Some novels I’ve enjoyed used drugs or gene therapy for their longevity solutions. Others employed cloning. One of my favorites at the moment is digital consciousness transference, described in the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K. Morgan.
Having read the novels out of order, it took me a bit to wrap my mind around the concept. In short, the process involves a piece of implanted hardware, called a cortical stack, that a person receives at birth, allowing one’s consciousness to be recorded. At one’s death, the preserved memories and personality traits stored in the device can wind up in a variety of places, some not so nice. Ideally the device is implanted into a clone of the person’s choosing, so the physical body, called a “sleeve”, can be genetically designed to the person’s specifications.
Morgan makes this concept even more interesting by attaching price tags to this type of operation. Sometimes bodies of convicted criminals are sold to host a deceased person’s stack. Sometimes someone’s consciousness can only exist using a cheaper option, living in a sophisticated but confined and computerized reality. Other times, such is often the case with for Takeshi Kovacs, a person’s skills are in such demand that they are placed into a superhuman body designed for a specific purpose, like a genetically enhanced and cybernetically augmented James Bond.
This process is so common in Kovacs’ universe that it’s taken for granted by wealthy characters the way I go to the pharmacy drive-thru. For others, the re-sleeving process represents their life savings, even the savings of multiple generations. Morgan is able to establish this as an additional type of economic stratification in his societies, where the truly wealthy enjoy near immortality, living lives in attractive, healthy bodies for hundreds of years. The super-elite even have clones immediately available and a backup system for their cortical stacks should something, or someone, happen to destroy them.
All kinds of ethical, logistical, and theological issues arise around this technology, and Morgan doesn’t shirk his responsibility as an author to expose readers to the problems that develop. Consciousness can be broadcast at faster-than-light speeds, allowing one to be loaded into a body on another planet. Human colonization of other worlds has allowed for the population increase digital consciousness would cause. Religious objections require worshipers never receive the stacks and live only the limits of their natural lifetimes. Some stacks are taken from the recently dead and sold once the skills of the deceased are identified or by the pound if buyers feel lucky. In any case, shuttling between bodies can and does have adverse psychological effects from time to time.
It’s doubtful that anything like this is just around the corner, but in a couple of decades maybe I can get on a waiting list for a young, athletic body with a great head of hair. Good-bye retirement savings, hello extended writing career!