Department header
Bewildering Stories

Challenge 724 Response:
Bewildering Stories asks

What Are You Doing?

In Ronald Linson’s “The Preservation of Death
  1. Do you think Chad does the right thing in his “Intervention”? Why or why not?
  2. How might the scientist argue his case with Chad?
  3. Why might Chad’s Intervention prove futile?

[Review Editor #1] Killing the curious is a horrifying way to stop curiosity. This isn't the preservation of death. It is the preservation of ignorance.

Because this is an impractical solution within its own context. What are the Reapers going to do: keep killing scientists every time someone figures this out?

Because as Asimov wrote, the answer to new technology is to use it properly, not be afraid of it. In the introduction to his Robots books he explained that he was always dissatisfied with the irrational “sentient machines turn on their masters” fiction from his childhood. That was in great part why he wrote Robots.

Asimov then pointed out that spoken language changed humanity in ways our early ancestors couldn't have imagined. Speech has caused tremendous suffering but the answer was not to preserve our dim, ignorant bliss by strangling the first human to talk.

[Review Editor #2] We're attending a gathering for an elderly relative in a few days. He lingered through dementia and a couple of heart attacks. The guy in the nanotech lab says, “They keep a person alive, that’s all.” To hell with him.

[Don Webb] As I almost always say when resolving split decisions between review readers, “You’re both right.”

I will argue, though, with the late Isaac Asimov. Language is not a technology, it is a natural capacity. It is a genetic trait common not only to humans but to many other species in the animal kingdom, as well.

Of course, that does not mean that all species having the FOXP2 gene — along with the many other genes it affects — have even the same kind of language. How could they? Rather, the so-called “language gene” makes language possible.

The evidence appears to indicate that Noam Chomsky was right to hypothesize that a universal meta-grammar underlies and unifies all human languages. Therefore, if we can learn one, we can learn any. And we have no choice in the matter; we’re genetically “hard-wired” to do it.

Technology is not natural, it’s artificial. We’re not born with it, we create it. And creation requires making choices, which are frequently moral choices.

In Ron Linson’s story, the scientist is, in effect, creating an immortality drug. And, of course, if one scientist can do it, so can another, sooner or later. Chad’s “Intervention” will ultimately prove futile.

However, Chad is called upon to make a moral choice. What will this miracle drug do? It will cure nothing but death.

And that raises a question: Is death itself a disease? If so, what would a cure look like? The ancients wrestled with that very question and found it somewhat humorous: if you’re reborn in an afterlife, what body will you have? The one you have now? A younger version? Or might you prefer something else entirely? Today, we might add: How would a different body affect your personality and identity?

The question logically answers itself: death is not a disease. If it were, why does everybody have it? No disease affects everybody; some people would be immune or escape it somehow, if only by isolation. No, it’s built in; we’re as hard-wired for it as we are for language.

Real diseases abound. Why doesn’t the scientist in Ron Linson’s story apply himself to curing them? Perhaps little can be done for the fatally injured man, but surely the scientist can do something to help the disabled or people with a fatal illness like that of the little girl. Alas, the nanotechnologist chooses only to prolong suffering.

Asimov is right, of course, that technology requires moral choices. But technology for its own sake? Not in this case; the choice is clear-cut. The scientist ought to have started by asking himself the question with which Chad confronts him at the end: “What are you doing?”

Copyright © 2017 by Bewildering Stories

Home Page