By Michael Bess
At last, Back to the Future Day is upon us. We’ve all been tallying the predictions in Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction adventure comedy that came true and the ones that did not. Take, for example, the rejuvenation clinic that Doc visited in Back to the Future II. Today’s Botox treatments can’t compare to the full blood transfusion, hair repair, and spleen and colon replacement that extended Doc’s life by forty years. In the near future, however, life extension could be a reality. But at what cost? In his new book Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future, award-winning historian Michael Bess speculates about the enhancements headed our way, beginning in the next half-century. As Bess lays out the benefits and consequences of our bioenhanced future, he starts many of the chapters with fictional vignettes meant to illustrate what life may be like in the near-future. In the book, he asks readers to consider the overarching implications that these advancements may have on our society.
In this short vignette Bess imagines the future of rejuvenation therapy.
Love–forty on his own serve. First set, 0–6. Second set now, 2–5. What a blowout.
Donovan lay on his belly, eyes closed, watching Wimbledon on his internal comm system. The semifinal match had been suspended for an hour because of rain, but the break did nothing to help poor Turkington. He was still being crushed by this upstart Venezuelan, Cardozo.
Wham, Turkington’s serve, one of the fastest in the game, 340 kph. But it just wasn’t working against Cardozo. The guy had reflexes like a robot’s prehensile. He kept returning the serves, sometimes with a put-away. Unbelievable.
The crowd cheering lustily. “Quiet please,” droned the umpire.
Donovan frowned. Turkington, the reigning champ, had already caused all sorts of controversy in past years with his use of special sensory implants and muscular boosts; now this Cardozo was taking it to a whole new level. His parents had both been tennis champs twenty years ago, and they’d traveled to a special clinic in Switzerland to have their son epigenetically engineered with precisely this moment in mind. Reflexes, muscle tone designed for quick response, hand-eye coordination tweaked to the max, psych profile tuned for concentration, coolness under pressure. Felipe Cardozo was like a sort of supercharged cat. He moved like a cat, even when he wasn’t playing. It was creepy to watch. People said he had the brains of a cat too. But he sure did play the game like nobody had ever played before. He owned the court; the whole space was just an extension of his body.
Donovan sent a mental command to open the TV icon and switched over to channel 331, where the non-mod Wimbledon was being screened from an enclave in Wales. No implants or drugs, no genetic tweaking. Just old-fashioned strategy and grit.
He recognized the two players. Attanasi was about to serve. First set, he was leading 3–2 over Schmidt. Attanasi tossed the ball, leaned back, a loud grunt as he came down and connected. Amazing, it was like slow motion. The hits so much weaker, the moves so much more labored than in the other Wimbledon. Donovan could actually follow the serve as it crossed the court. Compared to the main Wimbledon, with its lightning shots and machine-gun rhythm, this was a game suspended in another order of time, like a bubble rising through honey.
Donovan opened his eyes, toggling the pause on the TV icon. He looked up at the nurse, surveyed the giant machine looming over his body.
“We’re ready to get started. The nanos are all in place. You’re going to have to dorm your comm implants now.”
He nodded, laying his head back on the pillow, closing his eyes again. He called up the main controls and selected Full Dormancy, giving the authorization password and watching the little hourglass while the process went through its routine. Five seconds, ten seconds. Then darkness, a small icon opening in the lower-right corner of his visual field, signaling System Dormant. Then it too disappeared.
Darkness. He waited. He’d been through juve therapy about a half-dozen times over the past twenty years, so he knew the drill. In a few moments the machine would hum, a deep loud thrumming, and he would feel the nanos start to move inside him. Powered by the strong muon field in which his body was immersed, the nanos would travel through his cells, snip-snip, chomp chomp, fixing things, excising what couldn’t be repaired, ferrying the discards through to his blood stream for excretion. It would take about three hours. No TV, no electromechanical devices allowed. Just him and his thoughts. And that utterly strange feeling of your body in the possession of the nanos. But it was worth it. Hell yes. Every time he’d had one of these sessions, he’d come out feeling like a million dollars. About thirty-two to fifty months younger, according to the official estimates. Now he was chronologically seventy-eight years old—born in 1980—but Dr. Zamora put his biological age at about forty-six or forty-seven. And if he kept at it, along with the exercise and meds regimen, he could expect to dial it all the way back into his late thirties over the years to come.
For someone like him, born before epigenetic engineering, that would be about the limit. For those born more recently, the people of his daughter’s generation, the possibilities were even more remarkable. They could stay twenty-five for decades.
The average human chronological life span had been steadily creeping upward over the past three hundred years and now stood at around 155 for men and 160 for women. It was a far healthier life span than ever before: most people stayed vigorous and clear-minded all the way into their final decade. Then the decline tended to be swift and irreversible.
Some fringe scientists were talking about suspending the aging process indefinitely, so that your biological clock would be virtually stopped and no one would have to die anymore, except through accidents or suicide or the like. But that was still fantasy. For now.
Juve therapy, like all the other forms of mental and physical enhancement, was hardly an optional part of life anymore. It was a basic right, like education and health care. Either you stayed abreast of the technology, keeping pace with the continual upgrades and boosts, or you rapidly became a pathetic relic, totally outclassed by everyone else around you.
So there had been no choice, a couple decades back, but to set up the system this way, modeled on the one in England, Sweden, and Germany. Everyone paid bio-taxes, pegged at levels that depended on your income. Everyone was covered by universal health care, which included lifetime access to all the major enhancement packages. You paid your deductible, which was pretty steep but still within most people’s budget, and chose whatever options suited you. And for the really poor, the whole thing was completely free.
Some of the political parties had kicked and screamed, but in the end they’d seen what the alternative was: a fragmentation of the human species into bio-castes. The poor sinking lower and lower into wretchedness and rage, increasingly locked into their fate by biology itself. And the rich, enhancing themselves and their children with each successive generation, into a race of superior beings.
The Bioenhancement Riots of 2044, spreading from continent to continent like a wildfire, had been the turning point. After that, a majority of citizens had voted the new system into place. Today, if you wanted to go non-mod, that was your choice. But each and every citizen, rich or poor, anywhere on the planet, had equal access to the latest enhancement technologies if they wanted them.
At least in principle. Donovan knew it didn’t always work out that way in practice, of course. Some parts of the world were still poorer than others. Some citizens in every part of the world were still more equal than others. But all in all, he was convinced it was about as fair a distribution of the technologies as could be reasonably expected.
“Mr. Ross,”came a voice on the intercom, “we’ve found a small benign polyp on your lower colon, and the nanos are going to be working on it for the next few minutes. So you’ll probably feel a rise in temperature in your abdomen while they do that. Let us know if it gets too intense, and we can slow it down.”
Sure enough, he felt the warmth rising gradually in his gut, to the left and below his belly button. Not at all painful, more like a heating pad being turned on inside him.
He listened to the pounding of his heart, the soft rhythm of his breath.
Go to it, little fellas.
About the Author
Michael Bess is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He has received major fellowships from the J. S. Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Fulbright program. His previous books include Choices Under Fire and The Light-Green Society.