Why in fiction are villains, and only villains, life extensionists?
This is not confined to a few obscure works; the trope abounds in bestsellers and blockbusters: Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Dracula, and The Mummy. Characters like Dorian Gray, although not irredeemably wicked, are still unlikeable.
They all put a dark slant on life extension, yet they resonate with us. It’s worth noting that the villains are not evil just because they are seeking to extend their lives, but it is something they all share.
It’s almost as though life extension can only be demonized by proxy.
This may be why Tales from EarthSea, one of Studio Ghibli’s rare duds, failed to gain critical or popular acclaim–Cob’s “villainy” stems almost exclusively from his quest to prolong his earthly existence, which this isn’t enough to make an audience root against him.
The trope is nonsense, but it sneaks through to our blindspots and tugs at our heartstrings. Why would anyone be villainized for wanting to ablate what brings us more suffering than anything else?
If given a choice, wouldn’t we all happily add quality years to our lives?
Voldemort is a not-so-subtle suggestion that avoiding oblivion robs us of our humanity–his name is French for “flight from death.” Like any phobia or obsession, it can be crippling, but it’s hard to think of anything more human than the need to survive and innovate.
It may just be a children’s book, but these portrayals overshadow the altruistic motives that drive longevity research in the real world. For most, the opposite is true–they are running towards their own demise because they see no alternative. This is called mortido, and it’s the subject of a previous Medium article.
These works, springing from a need to allay anxieties about mortality, only pervert and repress them.
Dorian Gray’s pursuit of everlasting youth leads to moral decay. His story is meant to be a cautionary tale about hedonism and self-absorption. Yet aging doesn’t just steal our looks. Wrinkles and gray hair are caused by the same molecular hallmarks of aging that eventually make us sick.
We all know someone, maybe ourselves, that had to cut back on or completely give up a favorite activity. Maybe our knees are bad, our eyes are shot, or we can’t sit or stand for long periods.
Is this vanity?
Is it vain for someone to want to keep learning, teaching, and contributing?
No, it’s basic human dignity. There’s a lot of talk about dying with dignity.
How about living with it?
Dorian Gray poses an important question: would extended lifespans recalibrate our moral compasses?
Wouldn’t people have to carefully consider the consequences of their actions?
Wouldn’t they make more sincere efforts to improve themselves and their world?
Wouldn’t they participate in fewer self-destructive activities if they knew the end was not near?
There are so many people who could go on creating and guiding the next generation.
Tales from EarthSea was a failure.
Based partially on novels by Ursula K. Guin (she didn’t care for the film adaptation), it boasts a whopping 38% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. This may be partially due to its villain who, aside from being a tad callous and resembling Marilyn Manson, doesn’t seem that terrible.
And what is his crime?
He doesn’t want to die or, if he does, he wants to do it on his own terms. His offense is against nature–whatever that means. As stated earlier, this just isn’t enough to make a compelling bad guy. To demonize longevity, authors have to pin it to very unsavory figures.
Fullmetal Alchemist, another Japanese anime, also features an antagonist who seeks to indefinitely extend his life. Their country of origin is mentioned because the need to defend the “natural” order of death and disease is not confined to a single place.
Death and disease are universal, so it’s not surprising that every culture on the earth has found ways to make them more palatable. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t begin to describe the vapid and elaborate arguments for limiting human lifespan.
Yet through better sanitation and medical interventions, this is exactly what humans have done for millennia. This would suggest those who fervently oppose this quest are lying through their teeth, or just oblivious to how much it has already benefited them.
A real taboo is unrecognized. Artists may be more attuned to their imaginations, but are no more (or less) wary of entrenched prejudices. Associating evil characters with life extension is one especially insidious manifestation of this hostage situation.
A growing number of people are aware of the strides being made by longevity research, and some of the blowback may boil down to sour grapes.
Even though companies like BioViva already have therapeutics designed to extend healthy human lifespans, many fear these technologies will not arrive soon enough to save them.
To expedite the development of regenerative medicine, bring therapeutics to those who need them now, and shift public perception for the better, Liz Parrish and Bill Andrews founded Best Choice Medicine.
Fiction exerts a stronger influence over our world than we may want to admit. Stories are maps of reality, they embed themselves in our minds and tell us how to conduct ourselves.
Fortunately, fact can indelibly shape fiction.
As the tide turns and these technologies become omnipresent, so will our conceptions (and misconceptions) about death, disease, and our place in the cosmos.