Analog Mar-Apr 2019

“Second Quarter and Counting” by James Van Pelt from the March-April 2019 issue of Analog is a story about rejuvenation. Todd has just turned 70 and is overjoyed to be swimming in the 70-74 age group, where he’ll be the youngest competing with the oldest. Todd tells Grace he’s tired of constantly losing to 65-year-olds in the 65-69 age group.

This simple short story is about wanting to be young again. The two characters, Todd and Grace, have known each other since high school. Even though they married other people, they have stayed in touch at swimming meets. Todd has always chased any therapy, supplement, regimen, exercise, diet, that would have kept him young and in shape. At the swim race, he tells Grace he won’t see her for a couple of years because he’s undergoing a process called Backspin that will rejuvenate his body. He warns her he might lose memories in the process, but the rewards will be starting over with a twenty-something body.

This story struck a chord with me for several reasons. First, I’m 67 so I can identify with Todd. Second, and more importantly, the theme of rejuvenation is central to Phoenix by Lady Dorothy Mills, a forgotten novel from 1926 that I discovered in the early 1990s and have been obsessed with since. Phoenix is about an elderly woman who undergoes a process of becoming twenty-looking again. The same plot is also used for Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling in 1996, fifty years later. I find it fascinating how often this idea shows up in science fiction.

I’m sure the idea of an older person being transformed into a younger person has been used in countless tales since pre-history. Myths about the Fountain of Youth go deep into our dark collective mind. Plus, for centuries science has actually dreamed of achieving rejuvenation.

“Second Quarter and Counting” is a simple story whose main virtue is the backstory about a lifelong involvement in swimming competitions. At Rocket Stack Rank James Van Pelt tells Greg Hullender the reviewer about his own real-life swimming experience, and it turns out that Greg is also a competitive swimmer. Both men are slightly younger than I am, so I assume we all know well what aging does to a person. That makes the story work well for us older readers, but what about younger ones?

The reason I feel compelled to write about this story is the theme of rejuvenation. Todd and Grace’s commitment to a long painful procedure tells readers just how willing they are for a second chance in life. Unfortunately, this is a short story and we don’t learn what life is like after becoming young again. In both Phoenix and Holy Fire, it gets complicated.

I have to wonder something else too. Is being young again a complete fantasy, or could science actually reset our clocks? I divide science fiction themes into two kinds. Those that promote an idea we’re going to make real, and those that are just far out fantasies. I’m 99.9999999% sure that time travel is just a fun idea for fiction. I’m about 99.9% sure that faster-than-light travel will always remain fictional. However, I’m about 50% convinced that humans will one day colonize Mars and about 75% sure that we’ll create self-aware sentient machines. I’m not sure at all where to place the odds on rejuvenation. I guess it’s still in the box with Schroedinger’s cat.

Much of the science fictional alchemy to convert old into young involves magic-tech incantations. The current word that goes with the wand-waving, is nanobots. Google offers 105 scholarly results on a search for “nanobots and telomeres.” The specific theme of rejuvenation isn’t as common as science fiction’s other theme of battling old age – life extension. Immortals and near-immortals show up regularly in science fiction. Plus, the new hot SF trend in recent decades is brain downloading, a kind of high-tech reincarnation.

I would say rejuvenation is not as popular as space travel, time travel, robots, aliens, and various kinds of utopias, dystopias, and apocalypses, but speculations on how not to die is a solid theme in science fiction. I’m not sure if it’s ever been worked out realistically in fiction. The typical approach is seen in Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, where transformed old people act young, stupid, and randy.

Is that how it would be? Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills and John Frankenheimer film Seconds (1966) starring Rock Hudson suggest there will be some distinctive downsides to being an old mind in a young body. I wish James Van Pelt would extend his short story into a novel and explore that. In “Second Quarter and Counting” Backspin technology does claim to erase a lot of the mind so it might not be an issue.

I’m not sure I’d want to be rejuvenated if I end up with a 20-something mind. It took me 67 years to evolve this mind, I’d hate to have to start over. Nor am I sure I’d want to have a 70-something mind in a 20-something body. I think all those hormones would feel more like possessive demons than alluring desires. But it might be different for most people, who’d love to be 20-something again, even at the cost of being immature, stupid, and horny all the time.

There’s a second moral in this tale though. Todd and Grace work hard at staying healthy, which also means youthful. Shouldn’t we work to be good at being old? The story made me want to get into better shape. I know many young people who are addicted to exercise. We have a youth-obsessed culture and I’m pretty sure if rejuvenation is ever invented it will be used. But if it’s not, isn’t seeking to optimize what we have the real alternative?

James Wallace Harris, March 10, 2019

 

 

 

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