In The Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a difficult choice. Take the red pill, and get access to genuine reality, as brutal and painful as it is. Take the blue pill, and remain in blissful ignorance in the world of illusion. Neo chooses the red pill, and to my mind, he makes the right choice – though others disagree. But now suppose that we were in another movie altogether, one in which someone was offered pills that asked them to make an entirely different difficult choice. Take the red pill, and get access to endless reality, that is, become immortal. Take the blue pill, and go back to your normal mortal life. What’s the right choice here?
This latter dilemma is essentially the scenario envisioned by the Čapek play, The Makropulous Secret. Having been given an elixir of life, Elina Makropulous has lived for over three centuries. But now, though she is scared to die, she no longer has any desire to live on. Should she take another dose of the elixir, or should she let her life end? As Elina assesses things, immortality is not something to be valued. She describes herself as frozen, as in a state of ennui, and she thinks anyone else who lived as long as she has would likewise come to see that nothing matters. There is nothing to believe in, no real progress, no higher values, no love. Yes, she could continue to exist forever, but it would be an existence in which “life has stopped.”
In an influential philosophical discussion of this play, Bernard Williams agrees with Elina’s assessment of an immortal life. In his view, immortality is not something to be valued. No matter what kind of person one is, at a certain point one’s ceaseless life would by necessity become tedious. One simply runs out of the kinds of desires that can sustain one through eternity. The case against immortality is bolstered by numerous works of science fiction, from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire to The Twilight Zone episode “Long Live Walter Jameson” to the story “The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges. As Jameson says in the Twilight Zone episode, it’s death that gives life its point.
But there are other SF works that present a different picture – works like Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, in which the immortal characters Anyanwu and Doro each find projects to sustain themselves. Williams’ view has also come under criticism from philosophers. Some have argued that he neglects to consider the fact that many pleasurable experiences are infinitely repeatable and thus can continue to sustain us through an immortal life. Others have argued that he is working with a misconception of the notion of boredom. When it comes to the value of immortality, there thus seems room for reasonable disagreement.
This question concerns the temporal duration of life. But in addition to questions about life’s duration, there are other kinds of temporally related questions we might ask about life. And just as SF has valuable insights to provide about life’s temporal duration, we might naturally expect that SF would have some valuable insights to provide in exploring these other questions as well.
One such question has to do with the temporal directionality of life: What would happen if instead of starting as a baby and growing older over time, we started at an advanced age and grew younger over time? Here our expectations about the relevance of science fiction are indeed met. The archaeologist Rachel Weintraub in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion presents a thought-provoking case study of backwards aging. Likewise, Philip K. Dick’s short story “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” presents an entire world that is aging in reverse; in doing so, Dick shows how hard it is to conceptualize what life would be like were this to happen.
Yet another question has to do with the temporal rate of life: What would happen if we aged at a vastly different rate? This issue too has often been explored in science fiction, and we see case studies from Star Trek to Star Wars. In “The Deadly Years,” an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, various members of the Enterprise crew begin to age about a decade a day after coming down with an unusual form of radiation poisoning. The clones bred to be clone troopers in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones are genetically engineered to age at twice the normal rate. And we see numerous other examples of rapid aging throughout science fiction, from books and stories to tv shows and movies.
Oddly, however, when these SF works explore themes of rapid aging, they don’t really seem to pursue any interesting philosophical issues that it might raise. Are there other works that do so? Or is the problem that there aren’t really any interesting philosophical issues to be raised on this topic?
I was prompted to think about this issue recently after watching, “Old,” a 2021 film by M. Night Shyamalan. According to the promos, the movie follows a family on vacation “who discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.” I didn’t expect the movie to be good. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was worrisome. But I did expect it to raise interesting philosophical questions about aging. Alas, though my first expectation was proved correct, my second was not.
Afterwards, I found myself thinking more and more about this second expectation. Why didn’t the movie raise any interesting questions? I don’t buy the answer that it’s because it was a bad movie. In fact, I think there are all sorts of bad movies that raise interesting philosophical questions.
Initially I was toying with the idea that it had something to do with the genre of the movie. “Old” is a horror movie, not a science fiction movie. And while the genre of science fiction is well positioned to raise philosophical questions in an interesting way, perhaps the genre of horror is not. The fact that there’s very little coverage of horror in the Blackwell or Open Court pop culture and philosophy series might provide some very small measure of support for this hypothesis (though I’m hesitant to put too much weight on this kind of evidence). Having thought it over more, however, I’m less sure that the hypothesis is right. To take one salient counterexample, Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out explores all sorts of important philosophical issues about black lives and black bodies. In any event, though I know lots about SF, I don’t think I know enough about horror or have enough familiarity with horror to make a real judgment about this.
Ultimately, my reflections about horror/science fiction led me to a second hypothesis. As I thought more about genre and how it affected the kinds of reflections on aging that “Old” undertook (or, rather, failed to undertake), I started wondering what the movie would have been like had it been a SF film. How would the questions have been explored? My main thought was that the accelerated rate of aging would have to be considerably slowed down. In “Old,” with the characters aging at the rate of two years per hour, life moves too quickly for one even to have time to reflect on how one would want to live it. I’m not sure what acceleration rate would be more thought-provoking. A year a day? At that rate, an average US lifespan of 78 years would be lived in less than three months. A year a week? At that rate, an average US lifespan would be lived in roughly a year and a half. But neither of these strikes me as a particularly interesting scenario to explore – even via SF. Thus, my second hypothesis arose: The problem wasn’t genre, the problem was the topic itself. Unlike other temporal questions related to life, issues about temporal rate aren’t especially ripe for philosophical exploration.
I’m not convinced this hypothesis is right, and I worry that I’m missing something obvious here. Perhaps those of you more creative than I am can think of something. (And maybe those of you who write SF can take this as a challenge.) In any case, I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.
But I’ll close with one last thought that might seem to support the hypothesis. There’s lot of room to disagree about which choice is right with Morpheus’ red pill/blue pill choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether ignorance is bliss. And there’s lots of room to disagree about which choice is right with my amended red pill/blue choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether immortality is desirable. But were Morpheus to offer you a choice between the red pill that would make you age at a rate vastly quicker than normal, and the blue pull that would allow you to return to your normal aging rate, it’s hard to see how there’s any room for disagreement here. Why would anyone want to take the red pill?
 Of course, in addition to exploring temporal questions about life, science fiction also explores issues relating to the nature of time and our experience of it. I take up the treatment of time in Star Trek (and particularly in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in my “Time, the Final Frontier.”
 Many of my former students will attest to this, as I have often assigned (forced) them to watch bad movies in the service of a philosophical point. Perhaps the most dramatic example is The Thirteenth Floor (which scores 30% on the Tomatometer). The entire room of students exploded into laughter at various parts of the movie – parts that unfortunately were not at all intended to be funny.