Below is my 2019 feature in Quartz about the business of immortality. If you’re a Quartz member you can also read it here.
Further reading on this topic:
What to read
For a sweeping historical perspective, start with philosopher Stephen Cave’s 2012 book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, which lays out the four narratives humans have long used to cope with fear of death.
Philosophy professor Paul Edward’s 1992 anthology Immortalityoffers a selection of philosophical and scientific works that address topics including the soul and the body, reincarnation, and transmigration.
For a firsthand account of one man’s personal dive into the world of immortality, read The Book of Immortality (2013) by Adam Leith Gollner. Highlights include a visit to David Copperfield’s purported “fountain of youth” and a tour of a cryonics facility.
The famously skeptical Michael Shermer’s recent work, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (2017), addresses everything from radical-life extensionists to people trying to digitally upload their brains.
If you’re curious about what kinds of life-extension therapies dominated the field nearly 200 years ago (for example: electroshock therapy for the elderly), read doctor Leopold Turck’s 1852 book From Old Age Studied As a Disease, and Ways to Combat It.
For immortalist perspectives straight from the horse’s mouth, read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005). Also try Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality (1962), in which the father of cryonics first proposed freezing the human body as a viable avenue for immortality.
The topic of immortality has inspired centuries of writers whose imaginative books grapple with the ethical and moral consequences of chasing eternal life. Here’s your reading list:
The Epic of Gilgamesh (21st century BC), an ancient Mesopotamian tale about a king’s journey to find an immortal man and learn the secrets to eternal life.
“Eos and Tithonus” (8th century BC), a Greek myth that ponders the pain of living in perpetuity.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, in which the hero visits an island where people can age, but do not die.
The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) by Oscar Wilde, about a man who remains young and beautiful while his portrait ages.
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, the ultimate undead tale.
“The Jameson Satellite” (1931) by Neil R. Jones, a short story that inspired many in the cryonics movement.
After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) by Aldous Huxley, a satirical novel that follows a Hollywood mogul’s attempts to outwit death.
Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbit, about a young girl who discovers a spring that bestows eternal youth upon those who drink from it.
Eternal Life (2018) by Dara Horn, about a woman who cannot die.
Be sure to read Tad Friend’s 2017 New Yorker article on Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality.
Full list of articles I read from major publications in preparation for this project:
Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever - The New Yorker
Google’s Long, Strange Life-Span Trip - MIT Tech Review
The Men Who Want to Live Forever - The New York Times
How to Live Forever - The New Yorker
The Transhumanists’ Nominee for President - Zoltan Istvan - The New Yorker
Google Ventures and the Search for Immortality - Bloomberg
Freeze Your Head and Live Forever - Bloomberg
Philosopher to Lead $5 Million Study of Immortality - The Wall Street Journal
Inside the Immortality Business - Buzzfeed
Towards immortality - The Economist
Cheating Death - The Economist
No Death, No Taxes - The New Yorker
Peter Thiel, Trump’s Tech Pal, Explains Himself - The New York Times
Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality – and its worrying sacrifices - The Conversation
Silicon Valley is selling an ancient dream of immortality - The Financial Times
Aubrey de Grey: scientist who says humans can live for 1,000 years - The Financial Times
For the rich of Silicon Valley, mortality is there to be disrupted - The Financial Times
Is Our Obsession With Wellness Doing Us In? - The New York Times
Digital immortality: How your life’s data means a version of you could live forever - MIT Technology Review
Immortality and the Law - The Financial Times
The Guardian view on immortality: not for the faint-hearted - The Guardian
The Neuroscience of Immortality - The New York Times
Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality? - The New York Times
Nobel Prize: Why Immortality Is a Bad Thing - The Wall Street Journal
What to watch
TED and other talks
Stephen Cave on the stories we tell ourselves about death
Author Isabel Allende on living passionately at every age
Jane Fonda on how to make the most of longer life expectancies
Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, entitled “How to live before you die.”
The silver screen
Forever with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisan
The Good Place on NBC
The “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror
The Westworld episode that satirizes tech bros’ quest for eternal life
Russian Doll, which explores death and the multiverse
Fullmetal Alchemist, a Japanese manga series on the themes of resurrection and immortality
Odds and ends
If you want to get in on the action:
NIH will be holding its third Geroscience Summit in Maryland this spring to discuss age-related diseases and conditions.
The 2019 Undoing Aging Conference is happening place this May in Berlin, with speakers running the gamut from Singularity devotees and transhumanists to mainstream aging scientists.
A few fringier options include Dave Asprey’s Biohacking Conference, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop conference (if you have $$$ to spare), and The Superhuman Summit, which, as a wellness-cum-radical-life-extension symposium, might be the perfect combination of the first two.
Listen to this The Why Factor podcast episode on immortality, and the This American Life episode on the Chatsworth Scandal, wherein nine cryonics “patients” were found rotting in an underground crypt.
Download WeCroak, the app that reminds you you’re going to die.