The Breakthrough – Alison Frank [Fiction]

The Breakthrough

I could have put up with the lack of hot water and central heating, the absence of birth control, no fridges or washing machines, even no internet. But I couldn’t have accepted their short lifespan. It would have haunted every day of my existence: why bother when it’s all over so soon?

How must our great-grandparents have felt, reaching the end of their lives just as The Breakthrough arrived? They were too tired, my parents said, to rage. Some elders even said they preferred it, that death was ‘natural’. Their generation had a strange obsession with that word, natural, my history professor says. But I just don’t get how they could accept their fate. Wasn’t it even worse than growing up thinking death was inevitable: to know that if you’d been born just a decade later, you would have had the chance to live forever?

And I can’t help thinking about junior elders on the eve of The Breakthrough: anyone who stepped in front of a bus the day after their successful body transplant. It would have been easily done: too busy admiring the return of their glossy hair and smooth face, firm arms and muscled legs, reflected in the window of a café. How unfair that driverless vehicles were already a possibility, but the drivers’ lobby kept humans behind the wheel for decades more.

In my philosophy class, we learned about the existential dilemmas that preoccupied previous civilizations, from the security blanket of religion to the absurd struggle of Camus. Of course, modern thought is concerned with how best to structure our eternal life: what to study and when, how to navigate multiple careers, whether to travel to a colony planet to reproduce. Once I asked about those who die in spite of all our advances. The lecturer brushed my question aside as a fringe issue, affecting such a minuscule number. My classmates laughed uncomfortably, and a few insults came up on my class feed: ‘real authentic’ and ‘totally expert’ – stuff like that. I ignored it. The closest my classmates came to existential anguish was reading Jim Fairchild, celebrated philosopher of the Eternal Era. In his bestseller, (Re)covering Youth, he asks whether it’s ethical to undergo memory erasure to regain childlike innocence and become impressionable once more. To lose your virginity again, or to relive your first visit to Addis. ‘The malaise of the eternal,’ he says, ‘is having seen it all before’.

Preoccupation with death belongs to my parents’ generation, who know people who’ve died, and have to live indefinitely without them. Some people, Mum and Dad say, began to feel weary before their body transplants. Their minds ached with the idea of infinity, and they almost longed for the tranquility of the grave. While young people signed up for memory upgrades, the older generation chose to have a small part of their memory erased: to forget that Nan and Granddad ever lived, rather than regret, for eternity, that they too couldn’t live forever.

Luckily for me, nobody I love has ever died. The nano-nets that surround every building catch anyone seized by the perverse desire to jump, or the freak falling rooftile or window. We no longer have harsh chemicals at hand, now that nano-resistant surfaces mean we never have to clean our houses. Genetic predictors have allowed us, for generations now, to abort future murderers. Self-driving cars stop if you throw yourself in their path, and the old train tracks have been replaced by the inaccessible tubes of the hyper-loop that shoots us between cities in minutes instead of hours. 

You need to go to the developing world to die, but anyone who’s suicidal won’t pass the pre-departure psychological assessment, compulsory for such destinations. In that handful of lands untouched by modern technology, it’s still possible to fall down a hole or drown in the sea. Some secretly romanticise this freedom. There used to be a dark net community for those who fantasised about death by traditional means. It was all shut down before I was born. My father, a closet existentialist, told me about this movement when I enrolled in my philosophy class. He advised me never to mention this subject.

Our Eternal Era is one of continual self-improvement, endless learning, living each life you ever wanted. But the pioneers of our era, those who have now lived a couple of centuries are, it’s been rumoured, already becoming bored. Sometimes, at memory bars, the mood turns maudlin, and these underground pleasure palaces resound with whispers of the unthinkable. That Tedium may already be in sight.


By Alison Frank

  • Originally from Toronto, Alison Frank lives in London. Her published short stories include ‘The Wall’ in Matrix, ‘Meet Me at Cafe Bambi’ in Confingo, and ‘A Present to Herself’ in So to Speak. You can follow her on Twitter @alisonfrank

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