Science fiction, a genre known for its extrapolations into the future, seem
Science fiction. For a genre that is known for its seemingly equitable futures, it sure seems to take issue with age and aging. Indeed, disability studies scholar Alison Kafer notes that “Whenever I tell people I have been working on a book about the role of disability in imagined futures, they almost always assume I’m writing about science fiction” (Feminist, Queer, Crip 19).
Interestingly, Kafer also analyzing the assumption that “children are our future” (20), explaining in the first chapter that she “can easily see the ways in which ‘the future,’ especially as figured through the ‘Child,’ is used to buttress able-bodied/able-minded heteronormativity,” a child, she points out is “without a doubt, able-bodied/able-minded” (29). In science fiction, though, the other end of the age spectrum is often entirely absent in the future or represented as a life condition in need of elimination or cure.
Ageism works directly with ableism, according to the editors of Manifestos for the Future of Critical Disability Studies (Vol.1), who couple the definition of each term together: “both are systems of oppression comprised of beliefs, values, and practices that create and reinforce youthfulness and able-bodiedness/able-mindedness as ideals, thereby casting old age and disability as devalued states of being” (xix).
Kate Kirkpatrick and Sarah Kruks write that “Ageism is still so deeply engrained as to go undetected. Stereotypes (often especially hostile to women) are learned and internalised in childhood, from the wicked old witches and vicious aunts in children’s stories (think Hansel and Gretel; think Roald Dahl), to demeaning representations of old age seen on various media, to overhearing parents and others ridicule old relatives or call them a burden. In these ways, children learn to participate in the general social stigmatisation of the old that they will then perpetuate as adults” (Aeon). Put another way, stories contribute significantly to how we perceive and treat those who are identified as older than what society is comfortable with.
The stories of science fiction perpetuate this view of age as a problem to be solved. In his Red Mars (1993), noted sf author Kim Stanley Robinson creates “a kind of gerontological treatment” that acts as a “DNA strengthener [that] [r]epairs broken strands, and restores cell-division accuracy to a significant degree” (287). Ironically, this treatment is viewed as “an infection which would invade every cell of [their] body” (288), leaving cells of a ten-year-old in its place.
Due the nature of the procedure, the treatment is jokingly called the “Immortality” or “Longevity Plague” (290). When one character considers the treatment, his distaste and fear of his impending aging shows in this self-evaluation: “He was sixty-six years old…he had low blood pressure and a bad HDL-to-LDL ratio, and his shoulders ached when he swam and he felt tired a lot. He was getting old. He didn’t have that many years left” (288; emphasis mine). If there wasn’t a treatment for aging in the story, one might wonder if this character would still consider himself old at sixty-six which, in reality, is barely past retirement age.
Population growth automatically comes to mind when slowing the aging (and dying) process is on the table. Robinson is quick to point this out when this same character cautions, “‘News of a longevity drug loose on Mars, back among the teeming billions…my Lord'” (289), adding later the “‘If those aging treatments work, and we are living decades longer…it will certainly cause a social revolution” (339-340).
And, sure enough, news of the treatment is “leaked…and had flashed around the world in a day [provoking] a violent debate [where] many were demanding that the treatments be made a basic human right” (324). The treatment does indeed lead to a “population growth slowdown. No one would say population control…it was a forbidden phrase in politics” (429).
As Robinson’s narrator elaborates on the population growth, they ultimately decide that “Famine would solve [India’s population growth], as it would in a lot of countries. The Four Horsemen were good at population control” (429). And, while these comments may be seem harsh, an argument might be made that these comments are Robinson’s acknowledgment of the real consequences of population growth and the oft-forgotten consequences of lengthening life (the Earth’s population in 1993 was 5.5 billion; today, it is 7.95 billion).
Bad faith, according to Simone de Beauvoir, is “the over-identification of with one of the two poles of human existence” (Kirkpatrick & Kruks). One of these poles is “facticity,” or the “contingent and unchosen facts” of our existence. The authors explain that “Beauvoir thinks that the not-yet-old are guilty of facticity-denying bad faith: their aversion to the already-old expresses an attempt to flee from their own ageing and mortality. This flight may offer them temporary refuge from unwanted futures but, for the old people they flee, it creates a hostile and lonely world” (Kirkpatrick & Kruks).
This last sentence is the driving force of why we should care about science fiction’s aversion to aging. As much as we as a society want to forget or ignore the marching onward of age, it is nonetheless unavoidable. While a “gerontological treatment” to strengthen our DNA strands (a real concept) seems like an excellent idea, perhaps simply acknowledging and valuing the aging (and dying) process as natural and inevitable, science fiction as a genre can contribute to the way its fans imagine their own futures as they experience not only the aging of their loved ones, but also their own.
Ellis, Katie, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mike Kent, and Rachel Robertson. Manifestos for the Future of Critical Disability Studies (Vol.1). Ed. by Katie Ellis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mike Kent, and Rachel Robertson. Routledge: London (2019): xix.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.
Kirkpatrick, Kate and Sarah Kruks. “Old Not Other.” Aeon, 14 June 2022. https://aeon.co/essays/simone-de-beauvoir-on-facing-old-age-and-avoiding-bad-faith?utm_source=pocket-newtab. Accessed on 23 June 2022.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. Red Moon. Bantam Books, 1993.
For further information on DNA Strand Repair, see “DNA Damage – how and why we age?