Monthly Archives: November 2016

Cybermorality: Should we aspire to live forever?

Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.


When I became a real grownup and got a real grownup job, I got my first life insurance policy. I took the test you have to take and my insurance company predicted I’d live to the age of 121. I was speechless, but then I thought about it. Medicine has changed so radically in the last 40 years that it’s fair to say it’s almost a completely new science. When I was a kid, getting your tonsils out involved two days in the hospital. Now they actually shoot them out of your throat with a laser gun. Science fiction has not only become real, it’s become routine.

All estimates indicate that medicine will advance far more radically in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40. And 40 years from now I’ll only be 83.

keep-calm-and-live-foreverA common criticism of Western medicine writ large is that it sees mortality as a curable condition. Rest assured, there are thousands of researchers working on immortality right this minute. So in all probability my insurance company underestimated my life expectancy. In fact, it’s fair to say that 80 years from now, no one has the slightest idea what medical technology will be capable of, nor how long the average human life span will be. It’s not unreasonable to predict that we’ll be able to keep a human body alive more or less indefinitely.

To this we must add a caveat: alive and thriving are not the same thing. This is why that estimate of 121 left me speechless: I’m not sure it’s good news. Give me 119 good years and 2 bad ones and I’ll say sign me up. Give me 81 good years and 40 bad ones—which is what our current medical practices would promise me—and I’ll say thanks but no thanks.

And we should add one more observation: while medical technology has drastically expanded the average number of thriving years in a human lifespan, it hasn’t actually extended human lifespan itself all that much. The world’s oldest person today and the world’s oldest person of 100 years ago and 200 years ago are all about the same age. So it’s possible—doubtful, I think, but possible—that we really do cap out as hundred-and-teenagers, and that the only question is whether we can make all of our years good years.

But let’s be optimistic. Let’s say that in the year 2094 I’m the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. My mountaineering years are long behind me, but I can still write books and hang out with friends and have a basically comfortable, more or less self-sufficient existence.

The question is, is such a world morally good?

There are some reasons to think it might not be. For one thing, just being 100 years old is expensive, so probably only millionaires can be hundred-and-teenagers. That will exacerbate certain kinds of economic inequality and contribute measurably to certain ecological problems. But even if we could somehow make it just as cheap to be 121 as it is to be 21, we’d have other, larger social justice questions.

As people age they tend to get set in their ways, and so an aging but undying demographic would tend to retain its current political beliefs. The unfortunate truth is that much of the political progress in the world only happens when the old guard dies out.

Maybe some conservatives will bristle at that, but consider the following sentence: “I know my grandma is racist, but she’s a really nice person.” That is a completely coherent sentence in modern American society. We tend to forgive older people for old-fashioned beliefs. Why? There are many reasons, but only one is inevitable: even if these geezers never surrender their ideas, in a couple of decades they’ll kick the bucket.

Suppose that stopped being true. Suppose the old guard gets another eighty years before passing the torch. If we all lived to 121, some of the lawmakers to vote against the 19th Amendment—you know, the one that allows women to vote—would still be alive and voting. Some of those guys would have parents old enough to be slave owners. That’s right: we’d only be one generation removed from the Civil War.

We can’t even imagine what the hot-button issues will be in 2094, when I am the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. If interracial marriage was the big Supreme Court decision in 1960, and if same-sex marriage was the big one in 2015, maybe the one I’ll be upset about is the case way back in 2050 where humans gained the right to marry robots. Maybe my great-great-grandnieces will blush as they make excuses for me: “I know Uncle Steve-o is a human supremacist but he’s a really nice person.”

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Reach Steve Bein at @AllBeinMyself or on facebook/philosofiction.

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4 Ways to Affordably Acquire Historical Research Books

When you’re engaged in historical research, web pages often are not the best sources: old-fashioned books are. But how do you find the right books? How do you acquire them? How do you afford them?

– Use Wikipedia, but scroll down.
Sure, Wikipedia can provide a decent synopsis of a subject, but the most useful information is in the footnotes at the bottom of the page. That’s where you find cited data, such as book titles and theses. Follow the links and you might even find the materials online for free!

– Libraries still exist.
Shocking, isn’t it? You can go to physical libraries and get books for merely flashing a library card. Look into inter-library loans or see if you can access college libraries nearby. Librarians are available to help you out, too.

– Buy used books.
This is my preferred method of research, simply because I like to hold onto content for future reference. My favorite shop is Better World Books because the shipping is free, the selection is great, and my purchases benefit charities. I also look for used books on Amazon and Half.com.

– Find free ebook archives.
Most people know about places like Project Gutenberg and its efforts to digitize old books, but it’s not the only such resource. State and city governments and museums are also creating more online archives. For example, check out the California Digital Newspaper Collection created by UC Riverside, or Washington State’s Online Library of classical state literature ranging from pioneer biographies to native tales, or the San Francisco Library’s 1906 earthquake photograph collection. Savoring the Past has digitized a numerous 18th and early 19th century cookbooks. Don’t forget Amazon, either. Look up classic books and check their availability for Kindle; sometimes you can find them for zero dollars or for almost nothing.

Trust me. When you’re deep in the word mines and require dozens and dozens of books to world-build an alternate history, those free and almost-free books are worth a whole lot.


Breath of EarthBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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Hitting the List: Learning from the Bestsellers

What does it take to reach the best-sellers list?  Like many writers, I’ve asked this question (and been asked in turn), and heard all kinds of theories, often presented as hard facts.  The answer is (as it so often is), it depends.  So here are some approaches to the bestsellers that may be of use.

  1.  There are a number of lists, and they are compiled in different ways. The New York Times list is still the gold-standard, and is broken out by fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes available in other categories.  It is a measurement of sales at about 3000 stores, now augmented for e-books with electronic sales as well.  But Amazon has their own lists, which can be shaved down into hundreds of narrow categories, meaning lots more bestsellers.  The USA Today list includes fiction and non-fiction together.
  2. The NYT list for fiction has about 780 slots per year.  Of those, only about 100 are up for grabs–the rest are pretty much locked up by the big names, and publishers will try to avoid launching certain kinds of books into the shadow of a big author’s release month.  Trad authors generally release a book a year, and the book will come out in the same month every year (the first Tuesday of the month).  This makes your odds of hitting the NYT list about 2 in 10,000–but that’s still better than your chance of being struck by lightning!
  3. All of the best-seller lists are a measure of sales velocity:  how many books sell in a short period of time.  So many books on the list are actually being out-sold (albeit very slowly) by other titles which are bought in smaller quantity, but on a more regular basis.  As an author doing self-promotion, you want to drive the most sales during the first week the book is out in order to achieve strong sales velocity.  (this is also what encourages Amazon to promote your book more to readers because it’s a primary metric they track)
  4. For the Publishers’ Weekly list, about 8 to 14% of the slots in any given year are debut authors.  Most authors in fact don’t hit the list with their first novel, but with a later one, generally in the same series or genre. Once one of the books in a series hits the list, it often brings the other ones along for the ride.
  5. According to the Stanford Business Institute, the first time an author hits the NYT list, their sales improve by 57%.

There have been some great works that analyze what makes the list and why.  The recent book, The Bestseller Code, discusses a computer algorithm that analyzed thousands of books, some from the list and some not and came up with some very interesting results about what the bestsellers have in common, and what sets them apart from the non-bestsellers.  Hit Lit takes a more longitudinal approach, developing a list of themes and ideas that appear in the bestselling novel of each decade for about the last one hundred years.

Aiming for the list?  Good luck–and hopefully I’ll join you up there!