Longer by Michael Blumlein
Friday, August 30, 2019 at 8:18AM
TChris in Michael Blumlein, Science Fiction

Published by Tor.com on May 28, 2019

Most of us want to live as long as we can, and maybe just a little longer. Others reach a point where they are content with the fullness of their lives, a point where they “couldn’t possibly be any fuller” and any more life “would only push out what I already have, and cherish.” The latter is an unusual perspective, but science fiction at its best encourages readers to see their lives, or the lives of others, from perspectives not yet dreamt.

Longer imagines a future in which humanity is considerably more united than it is today, thanks in part to something called “the Hoax.” In this future, science has made it possible to give some people — people of means — two rejuvenations, a second and third lifespan. Gunjita wants Cav to take his second and last rejuvenation; Cav is resisting the idea. In fact, Cav is on the verge of deciding that he is ready to die, a decision that Gunjita takes personally, because it seems Cav would rather spend an eternity without her rather than another lifetime with her.

Gunjita and Cav are on a space station doing medical research when they discover that a returning probe has captured an object attached to a sliver that was once part of an asteroid. The object resembles vomit but Cav is convinced that the object is alive. They call it the Ooi. It might just be a rock clinging to a rock, but maybe aliens look like rocks. Or maybe they look like vomit.

Cav wants to touch it, smell it, taste it, all potentially dangerous activities. Gunjita wants to cut into it. For that, Cav thinks they need a surgeon — overkill, perhaps, if it is just a rock shaped like a pile of vomit.

The surgeon they have in mind, Dashaud Mikelson, has just enhanced his sense of touch. But Dash has a history with Gunjita that has left her feeling spiteful.

The exact nature of the ooi turns out to be … ambiguous. The resolution of Cav’s debate about living or dying is … ambiguous. The nature of the Hoax? Ambiguous. Very little about this story is clear cut, except for the very real emotions that it explores. And that seems fitting, because the story is a reminder that there is so much we don’t understand. Does alien life exist and, if so, what does it look like? We don’t know. What, if anything beyond physical decay, happens to us after death? We don’t know.

What we do know is that we must make choices based on imperfect information. We base some of those choices on emotions or intuition, also imperfect, but whether our choices are therefore right or wrong is again something we might never know. We might not know what meaning to assign to right and wrong, or whether the meaning we assign is any more valid than the meanings assigned by others, even others who are close to us and who feel hurt by our choices.

The characters in Longer explore those questions through contemplative dialog, while Michael Blumlein tells a philosophical story in elegant prose. I’ve never read anything quite like Longer. It showcases how a science fiction novella with a handful of characters can broaden a reader’s imaginings about the things we think we understand and the things that, even with a couple of extra lifespans, we will never understand.


Article originally appeared on Tzer Island (https://www.tzerisland.com/).
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