“Formula of Immortality” (novelette) by Anatoly Dnieprov
English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), New Soviet Science Fiction (Macmillan, 1979), New Soviet Science Fiction (Collier, 1980)
Original: Russian (Формула бессмертия), 1962
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963
Synopsis: Albert is a second-generation geneticist whose father has done much pioneering work in the field yet, nowadays, is incapacitated by age. After a brief trip, Albert returns home to find a cherubic sixteen-year-old girl who his father than adopted as her parents had died, yet she was told they were away in Australia. The subterfuge deepens when Albert befriends the girl who speaks of a mad doctor named Horsk. As he investigates the mystery, he suddenly becomes personally and physically involved.
Analysis: The written word is a record, usually a retelling of experience, a track of numbers, or the whim of creativity. Some records track change, formulize routine, or even predict the future—a calendar is such a piece. Calendars give the illusion that we have some sort understanding to the workings of our minute universe, that we are masters of greater time even though we poorly manage our own time. Calendars are so accurate that we’re able to make them for decades, centuries, and millennia in advance.
This control of time gives us a measure of control in our lives—we’ll never wake up on a Tuesday with an announcement that it’s been changed to Thursday due to unforeseen circumstances. Granted it’s not super accurate: one day is actually four minutes shorter than twenty-four hours; however, the modern calendar is semi-accurate only now. About 620 million years ago, one day equaled 21.9 hours; in 4.5 billion years, the Earth would hypothetically have a month-long day.
Anyway, the calendar is written and written it stays: tomorrow is Wednesday, next month is May, and next year is 2017—nothing will change that… call it fate. Could the same be said of DNA? It’s also a record of sorts: who your parents are, what characteristics you’re likely to have, and what diseases you’ll be prone to. Would you want your DNA to be read like a calendar, albeit with less certainty?
- That mole on your arm is 45% likely to metastasize by the time you’re 25
- I hope you like kids cuz you have 90% chance of birthing twins
- There’s no way you’ll ever see 80 with heart valves like that, buddy
- Use it before you lose it cuz you’ll be impotent by the time you’re 40
What if the reading of your DNA could tell you the time in which you’ll die, sort of like a ticking time bomb? Would your life be any more valuable? Would you be worked to death while you’re still able-bodied? Would people with similar “expiration dates” be grouped in castes, made to labor and produce while still viable?
Review: The story lends some nice brain candy—something to linger over and savor like a never-ending gobstopper. The story itself, however, isn’t particularly as savory as the thought behind it. The thirty-two-page lead to the conclusion is full of hints like directional arrows and assumptions like bull’s-eyes. Within the story, there is very little left to the imagination; outside the story, however, there are a few things to consider.