Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality

Well, this is a sort of ironic question to address on my birthday, from Theo, who asks:

Do you think about mortality frequently or do you try to put it out of your mind? Do you think it’s better to ignore it or jam pack as much as you can into every minute with one eye on the clock?

Well, if I’m going to be right up front about it, I neither frequently think about mortality nor try to put it out of my mind. At this point I’ve largely made peace with the fact that I will not be immortal and that I will one day die, and also, that there are probably worse things than being dead.

I suspect this is the case because, honestly, I’ve been dead before — more accurately, not alive, which is what being dead is. However, this particular session of being not alive happened prior to my birth, and we don’t call that being “dead” even if that’s effectively what it is. Whatever you call it, I was not alive for the first 13.7 billion years or so of the existence of this universe.

How did I feel about it then? Well, I didn’t feel anything about it. I didn’t exist. Not existing — not being alive — didn’t bother me; I had no capacity to be bothered about it, or to feel anything else about it. I rather strongly suspect that being dead again will be much the same. It won’t bother me, or make me happy, or sad, or anything else. However I feel about not existing prior to non existence, and I imagine I will feel something about it, will be irrelevant. I’ll just be gone. And that will be that.

I should be clear that I like existing, actually quite a bit, and am in no rush to stop existing. But from experience (so to speak) I know that not existing isn’t so bad. It’s not something I’m afraid of. I don’t fear eternal judgment, or worry that I will miss out on some eternal reward. There’s no eternal; there’s just nothing. Intellectual honesty requires me to note I could be wrong about this, in which case, won’t I be surprised. But I’m not so worried about being wrong that it’s going to cause me to change how I live my life.

Since I’m not exactly afraid of death or preoccupied by the nature of an afterlife, on a day to day basis I don’t give either a whole lot of thought. I don’t hide from it, and when it does cross my mind I’ll think about it for an appropriate amount of time. Then I’ll move on, because I have enough other things on my plate to keep me busy — I have books to write, and places to go, and people to see and pets to pet. It’s a pretty full schedule. And when it’s not full, that’s fine too, since when I’m dead, I won’t be able to lie around or nap or zone out, either. I like doing nothing every now and again, and now is the only time when I’ll be able to do it. So, you know, I’m gonna enjoy it.

I will admit that at least some of my sanguinity regarding death comes from the fact that I feel generally content with my life, which is to say, I have accomplished most of the things I wanted to accomplish when I was younger, and by and large there’s not that much about my life that I regret or would change. There is always more to do, of course, and I would be happy for more things to happen before I shuffle off. But honestly, if I get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow, I don’t think anyone would say I hadn’t made good use of my time on the planet (well, some people might, but they would be jerks).

In terms of jam packing every single moment — nah. Aside from the notation above that I enjoy doing nothing from time to time, I also tend to be a proponent of quality versus quantity. Being frantic to check things off a list would annoy me after a while. Certainly there are experiences I have not yet had that I would love to have, and I will try to get around to them. But probably not in a wild-eyed sprint against death. Ironically, I don’t have time for that.

If you ever get yourself in a spiral about mortality, I would suggest to you that you remember that you, too, didn’t exist before now, and that, if you think about it, it probably wasn’t that bad when you didn’t, even if it does mean you missed the dinosaurs. So future not existing will probably not be too bad, either, and will take care of itself in any event.

With that in mind, you can focus on the part where you do exist, and make the most of it, however that works for you. Good luck with that! I’ll be doing the same.

Happy Birthday to Me, Here’s a Story For You: “Regarding Your Application Status”

When I went out on tour for Head On last month, I wrote a new, funny short story to perform for the audiences, on the thinking that since they went out of their way to come see me, usually on a weeknight, they should get something special that no one else gets: in this case, to hear a short story I wrote before anyone else in the world does. This is one reason to come see me on tour, folks! You get sneak peaks! In any event, the tour is now over, and now I’m happy to share it with everyone. Consider this my gift to you, on my 49th birthday.

The idea of the story is simple: There’s a galaxy-spanning federation of planets out there, and we humans of Earth are super excited about it. And we say “Can we join?” And they say, “Well, you can apply.” And this is what happens when we apply. Enjoy!

 

REGARDING YOUR APPLICATION STATUS
by John Scalzi

Dear Humanity:

Thank you so much for your application to join the Intergalactic Federation of Civilizations (henceforth abbreviated as the IFC). We regret to say that after careful consideration by our Admissions Committee, we are currently unable to offer you admission, either as a full or probationary member of the IFC. Indeed, I have to confess there was serious consideration as to whether we should refer your application to the Containment Committee as possible evidence of the need for a quarantine of your planet and sequestration of your species. But after a close vote, we decided simply to table the matter and move on.

I understand that this news will come as a disappointment to many of you. While it is not the practice of the Admissions Committee to offer detailed explanations of its decisions to reject applicants, I understand that, as this is your first attempt at an application, you may benefit from a few hints, tips and pointers that will put your civilization in better stead if and when you ever choose to apply for IFC membership again. So in the spirit of helpfulness, and to give you something productive to do with your time, here are some of the reasons committee members gave for rejecting your application.

1. You don’t have a single viable planetary government. Seriously, you have at least two hundred political entities talking smack about each other all the time. It’s tiring to hear you squabble. One of the committee members compared it to a nest of Vlendor in molt, which is a comparison you won’t understand but which means that you’re basically all angry and sticky and unpleasant to be around (and even when the Vlendor are done molting they’re still mostly sticky, so take that as you will). Yes, we know about the UN. Come on, dudes. Pull another of our appendages. You really need to sort this out amongst yourselves. Pick a government! Any government! Well, not any government. Be choosy. Sweden’s system seems nice. We’re not telling you what to do, though. We know you have that oppositional thing going on. Just figure it out.

2. Somewhat related to point one, you folks still spend an unseemly amount of time killing the hell out of each other, which strikes many of our committee members as a really bougie thing to do. I think these particular committee members may not actually have a good grasp on what the term “bougie” means in this particular case but I think the basic concept comes through — it’s not a great look. If you can’t control yourselves at home, how can you be trusted to control yourselves out in the universe, and so on. Have you ever tried not killing the hell out of each other? Maybe give it a spin! You might like it! We know you’re really good at coming up with excuses for why you really just need to kill each other, but I have to be honest: We don’t grade on a curve with this one.

3. Also your various bigotries, hatreds, inequalities, blah blah blah, jeez, you people are really terrible to each other. Until you get over that, no one’s going to want to hang out with you at parties, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Look, I don’t want to belabor the point, and I know you all really hate being lectured, but you all also kind of have cosmic moral halitosis, and it’s just not polite not to tell you. Get some gum, if you get my drift. A lot of gum. Like, a pallet of gum. I know, I know, but come on.

4. Okay, this point is a little confusing, but one of the committee members says that you have produced far too much plastic, and another says that you’ve not produced nearly enough of it. The gist of it is that you’re doing plastic wrong. Pick which way you want to go with that one and get back to us.

5. You may wish to stop beaming your television shows into space; they’re not putting you in the best light. For example, one of our committee members said, “They must be punished for what they did to Gilligan.” It was pointed out to this committee member that, one, Gilligan’s Island was a fictional television series and, two, that it being employed as a shorthand for alien civilizations not understanding the concept of television series was so overused as to be both trite and offensive. To which this committee member replied, “Did I type ‘Gilligan’? Sorry, I meant Gillian. They must be punished for wasting Gillian Anderson in those last two seasons of The X-Files.” Which is both fair and accurate.

6. Your sports make us angry and confused. A small list of specific problematic issues for us include the two-point conversion, the designated hitter, why there is no relegation in Major League Soccer, why the WNBA is not more popular, the entire sports of Cricket and Australian Rules Football, how rhythmic gymnastics differs in any relevant manner from dancing, and why curling is not just called “frosty shuffleboard.” Fix all of these, please.

7. Your decision to declassify Pluto as a planet is deeply offensive to at least a couple of committee members who hail from ice planets. While one of these committee members would be satisfied by the reinstatement of Pluto as a quote-unquote “real” planet, another one requests that you also launch Neil deGrasse Tyson into the sun, not only for being the instigator of the removal of Pluto, but also for, and these are their words, “Being so damn literal on the Internet all the time.” I will note that per point two above, this committee member speaks only for themselves and not the entire committee on this matter, but yeah, Neil should maybe lighten up.

8. You should floss more. When I asked the committee member who made this complaint to whom this was directed, they simply said, “all of them,” and refused to say anything further. However, this complaint was endorsed by literally all the other members of the committee, so, well. There it is. Also, we mean really floss, not just sort of swipe at your teeth. You have to get under the gumline, people.

9. This line-item is a grab bag of things we want for you to consider, and in no particular order: Be kinder to each other, feed the poor, stop heating up your planet, hydrate, exercise a little more, eat meat a little less, put out Half-Life 3 because we think that story is hilarious, give George RR Martin a break on his writing schedule, canonize Prince, David Bowie and Janelle Monae, more pictures of pets on the Internet, sell Lin-Manuel Miranda on Hamilton 2: The Quickening, tell your friends and family you love them and for God’s sake stop electing so many exasperating, venal and greedy people, it’s really not a great long-term plan.

10. Finally, you should probably be aware that humanity wasn’t the only group from Earth petitioning to be let into the IFC; we also have applications from the cetaceans, the corvids and a joint application from the cephalopods and the blattodeans, where the octopus and squid handle the oceans and the cockroaches and termites deal with the land. I have to tell you that each of these applications got a lot further along than yours, and not just because they are neither actively warming up the planet nor wasting the talents of Gillian Anderson. Maybe you humans should take a look at what they’re all doing right. Or don’t, we’re not the boss of you. Just don’t act all surprised and upset when you’re ruled by whales, crows or cuttlefish. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

So, there you are. Incorporate these findings into your next application, when the IFC opens up for another round of submissions in twelve hundred of your years. Hope you’re still around then! Good luck!

Sincerely,

Klob Munsob,
Admissions Committee Head, IFC

And, should you want to have it read to you by the author, well, here it is, from my stop at the Strand bookstore, in NYC (also, a Q&A follows, where I get discursive on several questions).

49

Wait, I’m almost done with my 40s already? 

As most of you know every year on my birthday I take a picture of myself, a sort of “state of the Scalzi” photo. This is this year’s, brought about in part by the fact that my allergies have picked this very day to kick in and literally every other picture I’ve taken today makes me look like I’m about to burst into tears. This is the best picture out of, like, eighty. I honestly hope this is not a harbinger for the rest of my 49th year.

But I suspect it’s not. I already have lots of very cool things on the runway for this next year and plans with awesome people to do ridiculous things. You will get to see some of them! Promise.

In the meantime, on we go to the last year of my 40s. Ready? Let’s do this.