Perfect health is one of humanity’s age-old fantasies.

From forming new bodies from parts to sophisticated genetic design, science fiction has always pursued the dream of a longer and healthier life. But how far can we go?
Can we gain immortality by manipulating our genes? Or will it be possible to fight diseases on a microbiological level? With sufficiently advanced know-how, will we be capable of living long and healthy lives because diseases can be avoided before they take hold?

Science Fiction and the Dream of Human Immortality

According to Brian Aldiss‘s history of science fiction, its first hero was a medical doctor: Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein” (published in 1818) takes the newly established medical sciences to their limits:

With the creation of a humanlike creature from body parts it describes the ultimate goal of medicine: to give life where there is death. But it also imbued its readers – for centuries to come – with a horror of crossing ethical boundaries. Even today, whenever scientists seem in danger of crossing boundaries they rather shouldn’t, the name of Frankenstein is whispered as a warning not to go too far.
In time, science fiction stories got closer to what was actually possible. The goal of creating humans was abandoned in favor of human improvement. In the 20th century, science fiction followed the trail of medical discoveries. With the advent of antibiotics, it started to imagine pills for everything. With the increased use of prosthetics after the First World War, it explored human enhancements beyond replacing lost limbs.

With the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome, the Frankenstein idea of the patchwork human returned on a molecular level. Though creating humans from scratch was out of the picture, tuning the human body by manipulating its genetic code became commonplace. Also, we find pre-natal genetic manipulation which results in forever-healthy designer babies, which, of course, is the ultimate preventive health measure and makes health care obsolete.
The Healthy Future of Humans
When reviewing various science fiction stories to explore how they present future health care we came across different scenarios.
In less perfect fictional societies there is still a need for health care and public health measures but we find sophisticated technology: nanobots travelling through human vessels, applying microdoses of drugs precisely where they are needed, repairing cellular damage, and fighting cancer cells right on target (e.g., Transcendence, 2014). We may also see robosurgeons that work with more precision than any human being is capable of, relying on vat-grown organs that serve as replacements whenever the old ones are failing. In some societies, health is closely monitored. Fitness and health trackers resembling the gadgets in use today provide data for ever more sophisticated preventive health measures. They alert doctors long before cardiac arrest happens, they calculate the right dosages for insulin or antidepressants, and they even communicate with your smart fridge and tell it which food to buy or when to prevent you from snatching unhealthy midnight snacks. In the most advanced societies, practically every disease can be healed (e.g., Elysium, 2013).
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The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature.

Film Recommendations

Black Mirror (2013-2019), Episodes: "Zeppotron" and "House of Tomorrow"
Caterpillarplasty (2018)
Contagion (2011)
Dust (2018)
Pandemic (2016)
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)
Years and Years (2019)
Foresight student at THI
Sci-fi is set to be one of the main pillars that will shape our common future.
Foresight Student at THI
Science fiction is a rich and diverse source for foresight research.
Prof. Dr. Jan Oliver Schwarz
Author & Foresight expert
Pictures derived from fiction shape our construction
of reality.