Cancers may be cured – but we will still die

Arthur C Clarke died this week. I remember going to the Edinburgh Festival to see 2001 in the sixties. It was a premier, but whether it world or British, I can’t remember. It was too earnest a gathering to have druggies sitting in the front row, being blasted into a semi-religious trance by the kaleidoscopic drift down to the planet at the end. One of my favourite images in film is the last man, sitting in a minimalist white, echoing room, turning to look at us, as we enter that space. Clarke gave us a lasting glimpse of the irrepressible place of religion in human affairs and the consequent conundrum of identity. The druggies loved the monolith in 2001 because it epitomised the otherness of spirituality, far more, perhaps, than temples, churches and shrines. It was a religious artefact for the modern age. Scientology took root among some because Hubbard, its father figure, a Sci Fi writer of no particular repute, saw the connection between space travel, aliens and desperate seekers after the truth of existence.

As anyone reading these blogs will have gathered, I love science fiction because it can provide left field perspectives on issues which rear up in front of us to such a degree that we can’t see round them. I am reading a 1930s dystopian novel by Karin Boye, called Killocain. Here is a quote:

“My Chief, interrupted, impatiently, ve already taken the liberty of ordering five test persons from the Voluntary Sacrificial Service. They are waiting outside in the hall.

The ‘I’ here is Kallocain, himself, the main protagonist of the story, a scientific experimenter who has discovered a truth drug which the State may be able to use to uncover dissidents. The guinea pigs are healthy people who see the Voluntary Sacrificial Service as a noble career in the preservation and furtherance of the State.

On the news, as I had just put the novel down, was a big story about cancer clinics being set up all over Britain where experimental drugs can be tried to see their efficacy against cancer. The programme is NHS and Cancer Charity supported. Those with terminal illness and a short sentence of life, can volunteer for radical, untested treatments. As the doctor being interviewed, said, “It speeds up the whole process.

No doubt most of us would want to try something, rather than rot away in a miserable chemo-therapeutic semblance of normality. There is a belief, inbred in us, that miracles can occur. We will queue up for such a possible reversal of the ticking clock. We wish to pervert the course of justice, where our sentence has been meted out by a white coated specialist. But there is something disturbing about it, nonetheless.

Perhaps what we need, more than anything, is a belief system which focuses on how to make life worthwhile, whatever is happening to us, no matter how tough, how appalling, how out-of-our-hands; worthwhile, second by second. A sort of zen wonder at how fantastic it is to exist – and to know it.

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