I expect many or most readers will already have heard of the Match It For Pratchett campaign. If you haven't, the idea is simple, important, and poignant. On December 12th of 2007, Terry Pratchett announced that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's. He has donated about a million dollars towards Alzheimer's research, and Pat Cadigan has challenged his enthusiastic fans to match that contribution.
There are several ways to give, and contributions from UK citizens qualify for "Gift Aid." The web site linked above provides all the details.
You don't need to be a subject of the Queen or even a Pratchett fan to care about this issue, of course. One of the most popular tropes in science fiction today is immortality. (Robert Sawyer, for example, tackles it in Rollback, reviewed in this issue.)
Enhanced longevity and immortality make for great storytelling whether the author is exploring the consequences for an already overcrowded planet, the psychology of immortality, the social fallout when one generation does not bequeath power to the next, or the interpersonal complications that might ensue before the technology is universally available. The idea is important to every reader, and it is a theme rich in symbol and metaphor. And that's before you start getting into wacky ideas like restoring people from a backup disc.
But for these ideas to become reality we're going to have to cure disease one affliction at a time, as well as make enormous advances in our fundamental understanding of aging, and that's a long road to travel. At some point, it is perfectly conceivable that there will be a "last generation to die," at least from "natural" causes, but given the current state of biological understanding, that generation probably hasn't been born yet.
Now, I know something's going to get me in the end, and if they cure the thing that was going to get me tomorrow, that simply means it will be something else the day after. But to suffer from a degenerative brain disease? That is a horror far more frightening to me than mere death.
Some argue that public health money would be best spent on the diseases that are killing the most people: cancer, AIDS, drunk driving. But I would argue that since none of us are going to live forever, it is better to solve the problems that are killing us in the worst ways. My principle: it is better to live well than to live long.
One problem is that an enormous amount of research comes from the private sector, and private-sector money comes with private-sector goals. A common accusation amongst AIDS activists is that vastly more money is being spent researching treatments than researching cures (or preventive vaccines). Why? Because treating AIDS patients is enormously profitable, but curing them would ultimately not be. Cynical? You bet. But sadly, it makes all-too-much sense. And Alzheimer's has the same dynamic.
It ain't over till it's over, and we're hoping for the best, hoping everyone who hasn't yet will pitch in to help fund the research that can cure this terrible disease. We may not save Terry Pratchett, but if we get together on this, we're going to save somebody, someday.
And that somebody might be you.