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To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
SBNation is a website that has been historically dedicated to sports. They’ve gone off the beaten path before, but generally everything is some form of sports reporting, opinion, or analysis.
Which is why it might surprise you to learn that a largely-traditional sports website is host to one of the landmark pieces of post-modern literature, a wonderful mixture of mediums, and a truly touching story about what it means to be human — innocuously placed among the usual hot-takes and baseball reporting.
What follows is to be fairly spoiler heavy, so I would advise you to read this piece if you haven’t done so already. It’s not a terribly long work, nor is it too challenging — but it is worth every minute of your time.
Go ahead — read it. I’m waiting.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
You’re back? Excellent. Let’s get started.
We can start at the beginning. Something has clearly gone horribly wrong. It’s March ’43 when 9 and 10 start talking. To get through the dialogue, one must scroll tediously through calendar after calendar. There’s a comprehensive conversation occurring here — over the course of 33 years. Immediately, readers are introduced to the notion of time being almost meaningless. We scroll through months without giving a second thought to the time that actually passes over the course of the story.
And indeed — in this future, time is truly meaningless. Humanity has stopped aging, stopped dying, stopped giving birth to new people, for an unexplained reason.
Bois brings a unique take to science fiction — most science fiction features humanity exploring the stars with advanced technology, spacecraft, and moving onward and outward. Here, society looks no more different than it does today — there are no flying cars, no wondrous skyscrapers, no spaceships exploring the stars.
Humanity did send probes out, what they could with the meager resources they had on earth. They found nothing. This was the worst case scenario for mankind — there was nothing out there, beyond earth. They’d all be dead by now if it weren’t for the fact that humanity suddenly became immortal.
Humanity also built the fantastic new technologies — they built the flying cars, the wondrous machines, etc. But no one wanted them. They actively rejected them, in favor of the technologies of when they first became immortal. The only truly new technology still around are nanites that helped keep people alive and protect what was already there — the only new technology exists to protect the status quo. Man-kind is, in effect, frozen in time, halting progress. So humanity turns inward.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
This story is prompted as “What football will look like in the future” — but the story has nothing to do with football. Okay, it has a lot to do with football. Sure, Bois talks about what has happened to the NFL 15,000 years in the future, and how people play 500 in the future, and how there’s a football game that’s been stuck in a valley in Arizona for the past 5,000 years.
But the story is really about purpose.
What drives someone, day to day? What keeps them going? For some, it is the promise of a better future — working toward some goal. For others, it is the desire to survive — earn enough money to buy food to survive. For others, it is love — a love of what you do, a love that drives you to strive to be better, etc.
But all these are efforts against mortality. Marvell laments, “ Had we but world enough and time” in To His Coy Mistress — wishing that he could love for years and years. But “time’s winged chariot” challenges him to seize the day (and try to get in bed with said mistress). In life, we do these things because our time on this earth is limited.
We get married because we know that our time is limited, and we wish to spend it while being happy with someone we love. We quit our terrible jobs because our limited time would be better spent elsewhere. Time is a universal currency, and you cannot make deposits — only withdrawals. Each of these actions is driven by the fact that we will one day, eventually, die.
But in 17776 — eventually never comes.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Imagine if there was no ticking timer on your life. This isn’t to say that you lived for a thousand years, or a million years, or a billion. Those scales pale in comparison to infinity. Suddenly, things that may normally seem like wastes of time are worthwhile, because there is no scarcity of time. If you wished to wait in a cave in Louisville, Kentucky, for 10,000 years in order to win a football game on a technicality, then you can do that.
Your priorities would change. No longer would you be obligated to engage in activities that help you avoid death — the capitalistic cycle of working, earning money, buying food, and working again is broken.
But almost everything we do is based on our limited time on earth. It is the driving motivation of why we get up each morning and face the day. Without death, without our mortality, humanity is left without a purpose.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
With real motivation, real objectives for living removed, humanity turns to sport.
Sport is unique in that is an activity without real objectives (yes, engaging in sport can make you healthier, but so can simple exercise). Sport are games with imaginary objectives. It makes no impact on anyone’s life as to whether or not the prolate spheroid breaches the marked area of grass, or whether the athlete touches three rectangular objects in order and then steps on a pentagon — these objectives are not based on mortality.
These are invented objectives for the sake of the game. Sport is an agreement to care about these invented objectives, for no other reason than that it is fun to care about said objectives. It is why fans follow their teams, it is why middle-aged businessmen gather in the park to play kickball on Thursday nights, it is why kids play tag on the playground.
In 17776, these fictional objectives have taken the place of concrete ones. Humans play football on a regular basis because they have no need to avoid death — their time would not be better spent working 9 to 5 to earn money for food, clothing, and shelter because they have no real need for such things.
Instead, they play football in order to have something to care about.
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Humanity needs motivation to get up out of bed in the morning, and attack the day. The motivation of avoiding death is ultimately at the core of what brings us to rise each day.
Depression is what can rob you of this motivation — when I was depressed, I did not want to get up out of bed in the morning, because I did not care about avoiding death. It was a horrible, awful feeling, and an experience I would never wish on another person. Yet, in 17776, the entire world is robbed of this motivation, not through illness, but through immortality.
I can sympathize with what the first few years must have been like for the newly immortal population. The feeling of not wanting to get up the morning, the lack of motivation, the belief that nothing mattered.
To spend an eternity in such a way would be an unthinkable hell. To solve this problem, humanity turned to recreation. With sport, there is a motivation to get up in the morning. It is a fictional motivation, it is invented, but it is a motivation nevertheless — to get up and score touchdowns for your team.
In 17776, humanity keeps themselves from going insane by creating their own motivation. However inauthentic it may be, it keeps them going.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Recreation keeps humanity from going insane not just in the face of having to attack each day knowing that there is nothing meaningful for them to do — it keeps humanity from going insane in the face of its future.
There is an old saying that I’m about to misquote.
To measure an eternity, imagine a block of granite one mile high, one mile wide, and one mile long. Every thousand years, a bird flies to the top of the block, and sharpens its beak on the top. When the rock has been worn to dust by the bird, one second of an eternity has passed.
Humanity has already spent 15,000 years trapped in this state. Humanity will be this way for millions of years. For billions of years. For trillions of years. When they reach a trillion years in this state, they will be only imperceptibly closer to eternity.
The amount of time to spend in this state is unfathomable by our current standards. In 17776, humanity is chipping away at each block of granite one football game at a time — they are attempting to waste a resource that has lost all scarcity. In the same way that Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill for an eternity, humanity is playing football for an eternity.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
There is obviously a religious element to all this. Many religions promise eternal life to those who follow them, and indeed, Bois discusses this in 17776, when a character wonders if this new existence is Heaven or Hell.
Despite the fear of death that motivates us all, many fear what happens after death more — with good reason. It is an unknown, a place to which many have journeyed, yet none have returned.
The idea of an afterlife is a comfort for those fears. It is also a comfort for those in life — “if you are a good person, no matter how shitty your life on earth was, you’ll go to heaven and live forever”.
But there is still a prevalence of fear of what lies beyond, and a fear of not accomplishing what you need to in your time on earth. It is why alchemists sought to extend life for centuries, and it is why Ted William’s cryogenically frozen head is resting in a cabinet in Scottsdale, Arizona. It is why people pray to God on Sunday morning — in hopes that what lies beyond will be good to them.
That fear has been allayed with immortality on earth in 17776. There has been an answered prayer. But at what cost?
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.