What would a world without death look like?
There are many answers, though, and as always, chasing through implications and ramifications and unintended consequences can make for some very interesting thoughts. Story hooks abound, and fictional universes can be built around tweaking death, like nudging the cosmological constant or the boiling point of water and seeing how (or if) life evolves in parallel universes.
A few links to start with, though:
Merely Magical – An old article of mine digging a bit into magic and what sort of effects it has on storytelling.
Ravnica – Magic the Gathering’s city-plane where some of the spirits of the dead are stuck and cannot pass on, so naturally, many become politicians, er, gangsters, while another group embraces undeath as a way of life.
Gameplay and Story Segregation – In a world with FullLife materia, why again did Aeris die and stay dead? Because Story is inviolate, and CRPGs tend to be noninteractive movies gated by grindy gameplay. Speaking of which…
Final Fantasy X’s Farplane – People who die in Spira leave their bodies and move on as spirits that eventually turn into pyreflies. They populate this odd place, occasionally taking spirit form when loved ones come to call. They aren’t gone, exactly, but they aren’t what we might call alive or undead either. Oh, and if someone actually dies without accepting death, their stubborn spirits will likely become fiends, or monsters. Interesting origin story for monsters, that.
Death is a significant component of our mortal life, so it’s understandable that fiction would experiment with it. Even something like necromancy, a fantasy staple, has Sabriel (a fantastic book) standing in the wings, toying with expectations. And then there’s the zombies. Oh, the zombies and their amazing culture. And let’s not speak of vampires and their form of undeath/immortality/inexplicable popularity.
And yes, there’s the concept of immortality. What if there really is no death at all, instead of a multitude of mulligan mechanics? Forget the Life spells, what if nobody could ever die in the first place? Would there be population problems? How in the world would assassins make a living?
…speaking of which, in a fictional setting where death is cheaply and easily overcome, it strikes me that skullduggery of all sorts, from political to passionate, could prove a tricky thing indeed. Of course we don’t think of that instinctively, but really, there are implications that would change a lot of behavior, religion, customs and even art.
If you found yourself in a world where wars were literally unwinnable by human asset attrition, how would one actually get anywhere? Would peace be more likely, or would truly determined fighters just find new fronts to fight on?
How would thrillseekers get their rush? Would skydivers even bother with parachutes? Would they have crater competitions?
Would ancestor worship change if one could simply talk to them instead of praying to them? How would the ancestors feel about being worshipped?
Would people even have children or would the population be static? Is age a component of immortality of this sort? Would aged people wind up with dementia for millennia?
Would they want to die?
I’ll admit, death is a pretty big thing to change, but even just changing that single thing can have significant repercussions for a fictional universe. Interconnections abound in any sufficiently complex world, and it can be difficult to track down all the tangents. Life is complex. So is death. Perhaps that’s why they are so fascinating.