The Postmortal

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Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

Magary’s novel is written as a series of entries on a private blog – or perhaps more like one of Captain Picard’s personal logs on Star Trek. That’s one way to incorporate the first-person narrative, and it works well, making his short entries into separate, bite-size chapters. No lengthy monologues, no agonizing over ethics and morals, no dry talking-head scientific asides. The personal diary approach makes it more direct, more immediate than a third-person view.

Which isn’t to say he ignores the science. There’s enough of it there to make the story credible, and not just in the genetics-medicine aspect. Enough to give the story a solid spine.

It’s difficult to review this book without salting my comments with spoilers. It’s not so much the plot as the complexities Magary mixes into the narrative. I had never really contemplated what immortality might do to social order, to marriages, to pension plans, to health care, climate change and our dwindling natural resources. What if people could have children not for a couple of decades in their prime, but forever? How would immortality affect religious beliefs?

It makes me wonder, too, about cultural stagnation. Many people would become frozen in their tastes, their interests, their passions, and resist change. Imagine the boomer “classic rock” in play for the rest of eternity. Or worse, the “new” country… Over and over and over and over and over. Argh!

Magary’s world is not so much post-apocalyptic as pre-apocalyptic. He chronicles the journey from discovery to the inevitable hell-in-a-hand basket scenario. I was reminded, towards the end, of the snippet in the first Firesign Theatre album where the guest on Beat The Reaper game show is revealed to have the plague and he is mobbed by the crowds eager to catch it. I’m not entirely convinced the world will end with precisely the sort of tumult he envisages, but it’s a reasonable guess.

I also suspect fundamentalist religions might arise (or grow) more rapidly and become more violent if the treatment is restricted or limited to any class, wealth, nation or culture. As if these people don’t already have enough reasons to blow up themselves and everyone’s round them, the immortality of others would just compel them to do it more often.

Every so often, I’d stop reading and ponder one of Magary’s ideas, often taking it down a path in my own imagination towards whatever conclusion I could foresee. Then I’d start reading again to see if the author and I shared similar visions.  I was never disappointed that our ideas diverged, and most often was delighted that Magary came up with angles I hadn’t thought of.

As a longtime fan of scifi and speculative fiction, I’ve always enjoyed excursions into the what-if, especially when well-written. And The Postmortal is very well written. I started it late Thursday and read it exclusively (a rarity for me…) during my short city trip until I finished it, early Sunday morning.  It takes a good writer and a grand idea to compel me to read any fiction so intensely.

This is the sort of book I’d recommend for any reading or book club because it will spark all sorts of discussions about science, mortality, ethics, culture… and most of all about whether you would, after reading the book, still take the ‘cure’ and become immortal after all. There are some things worse than death.

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