Immortality

Tagged: Theme

Immortality is one of the basic motifs of speculative thought; the elixir of life and the fountain of youth are hypothetical goals of classic intellectual and exploratory quests. What is usually involved is, strictly speaking, extreme longevity and freedom from ageing, if not actual Rejuvenation – the uselessness of the former without the latter is reflected in the myth of Tithonus and in Jonathan Swift's account of the Struldbruggs.

One thing immediately noticeable about this rich literary tradition is that immortality is often treated as a false goal, sometimes as a curse recalling the infinitely tedious punishments meted out to Ixion, Tantalus, Sisyphus and the Wandering Jew. It is understandable that Gothic fantasies such as St Leon (1799) by William Godwin (1756-1836), Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin, The Mortal Immortal (in The Keepsake for MDCCCXXXXIV, anth 1833; circa 1910 chap) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; The Wandering Jew (1844-1845) by Eugène Sue (1804-1857), Auriol (1850) by W Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) and The Death Ship (1888) by W Clark Russell should be suspicious; these are cautionary tales, warning against the emptiness of dreams (though a cynic might equally suggest sour grapes). It is perhaps surprising, though, that early sf writers mostly followed suit. Walter Besant's The Inner House (1888) proposes that immortality would lead to social sterility – an opinion echoed by many later writers, including Martin Swayne in The Blue Germ (1918), Harold Scarborough in The Immortals (1924) and Aldous Huxley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (November 1939-March 1940 Harper's Magazine as "After Many a Summer"; 1939; vt After Many a Summer 1939). Stories which take a brighter view – like George C Foster's The Lost Garden (1930) and the trilogy by George S Viereck and Paul Eldridge begun with My First Two Thousand Years (1928) – usually have only a few privileged immortals living in a world of mortals. When George Bernard Shaw expressed enthusiasm for universal longevity in Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945), Karel Čapek added a rebutting preface to his own play The Makropoulos Secret (1925) to explain his own opinion that it would be an unmitigated curse even for a single individual. Jorge Luis Borges also took a dark view in his presentation of a community of degraded immortals in "El immortal" ["The Immortal"] (February 1947 Los Anales de Buenos Aires as "Los immortales").

This difference of opinion remains very evident in sf. In some stories immortality is the beginning of limitless opportunity; in others it represents the ultimate stagnation and the end of innovation and change. We find the former view in such early pulp stories as "The Jameson Satellite" (July 1931 Amazing) by Neil R Jones, the Anton York stories by Eando Binder collected as Anton York, Immortal (August 1937-August 1940 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1965) and The Man Who Awoke (stories March-August 1933 Wonder Stories; fixup 1975) by Laurence Manning; and its converse in David H Keller's "Life Everlasting" (July-August 1934 Amazing; title story of Life Everlasting and Other Tales, coll 1947) and John R Pierce's "Invariant" (April 1944 Astounding). In later magazine sf, the former attitude is implicit in J T McIntosh's "Live For Ever" (1954 Science Fantasy #11) and James Blish's "At Death's End" (May 1954 Astounding), while the latter is seen in Damon Knight's "World Without Children" (December 1951 Galaxy), Frederik Pohl's Drunkard's Walk (1960), Brian W Aldiss's "The Worm that Flies" (in The Farthest Reaches, anth 1968, ed Joseph Elder) and Bruce McAllister's "Their Immortal Hearts" (in Their Immortal Hearts, anth 1980, ed anon).

There is, however, a general acceptance of the fact that the desire for immortality is immensely powerful, and that it constitutes the ultimate bribe; lurid dramatizations of this supposition include Jack Vance's To Live Forever (1956), James E Gunn's The Immortals (1955-1960 var mags; fixup 1962), John Wyndham's Trouble with Lichen (1960), Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron (December 1967-October 1968 New Worlds; exp 1969), Bob Shaw's One Million Tomorrows (1970), Robert Silverberg's The Book of Skulls (1972), Thomas N Scortia's "The Weariest River" (in Future City, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood) and Mack Reynolds's and Dean Ing's Eternity (1984). There have been numerous notable sf novels featuring immortal heroes, including A E van Vogt's The Weapon Makers (February-April 1943 Astounding; dated 1947 but 1946; rev 1952; vt One Against Eternity 1955 dos), Wilson Tucker's The Time Masters (1953; rev 1971), Clifford D Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963), Roger Zelazny's This Immortal (1966) and Robert A Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973). But the dominant opinion seems to be that boredom and sterility must eventually set in. Raymond Z Gallun's The Eden Cycle (1974) is an extended study of this presumed phenomenon, and the protagonists of Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence (1972-1976) must go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay.

Another traditional handling of the problem (if it is a problem) of immortality is to introduce drawbacks such as monstrous physical transformation. In Aldous Huxley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, already cited, the immortals may enjoy copious Sex but regress to ape form. The eponym of Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune (1981) has spent the 3500 years since the previous book turning into a sandworm. The Spatterjay virus of Neal Asher's The Skinner (2002) rewrites one's genes to confers indefinitely prolonged life, increasing bulk and strength, and astonishing powers of self-repair; but without a steady supply of virus-free food, a human body will develop various unpleasant features of the virus's normal leech host. In Bob Shaw's One Million Tomorrows (1970), already cited, men pay a price of not only sterility but physical impotence. A more obvious drawback, if immortality is for everyone, is massive Overpopulation as in Richard Wilson's sardonic "The Eight Billion" (July 1966 F&SF), whose titular population figure of immortals is that of New York alone.

Some of the modern stories dealing with the theme are scrupulously analytical, and are among the finest exercises in speculative thought that the genre has produced. Most are respectful of the problematic aspects of longevity, but almost all eventually favour the prospect; notable examples of extended contes philosophiques in this vein include Robert Silverberg's "Born with the Dead" (April 1974 F&SF) and Sailing to Byzantium (February 1985 Asimov's; 1989 dos), Octavia Butler's Wild Seed (1980), Pamela Sargent's The Golden Space (1982), Kate Wilhelm's Welcome, Chaos (1983) – where the immortality package includes resistance to radiation and threatens to destabilize the Cold War – and Poul Anderson's epic The Boat of a Million Years (1989). A particularly notable (and neatly titled) negative story is Richard Cowper's "The Tithonian Factor" (in Changes, anth 1983, ed Michael Bishop & Ian Watson), in which hasty users of a technology that gives them a Struldbrugg-like longevity are discomfited by the subsequent discovery that humans do indeed have a joyous spiritual afterlife (see Transcendence) from which the physically immortal are barred. Damon Knight's "Dio" (September 1957 Infinity Science Fiction; vt "The Dying Man" in Three Novels, coll 1967), Marta Randall's Islands (1976; rev 1980) and Frederik Pohl's Outnumbering the Dead (1990) are interesting stories about lone mortals in societies of immortals.

In media treatments, immortality may become a coveted McGuffin as in Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949) (see Tarzan Films) or The Immortal (1969-1971) but is generally depicted as a rather sinister goal involving the savage exploitation of Clones (which see for examples) or a Vampire-like draining of others' lives. Examples of the latter include The Man who Turned to Stone (1957), The Leech Woman (1960; vt Leech), Daybreakers (2010) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). The theme is more thoughtfully handled in Lost Horizon (1937) and Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth (2007; vt The Man from Earth).

Research in biotechnology following the cracking of the genetic code has encouraged speculation that technologies of longevity are a real prospect, and a new immediacy was introduced into the theme when R C W Ettinger's The Prospect of Immortality (1964) popularized the idea that Cryonic preservation might allow people now living to be preserved until the day when they might benefit. Though satirized in such novels as Anders Bodelsen's Freezing Down (1971; vt Freezing Point), this notion inspired a curious political "manifesto" in Alan Harrington's The Immortalist (1969), followed by his extravagant novel Paradise 1 (1977); Harrington prefers the term "emortality", which signifies an immunity to ageing but not to injury. Technologies of longevity and genetically engineered emortality play a central role in Brian M Stableford's and David Langford's future history The Third Millennium (1985), and the theme became a constant preoccupation in Stableford's later solo work, notably The Empire of Fear (1988) and the six-book Emortality sequence opening with Inherit the Earth (July 1995 Analog; exp 1998).

A collection of essays on immortality in sf is Death and the Serpent (anth 1985) edited by Carl B Yoke and Donald M Hassler. A theme anthology is Immortal (anth 1978) edited by Jack Dann. [BS/DRL]

see also: Amnesia; Eschatology; Gods and Demons; Hive Minds; Lost-Worlds; Medicine; Religion; Superman.

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