Reincarnation

Tagged: Theme

The idea of reincarnation exerts a considerable fascination; its fashionability was renewed in the latter decades of the twentieth century by Hypnotists who claimed to facilitate a "regression" of their subjects which allows access to memories of "former lives". Serial reincarnation is one of the standard varieties of Immortality. In Fantasy the notion is an axiom of the curious subgenre of "transcendental romance" – stories in which love becomes a quasisupernatural force transcending time or death so that lovers may meet in different ages to make repeated attempts to find true happiness. This is the pattern of H Rider Haggard's She (October 1886-January 1887 The Graphic; cut 1886; full text 1887) and its sequels, Edwin Lester Arnold's Phra the Phoenician (1890) and George Griffith's Valdar the Oft-Born (1895). Arnold's Lepidus the Centurion (1901) shows one of the more subtle and intelligent uses of the notion. Many romances of reincarnation have also been inspired by the ancient Egyptian methods of preserving the dead, including Haggard's "Smith and the Pharaohs" (December 1912-February 1913 Strand; as title story of Smith and the Pharaohs and Other Tales coll 1920). Pseudoscientific rationalizations of the notion often invoke the concept of "race memory"; Haggard bolstered his belief with this idea, deploying it in The Ancient Allan (1920) and Allan and the Ice Gods (1927), and Jack London used it in Before Adam (October 1906-February 1907 Everybody's Magazine; 1906) and The Star Rover (14 February-10 October 1914 Los Angeles Examiner; 1915; vt The Jacket 1915). The most impressive sf story built on the race-memory premise is John Gloag's 99% (1944).

Camille Flammarion, the first writer to develop the notion of Alien beings adapted to Life on Other Worlds, did so mainly in order to support his theory of the immortality of the soul with speculations about possible reincarnations on other worlds. First presented in Lumen (1887; trans anon 1892) [for further publication details see Flammarion], the idea was used also in Urania (1890) and was copied by Louis Pope Gratacap in the didactic The Certainty of a Future Life on Mars (1903).

Hugh Kingsmill reincarnated Shakespeare in The Return of William Shakespeare (1929) so that a critical commentary on the works could be put into the Bard's own mouth and bracketed by a satirical comedy. When Genre SF began to deploy technological methods of reincarnation, the resurrection of great men of the past was a theme used in many stories, including Manly Wade Wellman's Giants from Eternity (1939), Ray Bradbury's "Forever and the Earth" (Spring 1950 Planet Stories), James Blish's "A Work of Art" (July 1956 Science Fiction Stories as "Art-Work"; vt in Science Fiction Showcase, anth 1959, ed Mary Kornbluth), R A Lafferty's Past Master (1968), Philip K Dick's We Can Build You (November 1969-January 1970 Amazing as "A. Lincoln, Simulacrum"; text restored 1972), Barry N Malzberg's The Remaking of Sigmund Freud (1985) and Dan Simmons's The Fall of Hyperion (1990). Henry J Slater's The Smashed World (1952) features a remarkable version of the Eternal Triangle involving Archimedes, Napoleon and Cleopatra 3000 years in the future. In Anne Rice's The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned (1989) an immortal Ramses forces the reincarnation of the spirit of Cleopatra into the mummy of that queen, with disastrous results – not just for Ramses but also for the novel, since the explanation of the "mechanism" of reincarnation is hopelessly fudged.

Reincarnation in sf usually involves the "recording" of personalities for later re-embodiment, sometimes in an Android body. Time Travel also comes in handy as a means of duplicating individuals. The idea that Clones might be seen as reincarnations is propounded in such stories as "When You Care, When You Love" (September 1962 F&SF) by Theodore Sturgeon, and in several of the works of John Varley clones are used such that in effect individuals can cheat death by living in "serial bodies". Matter Transmission is employed as a reincarnating device in such stories as Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960). The natural extravagance of genre sf has occasionally encouraged a blithe disregard for the inconvenience of death; two writers who have sometimes been very casual about incorporating metaphysical or frankly mysterious methods of reincarnation into their scenarios are A E van Vogt, in such works as The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D.; vt Ptath 1976), The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970) and "The Monster" (August 1948 Astounding; vt "Resurrection" in The Other Side of the Moon, anth 1949, ed August Derleth), and Philip José Farmer, most notably in the Riverworld series – which stars many notable figures plucked from various eras of Earthly history, and helped to inspire Janet E Morris's Hell series of shared-world adventures – but also in Inside Outside (1964) and Traitor to the Living (1973).

The particular ideas of reincarnation contained in extant Religions are science-fictionalized in various works by Roger Zelazny, notably Lord of Light (1967), whose framework is taken from Hindu Mythology, and Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969), which uses Egyptian mythology. Syd Logsdon's A Fond Farewell to Dying (1981) thoughtfully confronts a technology of reincarnation with Hindu beliefs which view it as a blasphemy. An aesthetically satisfying quasireligious "mechanism" for reincarnation is presented in the parapsychological thriller Death Knell (1977) by C Terry Cline. Alien biologies permitting reincarnation, perhaps adaptable to use by humans, are sometimes presented within an explicitly religious framework; Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970) is a notable example.

Future societies dramatically transformed by technologies of reincarnation are featured in Robert Sheckley's Immortality Delivered (October 1958-February 1959 Galaxy as "Time Killer"; 1958; exp vt Immortality, Inc. 1959), in which disembodied minds must compete for bodies made redundant by their occupiers for one reason or another, Robert Silverberg's To Live Again (1969), in which similarly disembodied minds must share living hosts, Robert Thurston's Alicia II (1978), which examines the predicament of the "rejects" whose bodies are used to house the reincarnated, Stephen Goldin's The Eternity Brigade (1980), in which the tapes recording trained soldiers for serial reincarnation are bootlegged, with predictable consequences, and Michael Berlyn's Crystal Phoenix (1980), in which attitudes to death are dramatically and repulsively transformed. In Roger Zelazny's Isle of the Dead (1969) the technology of "Recall Tapes" and preserved tissue samples for body-cloning is strictly reserved for specific emergencies when someone possessed of globally important information dies prematurely. In Gray Matters (1971) by William Hjortsberg and Friends Come in Boxes (1973) by Michael G Coney minds awaiting re-embodiment are mechanically – and not very happily – stored; the latter's packaging is reminiscent of that of the preserved brains in Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962). Silverberg's "Born with the Dead" (April 1974 F&SF), Lucius Shepard's Green Eyes (1984) and Kevin J Anderson's Resurrection, Inc (1988) all draw some inspiration from the idea of Zombies, but develop their hypotheses in strikingly different ways. [BS/DRL]

see also: Cryonics; Eschatology; Regeneration; Suspended Animation.

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