Fantasy / Apocalyptic
A lot of entertainment I've come across lately has contemplated what the world would become if people were able to live forever. How would an ever growing population affect daily life, world economics, food supplies, water supplies, medicine, service industries? What would life become and would it even be worth it in the end? Most recently Torchwood: Miracle Day gave us a nightmare of a season that based its story around the idea that suddenly nobody died. While they could become total vegetables, they would never die. While I bought some aspects of that storytelling - particularly that governments would take it into their hands to decide who would essentially live or be obliterated based on what they deemed "necessary" - the story telling in general was such a mess that it didn't provide as much provocative content as I think the producer thought it did.
And then I came across The Postmortal, a book that on first glance of the back blurb sounds like a satire or even a comedy, and while the book has aspects of satire, it's not a funny book. It's a frightening book. It's the closest I've found to creating a world that seems like a logical reaction to a quickly over-crowding world where people could essentially live "forever". In The Postmortal, people are not immortal; they just no longer age. A scientist, attempting to rid the world of Gingers (there's a peek at the satire), mistakenly found the gene that caused aging in cells. Once altered or removed, his test subjects - fruit flies - lived extremely long lives (for fruit flies). When word leaked out and other scientists confirmed his findings, it wasn't long before a "cure for death" leaked onto the black market and all hell breaks loose.
As part of the rules of Magary's universe, "the cure" is not a one way ticket to immortality. It's a cure to aging. For example, if this cure existed and I took it today, I would look 26 for the rest of my life, but I could still succumb to cancer, a heart attack or other disease, get hit by a bus, knifed by a crazy, or any other such violent act and die. No matter what, I would still look 26 even if it occurred 200 years from now. Living forever is still theoretical. Your only guarantee is that you will never get old.
The story begins with a statement from the Department of Containment, United North American Territories, saying that what follows are messages from a stream left by John Farrell, who transcribed them from his LifeRecorder, a device that automatically records everything he hears, says and sees over the course of his day (wouldn't that be handy?). Our story begins in 2019 and carries forward through the next 80 years. What follows is a series of journal entries describing events in his day-to-day life, samples of news articles, television segment transcript and other samples that showcase the reaction to this sudden miracle.
While following John's life is interesting, I was most intrigued by the examples of society's reactions to the sudden change in life itself. As expected, a new form of domestic terrorism arises from people who believe the cure is unnatural, so they target doctors and people who receive it. Las Vegas takes advantage of a growing population of eternal 20-year-olds, who plan to spend the next few centuries wasted. Violent and vicious gangs form as it becomes clearer that the world's resources are finite and soon will only be available to the rich and powerful. A new religion - the Church of Man - rises up in the wake of most other dying religions (who needs the comfort of an afterlife when you have the illusion of never dying?) and, of course, certain sectors of it become corrupt under the leadership of warped minds. War breaks out using eternally youthful soldiers. The institutions of marriage and divorce drastically change in light of a never-ending life. People get to experience having their own second, third, and even fourth generation of children all while their previous children look the same age as the parents. Eventually, as the number of postmortals outgrows the available resources, "car towns" pop up all over, blocking highways and creating slums in the middle of former empty Middle America. Eventually as society become more desperate, there is even government subsidized assisted suicide.
As the book goes on, things grow ever bleaker. Yet every single word of it was believable. I could see these things happening if someone found a cure for aging. The church that preaches the sanctity of man threatening to throw people who legally end the lives of those requesting it into underground prisons to be re-educated to understand that human vessels are sacred. The eternally poor who could never afford the cure and the newly poor who did receive the cure both resorting to violence for survival. Mobs breaking out at random as desperate people search for the things they need to stay alive. People still die; it's just no longer up to nature when it happens. Except when it comes to the mutant viruses resulting from "cured" animals that wipe out hundreds of millions of people before anyone really knows what's happening. These are all things I can see actually occurring because they're just extreme version of things that already happen.
John's personal story seems almost secondary to what's happening around him. The book falls into four sections: the excited, happy time right after he's cured at the age of 29 in 2019; the adjustment period that occurs 10 years after the cure first comes available and the world has started to feel its effects, but John is generally happy after finding his childhood sweetheart; another 28 years later after John has been traveling the world and returns to the east coast, poor, depressed and unemployed like most of civilization; and finally the year 2079 where everything really starts falling apart. The personal developments of the final 40 pages or so come out of nowhere and left me a bit confused, but I also can see what the author was attempting (no spoilers here, sorry).
Magary conveys John's confusion, doubts and fears throughout this extended lifetime without ever becoming sentimental or bogging down the story with so much emotion that the plot stops. All the while he reflects on the horrors of a world that seem all too real. Who doesn't believe that some crazy woman would give the aging cure to her infant so that she has an adorable little eight-month-old baby for the rest of eternity? I've met crazy people I can see doing that.
Me being me, however, I wanted more. We get glimpses of destruction, religious fanaticism, a cottage industry in death, and development of a whole new society, but I wanted the whole picture. Simply due to the fact that it's told from a single person's perspective on the world, this is not remotely realistic. News stories are paid as much attention as most normal people would give. I'm just obsessive. I wanted to know the outcome of these new things, to follow the aftermath of rioters, nuclear bombs and most especially when John went traveling for 28 years. The time jumps work because it paints such a drastic picture of how society changes so quickly yet most people don't notice until it's too late, but I still wanted the in between. Then again, I always do when reading a good book.
And this book is good. It's creepy, it's frightening and it's all too realistic. Magary manages to put a face on a world that could very easily exist, cure to aging or not, and it's not pretty. It is, however, fantastic. This is nowhere near the book I thought it would be when I picked it up, but it's still as entertaining as I expected with the addition of also being very thought provoking. I love when that happens.
Not your standard story telling - uses journal entries, interviews, and news excerpts to flesh out the world; sympathetic "every man" main character filters the world for you, so some things only vaguely pursued; creepy without being overwhelming yet completely addicting*
* And I'm easy overwhelmed by the bleak, so that's impressive to me. Mr. Magary walks a fine line without ever pushing me into book-induced despair. Thank you, sir.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin for sending it my way.