Friday, 13 August 2010

Three Tales of Immortality: "Welcome, Chaos" by Kate Wilhelm, "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein, and "The Passage" by Justin Cronin

When I started grazing through the Sci-Fi Masterworks series a few years ago, I had never heard of Kate Wilhelm. Her "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" was a wonderful discovery, a meditation on the changes cloning might have on the nature of individuality. Wilhelm's "Let the Fire Fall" reminded me of Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", with its mix of superhuman potential, power politics, and religion, and recently I happened to read two books on similar topics by Wilhelm and Heinlein within a few weeks of one another. I had planned to compare their takes on immortality, but while mulling things over I read Justin Cronin's "The Passage" (one of this summer's hot reads), and it just made sense to write about them all in one sitting.

Justin Cronin's "The Passage" follows the outbreak of a virus which both prolongs human life and turns humans into unthinking monsters. These "virals" are destroyers of life, and despised and feared by the few remaining humans, who struggle to enjoy what little time they have on Earth amidst the horror of their world. We follow one of the last colonies as attrition slowly grinds it away, and a handful of adventurers who look for a last bit of hope in a long trip across the shattered remains of America. Their story provides the same mix of ordinary people and extraordinary times, natural and supernatural that made Stephen King's "The Stand" such a great book to read many years ago.

In an interview with Trisha Page over at BookPing, Cronin likens immortality to "steal[ing] the future from our children", and this philosophy is borne out by the book. He finds the desire for immortality misguided, the costs too high, and thus his take on immortality is bleak, a nightmare world.

"Welcome, Chaos" tracks the accidental development of an indefinite life-prolonging treatment during the Second World War, and its threatened exposure to the public in the midst of the cold war. The immortals Wilhelm depicts are also resistant to disease and radiation, and so become a kind of nuclear deterrent that could prompt each side to start a war before the other can protect their people.

In addition to the struggles of world powers to control and use longevity as a political tool and a weapon, Wilhelm focuses on the effects of longevity on personal identity. Wilhelm's immortals are full of life and energy, but are also less hurried, more willing to simply enjoy each day and work towards even the most important goals on a longer scale. They have the time to get to know and love each other along the way. Wilhelm's take on immortality is cautious, but hopeful. Immortality has the potential to destroy humanity, but also the potential to free humanity from death and old age, to let people enjoy life for as long as they care to.

"Time Enough for Love" takes this second idea to its extreme. It's a lusty tale that follows Lazarus Long, who, through a combination of breeding for longevity and artificial rejuvenation techniques, becomes the longest lived human. Immortality is the secret province of a select few families, who live the equivalent of dozens or even hundreds of normal human lifespans. These immortals are living during a pioneer period, in which humanity is peopling the stars.

Heinlein's is the most positive take on immortality by far. Human society is expanding to other worlds, so even if everyone were immortal, there would be no overcrowding, no lack of resources, no exploitation of the younger generations. No matter how long Heinlein's immortals live or how far they go, time is longer and space farther still. The immortals are still constrained, just on a much larger scale. Heinlein's immortals keep going as long as they can still live in the moment, as long as they can find ideas, challenges, friends and family to keep them engaged and, almost literally, alive.

All three are great books for different reasons and highly recommended.

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