If you know me, you probably realize I’m a firm believer in the fact that aging is a disease that can, and should be cured. Our short lifespans and high reproductive rates have been instrumental in getting us where we are today. It allowed our ancestors to naturally evolve the big brains we have used to bootstrap our civilization. However, we are swiftly approaching a point where our evolutionary advantages are no longer helpful – in fact, they become disadvantages. Natural evolution is simply to slow to keep up with our rapid (exponential) rate of change and development. The only way forward for us as a species is to take the reigns away from nature and forge our own way ahead.
On the other hand, I always try to be a pragmatist so I do realize the fact that curing death of old age will have far reaching repercussions. It is evident that if we drastically cut our death rate, but keep our birth rates the same we will end up with severe overpopulation problem in as little as a few decades. Most futurologists and transhumanists agree that once we have a viable life extension technology we will need to all sit down and have a long hard talk about population control. It doesn’t really matter what we do, as long as we do something to ensure that the new immortals do not continue popping out new babies every year for the rest of their lives.
The Postmortal by Drew Magary depicts a world in which such a discussion never takes place. A cure for aging is discovered, and thanks to spinelessness of the politicians and social pressures nothing is done to prevent the looming catastrophe. I know what you are going to say next: “Oh, hey: someone wrote a book about how immortality is bad… Whooptie fucking do!” Hold your horses though, this book is not your usual dethist diatribe.
The great thing about the novel is that Magary doesn’t actually take a side in this discussion. While he is not a transhumanist, he does not directly demonize the cure. He is actually more interested in the human stories he can tell within that framework. His focus is on the characters and their issues and their attitudes towards the cure. The first half of the book especially, portrays the cure in a rather positive light. John Farrel (the protagonist) for example, is a huge supporter and early adopter and since he also happens to be the narrator the views on immortality tend to be somewhat skewed towards the positive. A lot of the discussions about immortality in the early parts of the novel seem very genuine. I failed to detect the usual condescending sneers that are typical when a lot of SF writers tackle this subject. You really feel that John believes in the cure, and his his doubts and objections are deeply personal and completely understandable based on his established past experiences and personality traits.
Of course Magary’s idea of the cure is somewhat naive – it is a gene therapy delivered via injection. One shot and you are immortal. Few of us actually believe it could ever be this simple. But for the most part it works well within the framework he establishes. He might be new to the genre, but he handles it rather well, though I was often left wondering how exactly did the cure work. From the early descriptions I assumed it simply prevents telomer shortening during cell division. But then the author has a subplot on “cure babies” – infants and toddlers who are given a cure by irresponsible parents to prevent them from ever growing up. My grasp of genetics might be shaky, but I don’t think a telomer based cure would actually prevent a todler from maturing. It wouldn’t stop normal development, but simply prevent aging related issues like loss of skin elasticity which causes wrinkling, loss op pigment in the hair and tissue deterioration that causes a lot of old age related ailments. So for all intents and purposes the cure is just a magical injection that somehow induces biological stasis.
But, like I said – Magary is neither a scientist nor a futurologist so you can’t really blame him for not spending that much time crafting a good thesis for his cure. He does a good job of plotting around it however, and the story he is telling is rather compelling. So are the personal and societal implications of immortality. Let me give you an example:
After a few years of cure availability, a lot of newly minted immortals start to re-evaluate the institution of marriage. It turns out that “till death do us part” doesn’t have the same ring in a world where death is no longer certain or even probable. The divorce rate is at all time high, and people start experimenting with “cyclical marriages” that come with built in expiration dates. But as if to provide amusing juxtaposition to that trend, the narrator manages to fall head over heals in love around that same time, and intends to stick to traditional, endless marriage.
Magary’s writing is sharp and witty and deeply satirical. He has a lot of fun ideas that he manages to seamlessly fit into his novel. For example at some point in the book a “Sheep Flu” epidemic breaks out. The disease has been brewing and mutating inside a flock of “cured” animals and after many generations it managed to leap to humans and cause rapid and terrifying death that makes the Ebola virus look cute and cuddly in comparison. He could have probably written a whole novel just around that plague, but here it is mostly just background for the immortality plot – one of the many side effects of the cure misuse.
Other interesting, offbeat side effects include internet trolls growing tired of ruining people’s fun online, and starting to make people miserable in real life. His portrayal of the “troll” community is a bit one dimensional though. It is quite clear that Magary doesn’t really spend that much time on the internet, and while he might have toured the bowels of the online communities, he never grasped what drives these groups. Magary is painful unfamiliar with online mob mentality, and the concept of doing things for the LULZ. He clearly has been on the receiving end of trolling a lot, but has never trolled himself. Consequently, his trolls are deeply pathetic dudes with clear mental issues and sadistic urges, rather than bored, detached teenagers who just don’t give a fuck because on the internet nobody knows your mom is a dog.
In Magary’s universe, politicians are spineless and people are generally stupid and short sighted. So you could say it is much like in the real world, minus the immortality thing. As you could expect, nothing is ever done about the population growth. Or rather some countries try but fail to control the cure. China for example bans it outright, but everyone gets it anyway. US tries to ban it too, but due to political and social pressures it gets approved by the FDA and eventually becomes so cheep that just about everyone can afford it.
Eventually the one idea they do settle on is “End Specialization” which is an euphemism they come up with to take the edge of “assisted suicide”. Government starts to fund euthanasia for those immortals who get fed up with their endless lives, and incentivizes it via tax breaks for the relatives. This might seem a little harsh, but personally I have always believed that immortality is kinda pointless if death is impossible. Of course about a decade later “Hard End Specialization” is legalized. What is that? That’s where court tries you in absentia, and puts out a death warrant on you that can be claimed by private contractors.
Unfortunately both hard and soft end specialization turn out the be only half measures that do very little to actually decrease the population growth. As the world fills up with immortals, the governments start to fail and morality starts to waver. America slowly turns into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which affluent members of society live in walled enclaves while the poor fight for survival in lawless crumbling cities or endless car parks ruled by gangs or religious cults. Eventually it all starts cartwheeling towards a very dark and foreboding finale.
I have a feeling that depending on where you stand on the immortality issue will change what you get out of this book. For a transhumanist like me, this was a really interesting novel about what might go wrong if we don’t get our proverbial shit together. Magary’s depiction of the civilization of immortals spiraling into oblivion is frightening but also full of excellent points that could help us not to destroy our planet if and when we finally defeat old age. Most of the issues depicted in the book are completely fixable, and circumstantial and this is what makes it such a compelling story.
On the other hand if you happen to be one of the people who hates the idea of life extension, you might see the book as outright condemnation and cautionary tale of the inherent dangers of immortality. The funny part is you will probably enjoy it just as much as the transhumanist, only for a very different reason. Well done Mr. Magary. You have done well.