No matter how vaguely juvenile or sexist his prose might have been, Robert Heinlein could always grab me right by the heartstrings when he wrote about immortality. Maybe it was the emotions of his characters, or maybe it was the fact that science had revealed fewer real secrets in the ’60s and ’70s. However he did it, Heinlein really made me wonder whether there was ever time enough for love.
And I wanted to feel that way about The Postmortal, Drew Magary’s first novel, but — for reasons not all entirely negative — it never happened. It’s not just because this is a guy who apparently just decided to jump into weighty social issue sci-fi after a career as a potty-mouthed blogger (see the “Kissing Suzy Kolber” website). It seems clear that the technological changes to our society and the way we communicate, along with scientific advances that continue to shrink the world, are going to have an effect on the way we think about issues like extended life, especially in fiction.
The Postmortal is, above all else, a really fun read that follows a believable and unsurprising story arc — something that could have been just as easily made into a high-grossing B-movie. We’re introduced to the novel by some fictitious government organization of the future, which has found digital records of blog posts made by someone named John Farrell. The book is comprised solely of Farrell’s posts, starting in 2019 and covering in detail the events of his life over the next 60 years.
After the cure for aging (but not death itself) is found, we see tensions erupt in America and across the world as the debate of whether or not to legalize the treatment begins. Farrell, too tempted by the thought of thousands of years in his 29-year-old body, gets the cure illegally from a black market doctor, but immediately begins to realize the consequences of eternal youth and a static, infinitely monotonous future. Those vehemently against the cure, for religious or other reasons, end up taking an approach aggressive enough to include domestic terrorism — ironically ending in some really gratuitous death.
As time goes on — and the cure is eventually legalized worldwide — the predictable problem of extreme overpopulation sets in, causing both social and political turmoil. Magary, while offering some interesting personal perspectives through Farrell’s constantly worried eyes, falls into too many stereotypical answers to the questions he raises. Russia invades parts of Eastern Europe, soldiers go rogue and start attacking anything in sight, a new “Church of Man” is created to celebrate eternal human life, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of really original thought or deep reflection behind these plot points.
Farrell faces more moral quandaries when he becomes an end specialist — basically, a killer funded by the government to control the population — years later. The dynamics here become more interesting as we are forced to confront the pro and con issues at stake when it comes to immortality, and see stories of people who’ve been left behind by a society that, in a world of agelessness, becomes self-obsessed and careless. Farrell finds a pretty girl (not his first in the novel) who stays with him as everything finally crumbles around them and chaos brings the story to a bitter end.
The fact that this novel was written in the form of organized blog posts tells us a lot about the way we’re forcing ourselves to think of the issues Magary tries to tackle here. It might not be enough anymore to just dream, or to look at things through a surreal lens, as Heinlein did for so many years. Everything today is placed before us to inspect at the click of a mouse — whether it be science, politics or society — so why wouldn’t we start telling our stories like that? It’s worth reading The Postmortal just to get a sense of the ever-changing landscape of sci-fi, but the problem with Magary’s work here is that, by presenting us with this huge array of predictable outcomes based on what we already know about 21st-century culture — terrorist fears, globalization fears, new religious fanaticism — he doesn’t give us anything to wonder about, anything to search for. His prose is economical, but it just doesn’t carry weight.
It’s a fun read. But, based on what I’ve seen from this guy, I don’t think he was trying to achieve anything more than that — so I don’t mind calling it successful.