TT: From Here To Eternity

JANE: Happy Thanksgiving!  While you wait for your turkey to cook – or maybe while you digest – Alan and I will attempt to amuse you.

Last week we started talking about the use of the immortality trope.  Unlike outer space exploration and time travel, immortality is one that occurs with equal frequency in Fantasy and SF.

Thanksgiving -- Immortal Monster Style

Thanksgiving — Immortal Monster Style

If you don’t mind, I’d like to at least try to examine immortality as a trope in SF/F from the angle of the three sub-groups you mentioned last time.  Let’s see if I can recall them from memory.

There are the stories in which the immortal serves as an observer of history.  Then there are the stories about the search for immortality – what you called “The Gilgamesh Gambit.”  Finally, there are the stories about immortals whose long life experience gives them an edge when faced with current problems.

ALAN: Right!  You get full marks. You can be the inkwell monitor for the class tomorrow.  However, I would like to make one thing clear.  These categories are not in any way mutually exclusive.  Stories can – and often do – use more than one of the ideas.

JANE: I can think of a memorable novel that uses all three creatively, but I’ll save that until we’ve explored these more or less in isolation.

To me, logically, the first one to look at is the Observer of History type of story, since the immortal is most passive in these.

The Vierck and Eldridge novels we mentioned last week fit into this section.  Do you have any other favorites?

ALAN: Yes, I do. In 1978, Nicholas Monsarrat published Running Proud, the first volume of the Master Mariner series.  It told the story of an Elizabethan English seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is cursed by a witch to sail the world’s seas until the end of time. The series was designed to tell the maritime history of England with the immortal hero participating in critical historic episodes.

It was one of Monsarrat’s most popular books, but ironically he did not live to finish the project. He died with only one episode of the second volume (Darken Ship) completed, though he did leave some notes about how he saw the story progressing. These days, the completed episode and the notes are usually bound in with the first volume and published as a single volume under the title The Master Mariner. I highly recommend it.

JANE: Tall ships and ancient curses…  Sounds like a good combination.  I’m surprised no one else has picked up the idea and continued with it.  Then again, this book in particular highlights what is oddest about the Observer of History sub-trope.

While, essentially, it belongs to SF/F – after all, as far as we know, there are no immortals among us – this type of novel is a subgroup that would appeal more to mainstream fiction than to SF/F because of the essential passivity of the immortal.  I see these kind of stories as historical fiction in SF/F drag.

ALAN: I suppose that’s true, to an extent. But “proper” SF has certainly used the idea as well. Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years (1989) was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Prometheus award, so it must have had something going for it! The story follows a group of ten immortals from the ancient past to the far distant future.

JANE: Good example.  Another SF more or less immortal who serves in that “observer of events” role – although many of these events haven’t happened because they belong to a fictional future history – is Heinlein’s Lazarus Long.  He also belongs to your third category, but I find I think of him more as a tour guide to Heinlein’s future than as an actor in that history.

ALAN: Yes – I tend to think of him that way as well.

An interesting offshoot of the basic idea of the Observer of History is the legend of the Flying Dutchman – a sailing ship crewed by immortals which is doomed to sail the seven seas forever, never making landfall.

JANE: It’s hard to see how history could be observed if the ship never sees anything but the sea…

ALAN: True – and that’s probably why the trope isn’t used very often. But Tom Holt had a lot of fun with it in his comic fantasy novel Flying Dutch. It seems that the ship’s crew have drunk the elixir of life and are therefore immortal. Unfortunately, a side effect of the elixir has given them all the most appalling body odour and they cannot ever go ashore because their ferocious stink repulses everyone they meet. Hence their never ending voyage… (Once every seven years their stench drops to bearable levels. That’s when they make landfall and re-provision the ship).

JANE: Oh, lordy!  I haven’t read that one in ages.  Now you make me want to add it to my already crowded To Be Read shelf.

So, let’s move on to the Gilgamesh Gambit.  Despite the classic mythic elements, it seems to me that immortality, of body or at least of mind, would be a something SF would find very compelling.

ALAN: Indeed so. Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls (1972) is the very best Gilgamesh Gambit story I’ve ever read. I think a lot of people must agree with me because it was nominated for a Nebula, a Hugo and a Locus Award!

Four college students discover a manuscript that tells of an order of monks who live in a monastery in the Arizona desert. The monks have the power to bestow immortality on those who complete a rather bizarre initiation rite. Naturally, the students set out to investigate the claims…

JANE: Monks, though…  That sounds as if the solution is going to be magical, rather than scientific.

ALAN: You could say that and I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with you. But this is Silverberg we’re talking about. The concepts are slippery…

One of the difficulties with “Gilgamesh Gambit” stories, especially of the Science Fictional sort, is that immortality always seems to be around the corner, but the science never seems to quite work out – that is unless the techniques relied on are so extreme that they might as well be magic.

JANE: And that’s another can of worms. Let’s watch them wriggle next time…

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6 Responses to “TT: From Here To Eternity”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    A variation of the Gilgamesh Gambit is Gordon R. Dickson’s short story “Danger – Human!” in which aliens GIVE immortality to one ordinary human for a certain reason, while keeping him imprisoned. This … was not a good idea on their part.

    In Daniel Keys Moran’s novel, “The Armageddon Blues” (which I’ve mentioned previously), one of the characters is a Frenchman named Georges who is well over 200 years old and, until he meets the main character, is perfectly content to live his life; probably an example if the Observer type but his knowledge of the world is what the main protagonist needs when she arrives on the scene. He had two “Precepts of Semi-Divinity”
    1. Mind thine own business.
    2. Don’t worry about it.

    Georges’ immortality is a result of a different power he has, which raises a question I hope you’ll discuss: immortality on its own vs. immortality as part of a package of other nonstandard traits (vampires, gods, magic, etc.).

  2. Peter Says:

    I think I might put “the cursed immortal” into its own category. An interesting variant is the “you screwed up, and you don’t get to die until you fix it. No matter how many centuries that takes.” (See, for example, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry cycle, which also throws in reincarnation, so our immortal is, in some sense, dealing with the same people over the course of centuries.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I like the variant. A culture that has reincarnation firmly in its mental landscape — rather than grafted on later — would definitely think about these things differently. In a sense, in a culture that believes in reincarnation, we’re ALL immortal, and getting off the Wheel is a blessing, not a curse.

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    If you click the photo of this page you’ll see my plan and opinions of Chap and Blind Seer, two brave Science Fiction wolves just helping a different female for a different reason. But Truth Matters More than reason.

    Jasmine Olson hoping to catch dear Jane, I value her kindness and enjoy our conversations of finding good unfamiliar fiction books.

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Chap and Blind are both unique, when compared to where they live and what they can do, plus the accurate explanation of what they are.

    Blind Seer can see things several others can’t, and Chap’s got a wolf’s form but he’s said to be doubly unique.

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