JANE: So, this time we’re going to discuss the third and final of your sub-categories of “immortals among us” stories, those in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.
I’d love to pick the first example.
ALAN: Be my guest!
JANE: My choice is This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. In it we meet Conrad, who, when he realized he was living a lot longer than he should without apparently aging beyond his thirties, decided to continually reinvent himself. However, he’s far from a passive observer. He’s been a revolutionary, and explorer, and many other things.
In addition to writing a compelling narrative focused on Conrad’s current problem (having to guide a problematic alien visitor to Earth), Zelazny also deals with the question of why an immortal would choose to hide his immortality, even if there is no overt fear of or prejudice against immortals.
ALAN: Yes, that’s always an issue. And of course it gets harder and harder to hide as our bureaucracies get more efficient and technology becomes more intrusive.
JANE: Hiding immortals is what natural disasters are for or wars… Ooh, that would make for a dark, dark story. Let’s get back to Conrad, before I think too much about that.
Although Conrad has tried to maintain relationships, in most cases friendship mutates into envy and fear as his friends age and he does not. A good example of the reactions Conrad’s immortality triggers occurs early in the novel. Conrad slips when idly chatting talking with his wife, Cassandra, mentioning things he couldn’t have known or done unless he is much older than he appears. Cassandra is startled, then shocked, and, although they don’t have a fight over his hiding his age, they do become estranged.
This Immortal provides an excellent exploration of how, although a long life may give the immortal more experience and skills, these are gained at a very stiff price.
ALAN: This reminds me of a series of novels and short stories by Gene Doucette. The stories are published under the generic title Immortal. Not surprisingly, the books tell of the adventures of an immortal man.
The stories are set firmly in the twenty-first century. The immortal narrator is involved in a fairly routine bit of melodramatic blood and thunder over which, of course, he eventually triumphs. However because he’s been alive for such a long time, he can’t help but draw parallels between what he’s going through now and things that have happened to him in the past. This not only fills in his backstory to a certain extent, it also adds a degree of verisimilitude and a touch of humour that makes the stories quite appealing.
JANE: This does sound interesting. Tell me more!
ALAN: So, for example, we learn that the first-person narrator was born some time during the early stone age when people were barely human and language consisted mostly of grunts. He thinks his name might have been Urrr, but he doesn’t really remember. For reasons that remain mysterious to him, he stopped growing older when he reached maturity and he has drifted through the ages ever since…
Urrr, who has recently taken to calling himself Adam because the joke appeals to him, is a complex character who reminds me a little bit of Conrad – he is cynical and witty, a keen observer of society as it changes around him, and he’s probably an alcoholic as well. He has spent most of the last umpty-ump thousand years drunk. This gives him an interesting perspective on life and the living of it.
JANE: We could go on listing titles and authors, but a few weeks ago, I mentioned a novel that effectively uses all three of the immortality tropes. This is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (published in 1967). In Lord of Light, immortality has been achieved for a select few by the use of a technology that permits the essential “soul” of a person to be moved to a new body. This, in combination with the ability to create custom bodies, has created an elite caste who have assumed the identities of various deities of the Hindu pantheon.
Not everyone in the immortal community is happy with how the technology is being used. Among the most active of these rebels is Sam. Sam keeps rebelling and keeps losing. The novel is designed around a series of flashbacks as he meditates on his past attempts and what he learned from them.
By designing the novel this way, Roger provided a tremendously detailed look at his fictional planet’s history without forcing the reader to plod through it. He also avoids one of the major problems I have with this sort of novel.
ALAN: What problem is that?
JANE: Well, at the risk of being extraordinarily catty, my problem with many of the books I’ve read in which immortals are characters is that there is no real sense of how they experience time.
Would being immortal make a person feel differently about day to day events? Certainly that’s the mindset that underlies those books in which the immortals are plagued with ennui and become increasingly decadent. Sometimes the decadence takes the form of mind-numbing drugs. Sometimes the decadence takes the form of more and more extreme experiences – especially those involving sex and intimate violence.
However, I’ve never really believed that’s how immortals would experience life.
ALAN: Michael Moorcock seems to be thinking along those lines in the novels that make up the Dancers at the End of Time sequence. Certainly, his immortals exhibit all these traits.
JANE: I think what the “decadent bored immortal” interpretation misses is that – unless they are hugely different than humans in some way (a category into which I’m going to toss both vampires and elves), they would still experience life day by day.
Neil Gaiman captures this very well in the section of Sandman where Dream confronts the man who has held him captive for many years.
When Dream’s captor tries to excuse his action by pointing out that Dream is immortal, and so it wasn’t as if he actually robbed him of anything significant, Dream retorts that immortal or not, he still had to live through each day. It’s a very powerful scene.
ALAN: The more I hear about Sandman, the more I wish I could read it as a prose narrative…
JANE: It is a prose narrative, just that the prose is enhanced with pictures. You watch television and movies, don’t you? But going back to our topic…
One of the elements in my novel Changer is the Lustrum Review. For those of you who don’t want to go look up the word, a lustrum is five years. One of the book’s editors questioned whether immortals would hold a convention every five years, wasn’t that too often?
I held to my position, pointing out that the Lustrum Review is as much a social occasion as a business event, and I felt that every five years was hardly often enough to have a chance to meet up with like-minded friends or to keep up with what one’s community was doing.
I suspect that in the past, before travel was both easy and affordable, the athanor might have had more regional meetings, but… Ah, but I get off track. My point is, I think immortals – and especially immortals who must live among a larger, shorter-lived community – would be very aware of the passage of time, and very eager to make the most of what they have.
ALAN: I suspect you may well be right. Clearly, therefore, if we want to learn the secret of immortality, all we need to do is identify and attend meetings of like-minded people that are held at regular intervals at various places. World Science Fiction Conventions, for example…
I’m sure that both of us could keep listing titles of books in which an immortal has the edge because of experience gained in a longer than human lifespan. But I wonder what our readers might suggest. I’m sure that there must be some that we have missed out on.