TT: What to Do With Immortality

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!

Immortal Tales

Immortal Tales

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.

9 Responses to “TT: What to Do With Immortality”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Well, I was just wondering how the Hogben Chronicles would fit into this…

    Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series probably also deserves mention here.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I can’t talk about the Saint-Germaine series because I’ve never read them and I can’t classify the Hogben stories because they make me laugh far too much to have any serious thoughts about them. But I suspect the Hogbens probably belong to the class of observers of history. They’ve always tried to keep themselves isolated (though the twentieth century is making that harder) — but let’s face it, when one of the Hogbens handed every person in the world a stick and then spat in their collective faces, the Hogben secret became somewhat compromised…


    • janelindskold Says:

      Vampire books, so I haven’t read them (although I love some of her other work). Alan and I noted earlier that we were leaving out vampires and elves, but Yarbro’s books are also nice historicals, so they walk a good line.

  2. henrietta abeyta Says:

    If I looked a little at how immortal characters are thought to sometimes be against each other, even when they’re a family member, I’d study the consequence of each plan, and carefully look at the list of habits each immortal has.

    If you want to check some of the immortals who do a little in the spiritual world and offer special gifts to Earth why not check and see what the Asian Mythology, and the few lands related to Native American immortal tales, these are two of the biggest groups with transformation as one of the most common events with various purposes. Asians and Native Americans, both have lots of celebrations that do with their beliefs of immortal, plus that both groups include animals giving several of the immortals a bit of help. Or actually worshipped the animal a long time ago. It depends on which tribe you’re reading about.

    When I read Mythology or a mythical chapter book I ignore the old character opinions. Instead I search for the unseen events of loyalty and peace while I concentrate on carefully studying the hidden messages of caution these immortal tales sometimes have!!

    If you check websites of Native American tribes you’ll discover many of the oldest stories that explain their own imaginations of Heaven and Earth meeting each other. States like Alaska even have a few mythology books put with the fairy tale book collection. And Mythology stories of Asia are popular in some libraries, I’ve seen more Asian Mythology than African Mythology while putting Christmas stories away in the non-fiction section of Davis County Libraries in Utah. In case you needed help with library shelf locations. Your numbers 292 and 398 are the two numbers most related to legends and myths of the old days.

    Jasmine Olson mainly sharing opinions but a little suggestion too, because she thinks these numerous tribal groups would work quite well for studying the forgotten abilities of ancient immortals.

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I wouldn’t say all natural disasters do with an immortal hiding or war dear Jane Lindskold……… Don’t forget when a few powers related to weather caused several Native American tribes to think of Heaven or the return of an ancestor.

    Ancestor support
    Spirit Transformations / animal totem moments
    When an ancestor comes down to give someone inspiration
    When ancestors try to warn their loved ones on Earth
    When ancestors have their loudest celebrations up in Heaven

    And then the ways several Asian tribes from various areas believe in hidden castles that hide animal guardians who aren’t mentioned as often today.

    Tiger Zodiac, and Tigers we’d say have fictional colors
    Lions in a few Asian places with some immortal

    I’ve also read unknown personal opinions of other people who create quizzes share thoughts like a shooting star being some sort of animal in the sky, even a winged wolf Jane. plus look at the bunch of sun opinions various cultures have. Some seem to fear the sun’s future a bit more than the moon’s, other include the two big bright lights as immortals.

    And then disastrous and special at the same time, areas such as volcanic spots. Volcanoes give us more than we can tell. We just have no accurate idea of how a volcano can form so many kinds of rocks in one hot liquid.

    This is computer and video stuff I’ve remembered…….

    Jasmine Olson sharing her opinion of what else global problems could still be, especially since she loves to imagine peace and joy, plus what she’s already read herself.

  4. James M. Six Says:

    In Kevin Hearne’s “Iron Druid” series his title character is 2100 years old. A few things stand out. 1. He’s a little cleverer about survival but otherwise still makes horrendous mistakes – as in, if he’d just run away, maybe the end of the world wouldn’t be around the corner. 2. Those mistakes are almost always based on the culture “programming” he received in his first lifetime – the need to honor his word rather than break it when it requires him to do something truly stupid. 3. He’s made mistakes with his immortality, but he has lerned to keep himself grounded in the present with his relationships, primarily with his mentally linked Irish Wolfhound and, later with his apprentice and eventual lover.

    In the end, though, I always remember Death’s comment to Bernie in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.” When Bernie dies, he says, “I mean I got, what fifteen thousand years. That’s pretty good isn’t it? I lived a pretty long time.” and Death replies, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime.”

    Immortals facing up to the possible/probable end of their immortality is always a potential gold mine for stories.

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