Title: The Postmortal (US title) / The End Specialist (UK title)
Author: Drew Magary
Published: 30 August 2011 by Penguin USA
Genre: science ficiton
Source: eARC received from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 8/10
In 2019, the human race discovers a holy grail – the cure for aging. It’s a surprisingly simple process – a series of quick, albeit painful injections. It completely changes human existence, but hastens humanity toward extinction rather than delivering the blissful eternal youth that most people envisioned. In 2090, after an event called “the Great Correction”, a worker for The Department of Containment discovers a digital library containing sixty years worth of text files written by a man named John Farrell, apparently for a blog or online journal. John’s files tell the story of the cure and its devastating consequences. He was one of the first people to get the cure, before it was legalised. Later in his long life he became an ‘end specialist’, a government-sanctioned euthaniser who killed those who were tired of immortality (or in this case, ‘postmortality’).
Through John, author Drew Magary does an amazing, meticulous job of imagining how a cure for aging might affect the world. No doubt every review of this novel will include a discussion on this aspect of it, but I was too impressed by it not to discuss it as well. The assumed benefits of eternal youth are obvious; that’s why most people get the cure as soon as they can. What The Postmortal explores instead, is why “Immortality Will Kill Us All”.
There are myriad ethical and political considerations. Initially the cure is illegal, causing protesters to demand that it be legalised, arguing that governments are letting people die by not doing so. But is withholding the cure to aging the same thing as letting people die? On the other hand there are ‘pro-death’ anarchists and conservatives, some of whom react to the cure with violence – mutilation, bombing, murder. The most important of the ethical problems is how an ever-increasing population of postmortals is going to find the resources to live through the years to come. Because of the cure “there aren’t going to be future generations anymore. […] There will only be us. One infinite generation, forever growing and reaching an unknown and incomprehensible size”. And, as one anti-cure town mayor points out, “[t]hey all want to live forever and don’t have the faintest clue how they’re gonna eat a hundred years from now. Well they’re going to find out soon that their country ain’t gonna help them. They’re gonna find out that every man is his own country now.”
Naturally there are religious objections to the cure, with the pope condemning it and complaining that “Death is the only thing keeping us in line”. Of course he fails to sway the world and I wouldn’t buy that line either, but the cure nevertheless has profound effects on human culture and behaviour. Marriage becomes too much of a commitment for most people. Saying “I’ll love you forever” or “until death do us part” is fine when one is talking about a few decades, but the thought of being bound to one person for centuries is horrifying. People start to scorn those who have children, because they’re creating more mouths that will have to be fed forever. Jail sentences have to be reconsidered because prisons can’t afford to keep inmates locked up for centuries, but at the same people are concerned that rapists and murderers can walk away from long sentences without having changed at all.
Some consequences have no major ethical dilemmas attached to them, but are disturbing nevertheless. People will have to work forever to support themselves. The doctor who gives John the cure warns him that he “will never die a natural, peaceful death […] your demise will inevitably come at the hands of disease, starvation or a bullet”. John’s friend Katy tell him “you’re now always going to look the way you look at this exact moment […] This is how you’ll look when you die […] It’s like I’m looking at your corpse.” Ten years later John looks at a series of photos he’s taken of himself over the years and says “I haven’t changed. I haven’t grown. […] It’s as if I haven’t lived at all.”
The book is full of great quotes that achieve an incredible gravity in the context of the cure. It’s not like people don’t experience any of the benefits of not aging, especially in the early years but all of these are easily swept away as the world becomes overcrowded, dilapidated and chaotic. John lives in the USA, so the narrative plays out there, but the blog-post structure of the story allows him to incorporate other forms of media, such as news articles, transcripts of speeches and emails that occasionally give us small glimpses of what’s going on in other countries. You don’t learn that much about what’s going on outside of American though, and almost nothing about the developing world. The USA goes from being a first-world to a third-world country but what about those places that were third-world to begin with? The cure is expensive, so there were no doubt countries whose citizens could not afford it – how did they react? Would you even want to be postmortal if decades, perhaps centuries of poverty awaited you?
Arguably, including information about these things could have slowed the novel down, but I would not have minded because I was curious. Nevertheless, it’s still a great story and Magary uses his narrative structure well. Normally when a narrative is composed of entries from a journal or log, the author is forced to take some awkward artistic liberties by including long conversations that the character supposedly (but implausibly) remembered in detail and transcribed for the sake of the story. Magary neatly circumvents this awkwardness with a little clause in a fictional note about the text: “[John] Farrell was a remarkably fastidious record keeper. He used the LifeRecorder app to preserve and transcribe virtually every human interaction he had, and he incorporated many portions of those transcripts into his writing”.
If, while reading, you also find it odd that narrative composed of very personal blog posts makes no mention of things like hits, comments or blogging in general, keep in mind that the opening note has this covered too: “for the sake of brevity and general readability, [the files] have been edited and abridged into what we [The Department of Containment] believe constitutes an essential narrative, the fundamental goal being to offer incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized”.
Long before the end of the novel I had been reluctantly convinced of this – that the human race could not handle a cure to aging. It didn’t stop me wanting it for myself, but I think that’s the kind of selfishness within most humans that makes the cure such a disaster in the novel. People just think of life as they’re enjoying it, continuing for centuries, if not improving. On the contrary, The Postmortal offers a compelling, well-written exploration of exactly how terrible it would be for humanity to realise one of its greatest fantasies.
Buy The Postmortal at Book Depository