It’s 2019, and the cure for aging is here. By sheer accident, scientists have identified the gene that causes aging. After receiving “the cure,” people can still get the flu, or cancer, or get murdered or die in car accidents, but the actual, biological aging process is halted so their bodies can theoretically keep going forever. The Postmortal is the story of John Farrell, a young estate lawyer who receives the cure early on and witnesses its effects on society firsthand.
The Postmortal is one of those old-fashioned science fiction novels that takes current — or at least very near-future — society as a starting point, adds one big scientific breakthrough, and then extrapolates its effects. The Truth Machine by James L. Halperin had an infallible lie detector. In The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer, the existence of a human “soul” was proven. And now in The Postmortal, death by natural causes is eliminated. These books make good gateway SF novels, because they start out from a recognizable starting point and then add scientific breakthroughs that affect life in ways that almost anyone can relate to. Calling this “SF Lite” is probably unfair (also because these books do deal with issues of, well, life and death), but something like this is probably easier to take in for the average non-genre reader than alternate dimensions and FTL drives.
John Farrell initially isn’t the most fascinating main character I’ve ever encountered, but he gains enough complexity to stay interesting throughout the story. (Word of warning for readers who enjoy likable characters: that complexity does come with a darker side as the story progresses.) John gets the cure early on while it’s still illegal, and recounts the effects on his personal life as well as on the U.S. and the world in general. Some of this is offered in the form of news snippets culled from newspapers and blogs and the like, while other information is recounted in his own personal experiences. As you’d expect, the sociological and the personal intersect at several instances, e.g. his career changes from estate law — which, understandably, becomes less in demand — to divorce law. After all, “till death do us part” now potentially implies a lot more time than people originally bargained for.
Drew Magary creates a believable version of a world in which biological aging isn’t an issue anymore. The early reactions to the cure from across the political spectrum are surprisingly plausible, with crackpots from both sides of the aisle coming up with their own reasons to vehemently condemn or support it. Pro-death movements, terrorist groups and cheery “Church of Man” quasi-sects all pop up as society deals with this radical change to life expectancy. Meanwhile in other parts of the world, totalitarian regimes take a more heavy-handed approach to the looming prospect of a growing and eternally young population in a world with ever-diminishing resources. It’s disconcerting how much of this is plausible and terrifying at the same time. You can practically imagine seeing some of these events reported on cable news right now, if the cure were to become a reality.
The novel is divided into four sections, fast-forwarding one or more decades between each section. This allows Drew Magary to cover a period of 60 years in the post-cure world and show different stages in John’s life and the world’s evolution. The U.K. title of the novel is The End Specialist, which refers to one of John’s jobs later in the story, when government-sponsored suicide has become a lucrative industry. Take that as a warning: The Postmortal is never exactly a cheerful read, but it takes on a decidedly darker tone the further in you get, with a few shocking twists and surprises mixed into the general decline and fall. Let’s just say that that Malthus fellow wasn’t too far off the mark. To Live Forever by Jack Vance cushioned the impact by setting a society with the option of eternal life safely in the far future and on another planet, but The Postmortal it set squarely in the neurotic frenzy of our own early 21st century, making it all sound much more plausible. (Note: I’ll take the Jack Vance novel over The Postmortal any day, but given the similar theme, I just had to slip in a quick reference to one of my favorite SF novels of all time.)
In this age of e-books, I’m still a big fan of the book as a physical object, and I truly love the design job Penguin has done with the U.S. version of this paperback. It’s one of those book designs that looks basic and simple but is instantly recognizable. The cover illustration by Kristian Hammerstad is creepy and strikingly appropriate, plus the novel actually briefly refers to it, which is a nice touch. However, it’s the spine of the book that really struck my attention. It’s as simple, iconic and memorable as the cover of Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, and if there were an award for “Best Book Spine,” this one would get my vote. And since I’m off on a tangent anyway: Mira Grant‘s Feed has an equally simple but memorable cover that’s perfectly relevant for the book. Another parallel between that novel and The Postmortal are the — in my eyes at least — rather hokey scientific breakthroughs that launch their plots. In Feed, two benign viruses somehow combine into one super-virus that turns half the population into the living dead, while in The Postmortal a well-intentioned attempt to change hair color through gene therapy leads to… well, you know. I’m not a big fan of hard hard SF and really don’t need or even like diagrams and formulas to explain things, but these two really go the opposite way. Oops, look, my virus turned into the zombie plague. Hey wow, I flipped this here gene and we’ve disabled aging.
There are a few more issues, especially some improbable plot developments towards the end of the book, which I don’t want to describe in detail to avoid spoilers. One minor complaint that I can safely mention: for a story that starts in 2019 and covers six full decades, technology doesn’t seem to evolve a whole lot. Aside from a few items like plug-in cars, wireless devices that can project their screen contents, and a nation-spanning wi-fi network, technological innovation seems to be mostly stuck in neutral for over half a century. Not even considering general consumer-tech inventions, I think most SF readers confronted with the idea of a significant population explosion would expect all kinds of scenarios and technologies that would at least attempt to help accommodate a few billion extra people on the globe, but in this novel, technology seems to be mostly stagnant.
The Postmortal isn’t perfect, but it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking book and a great first effort for a debut novel. It’s a dystopian story with an edge of dark humor and a surprisingly complex main character. It draws you in with its cheerful premise and then gradually gets darker and grimmer. I’d be surprised if The Postmortal doesn’t end up becoming a bestseller and, at some point, a movie.
I particulaly liked that this book wasn’t focused on a short span of time surrounding the discover of the cure, and that it didn’t go the “zombie apocalypse” route, but instead actually focused on the societal and political changes that would naturally accompany such a breakthrough in medical science. It was a real “what if” story, and I can’t help but praise Magary for trying to predict what might happen on a global scale in this sort of situation.
I can forgive the stagnant-seeming technology, really, since the viewpoint was entirely from one man who had other things on his mind than writing about the iPhone 57 or Windows 2020. It’s the downside to first-person limited views, really, in that the reader doesn’t really get a chance to see much of the world beyond the character unless the character makes a point of it.