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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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09/10/2004 Archived Entry: "Book Review: The Immortals"

The Immortals
By James Gunn
Publisher: Pocket Books
First Trade Paperback Edition September 2004
ISBN: 0671534866

Review by John D. Groper

I love short stories. The best of them astound the reader with the author's ability to draw one in, tell a tale, bring light to characters and events, and quickly withdraw - all in the space of a few short pages -leaving the reader with a new understanding, but also with a strong desire to return to that which had only just become familiar, but is now gone. One wishes this was one of those books in which each additional tale brought greater clarity to the subject, and appreciation of the talents of the author. It is not.

This book is a collection of five stories: four written in a seven-year period beginning in 1955; one new from April of 2004. The author recounts the history of the writing in a preface that shows, ironically, that some stories seem to have a life of their own. Ironically, because the subject matter here is immortality. All have appeared in various Science Fiction magazines, and ABC made a Movie of the Week in 1969, based on ideas from the early stories.

The author, according to his preface, was asked by his publisher to write a new story which is the third of five stories in this collection. In their attempts to sell the book again for yet another movie, they have landed upon a character, the doctor, to enhance and fill in gaps left by the four earlier stories. Additionally, the author has returned to the original texts and "updated" them. He mentions HIV in passing - an obvious change to text written more than fifty years ago. Unfortunately for the reader, these "updates" bring no additional light to the subject.

The conceit behind these stories is twofold: first the immortal human; the second the failure of the healthcare system, leading to the decline of civilization. The first is an old idea - the mutant human (a term highly overused lately, but never in these stories, thankfully). In this case a man carries within his DNA a modified gene that keeps his circulation system from aging. The bearer of this gene is immortal, and cannot die, save from some catastrophic event. Further, his blood, taken as a transfusion, brings health and even recovery from near-death to the recipient.

The second, and more interesting idea, is that of the failure of the healthcare system. It is a tale "ripped from the headlines." In these stories, those who can afford healthcare get it, and those who cannot, do not. There is no in-between. In a future where The Hospitals grow to expand to fill hundreds of city blocks to serve the wealthy, all else in the city is a slum. In a city where there is no day when The Hospitals are not constructing "at least two more wings" to provide care to the wealthy from the suburbs and exurbs, penicillin is the drug of "the street."

The first story tells of a homeless man who, unaware of his unique nature, sells a pint of his blood. Unfortunately for the poor man, seen only in the early pages of the book, the blood is administered to an extremely wealthy, elderly man on the edge of death. This man recovers spectacularly and realizes he has found the "elixir of life," but also discovers that its effects are only temporary. He joins with others like him to search for the unknown donor, so they may continue to scavenge his blood, vampire-like, to extend their own lives. The donor is first found and warned by the doctor, and the chase is on.

The search continues to find the man with the special blood. This search is carried out by a secret organization funded by the extremely wealthy, and by money from others have already dead, their dreams of immortality unfulfilled. The organization also seeks descendants of the original donor who also carry the gene of immortality. Some few are found; some of their blood is used to try to discover the secrets in their DNA, but most is used to lengthen the lives of those whose only "right" to it is their ability to pay.

Most of the remainder of the stories revolve around The Hospital, the doctor's search for immortality in the genes of the original donor, and how medical technology - in its quest to extend and improve life - increasingly creates treatment options whose high costs make those very options less available to those who need them most. Tell me. How many versions have you read of the decline of civilization? There's The Bomb, The Disease and Alien Invasion. There is the takeover of the government by The Corporations or The Military or by Self-aware Computers, both friendly and unfriendly. I cannot remember in my reading of science fiction a previous instance the medical system been the catalyst for the decline. (There probably are several, and I'm sure I'll be told about them!) Here the author's work is a reflection of stories we hear daily. Those are the stories of people throughout the world who cannot afford one of the basic necessities of twenty-first century life: quality medical care.

There is much to be said and written on the subjects of DNA research, healthcare options, the search for longer, healthier lives, and the cost impacts they will have on all of us: rich, poor and in-between. In this election period, we hear about it every day. And there is a significant role for fiction to play in that discussion too. "What if" scenarios, especially when they involve science, are frequently better played out on the fictional landscape where people, even as this reviewer, can take their pot-shots, say how things could have been done better, and move on - hopefully to something that really is better. Like the military and their war games, this is one scenario. Let us hope for a better future than this book shows us. Almost any one would be. I, for one hope, as the man said (says? will say? All of the above): "Live long and prosper."

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