Monday, June 25, 2012

Marta Randall: " Islands"--an SF novel

One of the most common themes found in SF is that of the unique individual, someone who possesses powers or physical attributes not found in the ordinary human being, and therefore may be forced to hide or disguise oneself to avoid detection by others.  This could be any of the ESP powers, such as telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, or even precognition.  It could also mean special physical attributes such as immense strength far exceeding that of the normal human being or the ability to regenerate limbs or to suffer catastrophic wounds and still survive.  Probably the most threatening of any of these would be immortality.   I think many could accept others possessing the powers or attributes mentioned above, mainly because that individual still faces the same end as the rest of us.  However, the immortal individual faces the greatest amount of hostility from others, for while not all might want the ability to read the minds of others nor resent that ability in others, the wish to avoid death is almost universal.   I think that is the one attribute  that the mass of humanity could not accept in the unique individual.

Marta Randall's novel, Islands, focuses on the issue of immortality, and Tia is a very unique in that respect.  Only, Randall has worked a switch on the usual plot:  Tia is not the only immortal among mortals, but she is the only mortal among immortals.  Centuries in the future, medical research has perfected a treatment that makes one immortal, or at least no one has died since the treatment became available, except, of course, by accident.  In addition there is something that nobody talks about, the disappearances.  Almost everybody knows someone who just disappeared and was never seen again.

Tia is unique in that the treatment won't work on her. Various attempts were made and tests were taken, but for some unknown  reason, her body rejected the treatment..  She alone is going to die at some time in the future, probably around a century or perhaps a decade or more later, as medical research has developed techniques to solve many of the problems associated with aging and also has perfected the art of transplants.  Her medical treatments are free and in fact one doctor who became interested in gerontology adopted her as his special patient.  She was the only one around he could study.

When she went for her treatment, she and Paul, her lover, had planned to go on a exploratory journey in space that was planned to last many decades. Now, considering her shortened life span, she couldn't leave earth for that length of time. Paul's treatment was successful, and he left.

At first it wasn't hard because Tia was young and looked no different than the others.  She had lovers just as any of them.  But, as she grew older, the signs of aging became more apparent and it was now that she began to be isolated from others--how much by her behavior and how much the result of others, she never quite knew.  She also became aware of another difference between her and the others.  She was more willing to take risks than they were.  They had so much more to lose than she did. 

The novel begins when Tia is nearing 70.  She is an active, healthy person in her 70s, but she stands out for there's nobody who looks like her.   She has joined a diving expedition that is searching the ruins of the sunken cities on what was once Hawaii.  The seas have risen and the Hawaiian Islands have sunk beneath the sea.   When she meets the rest of the expedition's crew, she is disturbed to discover that  Paul, whom she hasn't seen in decades, is there along with his most recent lover.

The focus of the novel is on Tia's thoughts and feelings as she struggles to handle the distance that grows between her and the immortals. People, especially the young people,  no longer are familiar with the signs of aging.  She is unique, and there's no way to disguise her situation.  It is exacerbated when Paul appears, but she is shocked to find Paul wants to reestablish their former relationship.  The others don't know how to take this, especially his lover.

The title puzzled me, although the islands could refer to the Hawaiian Islands, the location of their dives.  The sense of isolation that Tia felt, a mortal among immortals, suggested that perhaps the islands referred to had more to do with John Donne, than with Hawaii.  Donne's famous meditation on death begins  "No man is an island" and goes on to declare that we are all part of each other. The loss of one person affects all,  and he ends his meditation with  "Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee."

This may be true in a society where all are mortal,  but is it also applicable in a society where all are immortal?  And, how does Tia, the sole mortal in this immortal society, fit in.  The last words of Donne's meditation are ironic in Tia's situation, for the bell now will never toll except for when it is for her.

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