Sunday, December 29, 2013

Drew Magary: The Postmortal

Drew Magary
The Postmortal

Drew Magary's  The Postmortal is probably the best SF novel that explores the theme of an extended life span that I've read in decades, if not ever.  It attempts to realistically depict the effects of the development of an anti-aging medical treatment on society.

A researcher accidentally discovers a gene that controls aging and eventually comes up with a treatment that shuts down the gene.  Those given the cure (as it is popularly known) immediately stop aging and remain at whatever physical state they were in when given the treatment.  It is not immortality.  They can still die from accidents, disease, etc., but they will remain physically the same for an unknown length of time.

The opening paragraph from the novel's introduction:

"A Note about the Text: From the Department of Containment United North American Territories

"In March 2090, a worker for the Department of Containment named Anton Vyrin was conducting a routine sweep of an abandoned collectivist  compound in rural Virginia when he stumbled upon an eighth-generation  wireless-enabled projected screening device (WEPS.8) that was still functional after charging.  Stored inside the device's hard drive was a digital library containing sixty years' worth of text files written by a man who went by the screen name John  Farrell."

.     .     .

"In its entirety,the collection contains thousands of entries and several hundred thousand words, but for the sake of brevity and general readability, they have been edited and abridged into what we believe constitutes an essential narrative, and incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized."

The four time periods of the novel:

1  Prohibition:  June 2019
The news about the cure had appeared three years ago.  The US government, along with other governments, put a temporary ban on its use, saying it wished to study the effects of a drug that would have such an almost unthinkable effect on society.  While it is officially banned, it is available for those are willing to search for it and willing to pay for it.

John Farrell, a lawyer. locates a doctor who will administer the treatment.  At the same time, violent protests break out by both the pro-cure groups and the pro-death groups.  Many doctors who administer the cure are killed.

2  Spread:  June 2029
Societal changes appear.  The number of marriages has dropped.  In the past, "until death do us part" usually meant maybe 40 or 50 years or less, whereas now it could mean centuries.  Divorce is still possible, but people don't marry expecting to divorce.

Farrell tells Sonia, who is pregnant and wants him to marry her that "I could commit to you if we knew our lives were definite.  But they aren't.  I have no earthly idea what's coming next, and I can't promise you that from now until the end of time I'll always be by your side.  Because I don't know.  And you can't promise that either because you don't know."

Farrell, still working for the same legal firm, has helped to set up a new type of marriage, a "cycle marriage."  It lasts for forty years with heavy penalties applied in case of divorce.   At the end of the forty years, the marriage dissolves, as agreed upon by both parties at the beginning.  They may apply for a new 40 year cycle, but this is rare.   Ceremonies and parties are now the standard when an individual takes the cure.  The in-place for this is the Fountain of Youth in Las Vegas. 

Opposition groups to the cure have developed a wide variety of tactics, ranging from use of the courts to those who throw lye into the eyes of those who have taken the cure, condemning them perhaps to centuries of being blind.  These extremists are known as trolls.

Some who have taken the cure now regret it.  Farrell's father is one who wishes he hadn't because he misses his wife and is convinced that he will see her in heaven, once he dies.  Now, he doesn't know when that reunion will be; it could be centuries.

3  Saturation: 2059
Forty years have passed since the introduction of the cure.  The effects of the cure are now widespread and becoming clear to all--just too many people around.   One problem that I hadn't considered was human fertility.  Prior to the cure, humans were fertile for roughly 40 years, plus or minus a few years depending on the individual.  Now, humans are able to have children for as long as they live, which may be centuries, excluding such causes as accident or disease.  It's becoming a very  crowded and hostile world.

Farrell is job-hunting.  He retired from his position at the law firm and partied for a decade or two, and now he's broke.  The job turns out to be an end specialist.  In the film Soylent Green, the character played by Edward G. Robinson, decides to end it all.  He goes to a government facility and assisted by the staff arranges for his death, surrounded by pictures and music of his choice.  In The Postmortal, the government has subcontracted this function to various independent firms (always doing their part to support small businesses).  On an assignment, Farrell and his partner visit the individual, make sure all the formalities and paperwork are in order, and then provide that person with an end to the cure.  Farrell insists he is only a clerk and is there to handle the legalities and paperwork:  his partner is the terminator.

Correction: 2079
Society is, essentially, at war with itself.  Farrell is still an end specialist, but he frequently works alone.  One of his tasks is to do a sweep.  He is given a territory, and his task is cover the area and find those who are suffering from sheep flu, which is invariably fatal.  He has two vials of medicine. One is free, the one that kills painlessly and quickly.  Those who have access to $5000 can buy the cure for sheep flu.  Most do not, otherwise they would have gotten it already.  Farrell no longer insists on being just a clerk: he has become a full-fledged end specialist.  Then he gets an assignment to kill a woman whose only crime is that she's old.

Interspersed among the narrative of Farrell's life, Magary has also provided news headlines and articles that provide a fascinating picture of the effect of the cure on society, its laws, its mores, and reactions of various people in the US, as well as some information about the rest of the world.

--The Vatican threatens cure seekers with excommunication.

--"I'm always gonna get my period."

--Cigarette sales are now at an all-time low.

--Sales of adult incontinence undergarments (you know them as Depends) have fallen 46 percent since 2016.

--Suicide bombings in the Middle East  are down nearly 70 percent over the past decade while nonsuicide bombings are up 220 percent.

--In an interview, Russian president Boris Solovyev vigorously denied numerous reports of police executing any Russian citizen over the cure age of fifty.

--Mia Burkhart is 44 years old with a cure age of 29.  She's divorced, and her two sons have gone off on their own.  She decides she wants another child to raise on her own and contacts the local sperm bank.  All goes well.  Emilia is a beautiful child, and Mia is supremely happy.

After the child is about 18 months old, neighbors, friends, and relatives begin to notice something strange:  Emily is not growing.  Concerned, they investigate to find that Emily has been given the cure at age ten months.  She will be a ten month infant for as long as she lives, which may be centuries.

--Two large cities in China have been hit by nuclear explosions.   The official government story is sabotage.  However, rumors persist that China has nuked two of its own cities as art of a radical population control program.

The above is only a small part of the novel.  There's so much more.

Overall Rating:  Read it.  It's the most underrated SF novel, or perhaps just novel, of the decade. 


  1. Thanks for the review, Fred. I love this type of SF - idea based, "what if" plots. So much to think about!

  2. Cheryl,

    Glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks for the kind words. It's a great novel, unfortunately ignored. I hope you get a chance to read it.