The inscription preceding Drew Magary’s first novel, The Postmortal (Penguin, August 2011), is a quote from the band Mastodon. Though appropriate for a story about a species in peril, this reference is an unfortunate omen for the novel to come. Mastodon, for the uninitiated, is a popular (and pretty damn great) metal band whose shows are so notoriously populated by knuckle-dragging testosterone junkies that I’ve always been afraid to attend. As a 30-year-old lady geek, this band and many aspects of Magary’s novel are fantastic in concept, exclusionary in practice.
The Postmortal begins with an editor’s note from the year 2093, the curatorial commentary about the ensuing series of personal blog entries and saved articles from the wireless enabled projected screening device (WEPS) of civilian John Farrell, spanning a sixty-year period after the invention of the “cure for aging.” The Cure, we learn, is a single-injection dose of gene therapy that will stop biological aging at the cellular level. Once injected, you remain your “cure” age indefinitely, barring disease or violent death. The preface describes the following pages as a cautionary tale leading up to a global “Great Correction.”
From there we jump to 2019 New York City, where 29-year-old John is in the first stages of getting his Cure. John is an amiable every-dude; a corporate lawyer rooming with his best buddy Katy in Manhattan, trundling through a familiar extended urban adolescence of earning, drinking, and having possibly too much time on his hands. Cue the first ominous inkling of Magary’s concept: John is about to stop his physical maturation altogether. We are prompted to think for the first time in what will be many: what would happen if you could be 29 forever?
Indefinite hedonism, environmental catastrophe, bad reality TV. Roving gangs of the impoverished and insane, death-advocate “trolls” carving youthful post-mortals’ birthdates into their flesh. The heightened tragedy of cancer and violent death juxtaposed with the increasing cheapness of eternal life, for starters. As an exercise in what-ifs, The Postmortal explores every optimistic and Debbie-downer fantasy many of us have when we read about real age-defying scientific advances, like those detailed in this year’s Time article about life-extension research and the not-so-out-there beliefs of “Singulatarians.” The development of the aging cure is presented as a fluke, obviously oversimplified for the purpose of the story, but it works. Without getting bogged down in explaining a more realistic “cure,” Magary focuses more on the consequences of sudden, widespread immortality. It’s the polar opposite of The World Without Us. The reportage is thorough, more than a little titillating in the landscape of apocalypse-fetish literature.
Magary makes solid decisions concerning what aspects of the future he wants to deal with. Though the technological progress of the WEPS (a predictable handheld computing/broadcasting device) and armored cars is noted, Magary trucks very little with general advances. We’re still afraid of nuclear war, still Skyping on tablets in 2059. For a more hardcore SF audience, it might be irksome. We have enough information about this future to get us through the story, nothing extraneous.
As the novel progresses, it turns from a snappy morality tale, to a noir-ish revenge fable, to an action movie; complete with guns, rogue religious cults and government-sanctioned hit men. The narrative comes to us through John’s blog entries and collections of news bytes and pundit commentary. Though his sixty years as a 29-year-old, he experiences all the love, pain, grief, and terror of a standard lifetime and is still in good enough shape to kick some ass at the end. Like much good dystopian fiction, The Postmortal is an at-times unflattering commentary on human beings, present, past and future, that hits the mark in many ways.
Unfortunately for this fascinating premise, Magary’s supporting cast comes up short of being palpably human, and therefore all that interesting. There’s John’s pining father, a widower with a cure-age in his mid-sixties; his worrywart older sister; his angelic middle school sweetheart whom he’s been in love with since the 8th grade for no understandable reason. Then there is The Blonde, whom we eventually learn to call Solara Beck, a mysterious, six-foot, “unreasonably attractive” woman that haunts John throughout the book. The reader can clearly see Magary’s attempts to turn the “improbabl[y]” gorgeous Solara into a siren, to cast her as the allure of eternal youth and beauty that can only end in disaster. “I’m tired of guys falling in love with me,” she tells the smitten John after knowing him for a handful of hours. Believe me Solara, I am too. The impossible-dream-as-beautiful-girl shtick is accessible, but I wish the metaphor for eternal life was a little more complex, a little more believably alluring. What separates this from really great SF is the true humanity of everyone involved, and how these advances affect them as people, not types.
The Postmortal is a punchy, fast-paced and endearing story that will not bore you with its twisty plot and many action sequences. For anyone intrigued with Life Extension science, it’s a fun examination of our fears and expectations. As a parable of failed humanity, though, I’m not sure I’m buying. There’s not enough real humanity there for me to grab onto, at the end, not enough for me to care if these people live – forever, or even for the duration of the book.