The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Genre: SciFi, Dystopia
Main characters: John Farrell
Time and place: 2017 – 2079(?), US
First sentence: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.

Verdict: A perfect match for me, so I was fascinated & captivated by it :)

Summary:
“It’s the classic American scenario of people wanting everything right now without caring a lick about the long term. You could excuse it by saying, ‘Well, that’s just the way we are.’ Well, the way we are is going to cost us everything.”

The year is 2019 and a cure for aging has been accidentally found. At first, understanding the risks, the government forbid its commercialization. Yet people, thirsty for immortality, rioted, and imposed their will.

As everyone and their mother got the cure, people everywhere started partying as hard as their could. They were going to be immortal! Yet living in a world full of no-longer-aging creatures isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as they were all going to find out in a few decades or less.

General impression
First of all, thank you NetGalley for this review copy :)

I hadn’t heard about this book prior to seeing it on NetGalley, but I thought the premise interesting enough to be worth a try. And I am not sorry if I did, as it sort of matched my own worries (of getting old, of overpopulation, of resources draining out), so I spent half the book feeling envious of the people who got “the cure”, and the other half freaked out by the end of the world scenario the author imagined, a scenario that unfortunately I could actually see happening in real life in a few decades or so. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a book that makes me feel things, so it is safe to say I have thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Setting
This is one of the highlights of the book, methinks. The story begins in a near future, in 2019, New York(?); the world starts out being very familiar. However, as the years pass, the technology advances; also the people become more and more desperate. There are no cars, but plug-ins; no phones, but WEPSs; the death sentence is not only reinstated but overused; marriages are no longer made with “forever” in mind; water becomes a precious commodity; and many, many such more details that, joined together, form an almost completely unfamiliar world. Interestingly enough, the transition is done at such a pace that the contrast between what is and what was is never jarring.

Characters
Just like the world around him, John too ends up radically transformed. A 29 year old divorce lawyer at the time of his getting the cure, he spends some time traveling around the world, then returns to the States to a whole new career. I liked that he matures and changes throughout the book, the things he sees and does leaving a mark on him. I also found interesting how he ends up somewhat dehumanized in the process — the world is now so full of people that one or more deaths don’t make much difference (the most obvious instance of this being when he helps “sanitize” a sheep flu area and makes a sick person choose between death and paying him/his organization for a cure). It is not clearly stated but understood that after a point the choices presented to John aren’t many; he had to adapt to this new persona in order to survive so, although I didn’t always approve of his choices, I was sympathetic towards him all throughout.

Relationships
I loved the fact that John got to have more than one single meaningful relationship throughout his long, long life. I liked the way he kept an amiable relationship to Sonia, the mother of his child. I liked the promise of a long & nice relationship with Alison, his childhood sweetheart. What I wasn’t that crazy about was his relationship with Solara (not to mention what kind of name is Solara in the first place?) because truth be told I didn’t much like her. I got that he wanted to help her, his one chance to do good in a world filled with wrongs; but the leap from here to his being so very much in love with her was one I didn’t manage to make.

As an unrelated sidenote, I found the part about Freddie the sheep (the poor animal whose body developed a new strain of influenza) to be very touching. I very much admire the way the author made it obvious, in just a few small pages, how much Freddie meant to her owners. We rarely think about the actual animals killed by various such diseases, like avian flu or swine flu, and how some of their owners may be emotionally affected by their loss, so this whole part about Freddie made me discover a new side of things.

Plot
Although there is no actual plot to speak of, the book nevertheless has managed to keep me on my toes most of the time, always wondering what will happen next to the strange new world unfolding under my eyes :)

Thoughts on the title
So cool. I cannot imagine any other word (or words even) to better describe the content of the book. I translate it as “the guy who lived after death was defeated” :) It is the very thing that had me notice the book in the first place, and it also matches the current cover very well :)

Thoughts on the ending
Gritty and painfully real.
show spoiler

I do have one curiosity though. What will happen to the cure afterwards (not to mention the Skeleton Key, the wonderdrug that could cure any existing affliction)? Would the people ever stop taking it? I mean, if any random person (myself included) knew that eternal life, and most importantly eternal youth, were within his or her reach, could that person abstain from it because of the bigger picture? Especially since, in theory at least, one single person shouldn’t affect the fate of the world. “Will the world be destroyed if I get the cure?” — the answer, for any random person, is obviously negative. But if enough people do it, that will change. Unfortunately no one can truly influence other people’s choices, so any single person’s fate depends on what everyone else chooses. I find it quite scary, especially as I myself would be sorely tempted to get the said cure, and I bet mostly everyone else would do too. Could the rest of the world be trusted to keep this temptation in check?

What I liked most
I do not have enough words to describe how much I liked the fact that the author has thought the matter of immortality through beyond the obvious parts. For example, it is a given that if the number of people alive at one time goes past a certain number there will not be enough resources for them all. However, there are two things (there are probably more, but two things in particular) directly related to being immortal that are present in the book and that have never crossed my mind before:

Firstly, people’s expectations from marriage suddenly changed. Couples that used to be happily married now divorced because the guys (usually them) could not fathom spending eternity with the same person. Unmarried people no longer got married, as marriage has suddenly become this momentous task (in John’s own words: “I don’t have the capacity to commit to something —anything— for five hundred years or however long we’re likely to live. I don’t have the knowledge and foresight to say to you, ‘Yes. I will stick with you no matter what occurs from now until the end of time.’“). The perspective of women is radically altered too:

“I am free. I don’t have to worry about growing old and never finding a man, like every goddamn magazine used to tell me. I have the freedom now to marry whom I want when I want, and to have children when I want.”

Eventually the concept of a “cycle marriage” enters the scene: a marriage set to last for forty years and automatically dissolve after. Just enough for people to live together for a while, have children, raise them, and then move on to another partner and perhaps another set of kids.

The other interesting thing is that the people, free of the fear of death and the specter of the afterlife, have given up believing in God. The need to worship still exists in them though, so a new organisation is born, called the Church of Man. One of its members describes it so:

We have reverends (yes, they get to marry) who preside over each service, offering readings from select historical texts, along with daily sermons on how best to love your fellow Man, particularly those less fortunate! We believe in a service that creates a shared moment of peace and reflection, and in respect for what we have accomplished as a species.

Such a neat idea, if you ask me :)

What I liked least
Just a tiny detail that has bugged me at times, it was never explained what a WEPS was, and what it could or could not do. This was of course the right choice for the author, as the device was supposed to be a familiar one to the narrator, John, and as such he had no reason to think of its description; however I took it to be some kind of phone with video capabilities, and as such I was a bit confused the few times the WEPS turned out to do things that my idea of it did not accommodate.

Later edit: Mr. Magary was so nice to email me and clarify what the WEPS is, so now I know :)
Here is his explanation:

The deal with the WEPS is that it’s a projected screen you can place anywhere, at any size you want. You can even put it up in the middle of thin air and read it perfectly. So basically it’s a device that acts as your TV, phone, movie theater, GPS, everything. Because the screen can be placed anywhere and at any size, it allows for maximum flexibility.

Cool. Almost, almost what I imagined it to be :)

Recommend it to?
This is a dark and scary yet enjoyable book that steers away from clichés and makes you think. If its premise sounds like something you might enjoy then by all means go for it.

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