Tim Clare’s Cone O’ Tragedy: On Immortality

Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you. Especially do all stories of monogamy end in death, and your man who is monogamous while he often lives most happily, dies in the most lonely fashion. There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it.

– Ernest Hemingway, Death In The Afternoon

Lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about immortals, how we portray them in fiction and why we tell stories about them.

To deal with the last first, the obvious answer is: because immortality breaks the normal rules of human existence in interesting ways. It confers many cool fringe benefits from a slow sort of one-way time travel (the sort we’re all engaged in, but over much longer distances) to the accruing of unique knowledge and experience.

Usually we’re told that immortality comes at a terrible price. If you’re a lone immortal, you have to watch your loved ones age and die, watch the world you knew disappear in the name of ‘progress’, live through countless wars, see humanity fall for the same tricks, commit the same follies over and over. Perhaps you carry the memories of personal betrayals or failures. Perhaps you become burdened with guilt. Perhaps those humans who discover your immortality react with prejudice and fear. You may well have spent a few hundred years buried alive.

As a result, most immortals are presented – at their most benign – as Sad Ancients, distant, aloof, unable to take true pleasure in the world. Many more are actively contemptuous towards humanity and its petty foibles. They are incapable of empathy, cold, unkind. Occasionally this lack of feeling manifests in out-and-out psychopathy.

Where immortality is spread amongst members of an elite, it almost always breeds decadence and a kind of aristocratic langour. Whether vampires or Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality or many of the other literary and filmic examples, immortals live the high life but, as we observe them a little longer, we realise that something’s missing. There’s no love, no true joy. Their bodies may continue, but they’re dead behind the eyes.

I don’t know – to me, a lot of these stories feel like elaborate sour grapes. It’s as if the author’s reassuring herself: ah, you wouldn’t want to live forever! It’d be hellish/dull/loveless. Death is the twist of lemon that makes life worthwhile.

To which I say: bollocks.

As if my enjoyment of a mutton pie is predicated on the knowledge that me and everyone I have ever loved is or will be dead. What nonsense!

But of course, stories thrive on conflict. That’s the point of them. There isn’t much fun in a bunch of immortals with no problems, organising kayaking holidays, etc. And when happy immortals do turn up, all frisky and full of one-liners, they tend to come off as cheesy, ersatz pastiches rather than convincing characters.

For me, when tackling a big novum like this, the best SF fiction explores a range of reactions to it. It asks: what are the consequences of this? What are interesting ways in which the system could be broken? Who benefits most from this? Who suffers most from it? What compelling scenarios could only exist in a universe where this is possible? What creative solutions to problems could arise from this?

If I become immortal – totally happy to test-pilot some of these assumptions, just putting that out there – I think I’d end up like Kermit the Frog in the most recent Muppets movie. Not drained of feelings by years of life – quite the opposite. As I get older, I get more sentimental. I tear up at the drop of a hat. Simple things become hugely pleasurable, like sitting down with a cup of tea and slice of cake, or watching water creaming over a weir. Life is sad, but so, so beautiful. I can’t help but feel that Kermit – as an inhuman immortal himself – totally gets it, and provides us with a model for eternal life as a liche king/cyborg/gauzy spectre, wondering through the dusty hallways of our memories as the universe winds down towards heat death.