Once in a while I spot an article in the New York Times about the quest to extend human life and the promise of a technological, nutritional, or magical discovery addressing that pursuit. Some people in some cultures are living well beyond the Psalmist’s promise of eighty years. Recently, a supercentenarian in Japan gave up the title of longest-living person after 117 years. Oh, the places he must have gone and the things he saw! I wonder if he ever read any 20th century science fiction stories or novels. So many of them explored versions of immortality, like serial lives, cryonics, merging into a collective and enduring body, cloning, being downloaded into a super computer’s “mind, or time-traveling.
I think science fiction appeals to me because so much of it addresses questions of immortality and the Pandora’s box it might open. Would exceptionally long or never-ending life on earth and beyond produce anxiety and stagnation or open paths to greater innovation and positive change? At the moment, I should be working on the last novel of my Malevir trilogy, but I am immersed in the writings of Philip K. Dick; and I am wondering why his work, once criticized by Ursula LeGuin, mostly, for its perceived misogyny, resonates with me right now. In several works, his characters seek to thwart the inevitability of death; yet so many of them die, quickly and violently.
One of the few characteristics my fantasy fiction shares with Philip K. Dick’s novels is not his political nor his metaphysical themes, not his references to futuristic and prophetic technology nor drug-enhanced perceptions, but the permanent uncertainty distinguishing human life and its end. For many people, today’s established religions address that issue in different ways, on the basis of time-honored doctrines and faith. Other people look for answers elsewhere, or they just don’t bother.
At any moment in my Malevir: Dragons Return (2015) and Where Dragons Follow (2018), malevolent and deadly outside forces threaten to destroy life in the world of Dragonwolder. My characters know the source of their woes and, except for a shape-shifter’s deceits, they usually find ways of confronting or eluding danger. They assume, given a monster’s defeat, their lives will follow a conventional arc: birth, life/love/work, and death in old age. Eschatology or the study of end times does not enter their conversations except in matters most practical: “how do we escape this monster and survive his attacks, so the world will go on as ordained?” They don’t fret about the reason for their existence. They exist, and they act, albeit with great feeling.
Dick’s characters are caught up in a world not of their own making, a world destroyed or greatly altered by war, artificial intelligence, extra-terrestrial colonization, or even parallel universes. Nothing is as it seems, not for them nor for the reader.
In Ubik, his 1968 novel imagining the futuristic world of 1992, psychic agents and a telepathic/psychopathic time-altering stranger work for a corporation whose task is counter-psychic espionage, designed to safeguard industrial intellectual and physical property. This seemingly straight-forward premise devolves into a whirling kaleidoscope of parallel realities, which actually may be illusory. In Ubik, people have found a way to live cryonically—frozen—after death, if they can afford it in what Dick has called “half-life,” whereby they can link mentally with a visitor and carry on a conversation—or do they? Ubik leaves us with the question, “Is everything we’ve just read an invention of the only characters actually alive, those in “half-life?” Closing the book, I’m left thinking about a world where everyone is living in a Truman’s Show*, but no one knows who the prime mover might be.
My next post will consider an equally disorienting PKD work The Man in the High Castle, a multi-layered and intriguing, speculative puzzler.
*The Truman Show, a 1998 American satirical science fiction film directed by Peter Weir. A man whose fake life is a tv show is kept in the dark about his world.