Friday, 19 August 2011

‘The End Specialist’/’The Postmortal’ – Drew Magary (Harper Voyager/Penguin)

This seems to be the week for reviewing books that have more than one title and publisher doesn’t it? For those of you who are wondering, ‘The End Specialist’ is the UK edition and ‘The Postmortal’ is the American edition. For the purposes of this review I will be referring to the book as ‘The Postmortal’; I know there’s only a one word difference between the two titles but it’s been a long day and I’m tired...

If you had the choice, would you want to live forever? I’ll admit to being curious about what the future holds but I’m not sure that I’d want to live a couple of hundred years (and more) just so I can find out. I’d never really put too much thought into it but, even before I’d read ‘The Postmortal’, I couldn’t get away from the feeling that there was more to this ‘living forever lark’ than meets the eye. I’ll stick with the life I’ve got thanks very much! ;o)

I’ll bet you’re the same as me and see the whole concept of living forever as a lovely daydream to have (accept when you’re stuck in a meeting, then it really does feel like you are living forever and not in a good way...) but not something to really mull over as it’s never going to happen, is it? It probably won’t ever happen but luckily for us our world is full of speculative fiction authors who are prepared to mull over these ideas for us and see where the journey takes them.
At some point, Drew Magary decided to explore what it would really mean to live forever; not just for individuals but for the entire planet. ‘The Post Mortal’ is the result of that exploration, a book that defies you to read it and still want to live forever by the time you put it down...

It’s the year 2019 and the cure for aging has been discovered. A person taking this cure can still die of unnatural causes (being shot, drowning and so on), or things like cancer, but if they can avoid life’s nastier pitfalls then they will never grow older and will never die. You’ll remain as youthful as you were when you took the cure and you will never leave your loved ones behind. The cure for aging has no drawbacks, or does it?

Lawyer John Farrell took the cure in 2019 and ‘The Postmortal’ is his diary showing the ramifications that the cure had not only for him but for the rest of the world over the course of the next sixty years. There is a lot of joy but far more heartbreak than you would reasonably expect to fit into one normal life, let alone the life of a post mortal...

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was as grim and depressing as ‘The Postmortal’ and was as compelling a read at the same time. Drew Magary sets the ‘Post Cure’ world on a downward spiral that is plausible in almost every detail and flows in an inevitably smooth manner as a result. I literally couldn’t put this one down to the extent that I spent hours reading ‘The Postmortal’ without even realising that the time was going. I’d highly recommend you read this book but what I would say is that after you finish reading, go out and find a cute puppy to stroke or eat a really nice cake. Something that will cheer you up in other words; you’re going to really need it.

Magary sets things up with a vague but plausible explanation of how the cure works. He then goes on to chronicle the gradual decline of ‘post mortal’ society with a relentless intensity that left me seriously wondering how he managed to get out of bed each morning and face the rest of the world. Because that’s the point of the whole book, the cure for aging is available but no-one stops to think what it will really mean if you take it. Magary’s view of humanity is pessimistic but sobering at the same time as there is a real hint of truth to this mass reaction. If you get the chance to drink from the fountain of eternal youth, are you really going to worry about the taste it leaves in your mouth afterwards? You’re not, no-one is and this is the springboard that Magary uses to show us what the inevitable results of the Cure really are.

These results are seen through the eyes of one John Farrell, a city lawyer who wanted to cheat death and avoid what his mother went through. Farrell’s diary shows what he goes through ‘post cure’ at the same time as events are unfolding worldwide. This is a clever approach as the plight of each individual serves to flesh out wider events and gives the whole book a real feeling of substance.
The main problem is, of course, massive overpopulation as not only is a large chunk of humanity not growing any older but it’s still continuing to breed. The ramifications of this are felt everywhere as armies grow exponentially, food and water prices skyrocket and people eventually turn on each other over what is left. Population control takes on a brutal new turn as cities are bombed, people are tattooed with their date of birth and the job of ‘End Specialist’ is born.

This is where John Farrell comes back into the story as the one thing about immortality that no-one really thought of is that it means you’re going to have to work that much longer to pay the bills...
John’s search for meaning in his new life sees him take on an ‘End Specialist’ role contracting for the US government. The changes to his job description are another clever way of mirroring the demands placed on the US in particular as overpopulation hits hard. What originally is a means of helping people die easily becomes something far more sinister as sections of the populace are targeted by the government for ‘containment’. It’s a grim vision of the future, all the more so because Magary has clearly thought it through to the smallest detail. John’s quest for some kind of redemption sometimes appears to be misguided (I had trouble working out why he did what he did) but it’s still worth following just to see how the backdrop gradually crumbles into climactic scenes of barbarism tempered by the last scraps of hope for the future.

Magary’s ‘world without death’ is grim, no doubt about it. It’s a world where a doting mother can sentence her daughter to an eternity as an eight month old baby. It’s also a world where overcrowding in jails means that the death sentence is increasingly used for the slightest infractions. It’s a world where no detail is left out and that’s what makes it such a compelling read. If the 'SF Masterworks' series is still going in fifty years then I wouldn't be surprised if this book features somewhere on the list, the vision it gives us is stunning.

If you read only one book this year then I’d seriously consider making it this one, I highly recommend it. Like I said though, go out and do something to cheer yourself up after you finish reading it. You’re not going to live forever so you may as well be happy in the meantime ;o) Look out for 'The Postmortal' on the 30th of August; 'The End Specialist' will be published as an eBook on the same date but if you're looking for a hard copy you'll be waiting until the end of September.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Bets Davies said...

Wow. I use immortal (well, people that can die but need to be killed) characters all the time as most of them are mythical, but I've generally avoided plumming these depth. For one, my characters generally only reproduce on very rare occasions. Any way, this book sounds fascinating but despite your stellar review of a spectacular job of world building, I probably won't read it. I need some humor and gentleness to counteract the depressing.

(I wouldn't want to live forever)

gie said...

sounds interesting. I'll give this book a shot this weekend :) great review, you got me curious! thanks :)