Home > Books > The Postmortal by Drew Magary

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Something very strange seems to happen to writers with literary pretensions when they sit down to pen a novel. An unfortunate number decide to write science fiction. Not all are as successful as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Indeed, most of them fail because they do not know the history and tropes of the science fiction genre. However, we need be clear about this. Using the word “literary” is neither good nor bad. It just describes the style in which the book is written. In a way, it becomes a genre in its own right regardless of content. Ironically, you can have writers trapped in what they see as the literary ghetto who think they can break out into the science fiction ghetto — it’s a bigger pool in which to be a fish. So what is it that literary writers bring to the table? Well, they usually make a more sophisticated use of language and deal with the subject matter in a way that highlights moral ambiguity. For this reason, the protagonists tend to be less heroic even if they are given guns, swords or other weapons and are expected to use them. Think about Hamlet who gets to interact with ghosts, experience angst because his mother accepts her brother-in-law as a lover even though she knows he killed her husband, and fights with a sword like a proper fantasy hero. So a literary approach elevates the level of writing from the more usual escapist, badly-written rubbish sold as science fiction or fantasy to something more thought-provoking and interesting. The danger is that arrogant literary authors think they are being innovative, but actually reinvent the science fiction wheel over and over again. The ideal is that good authors just write good science fiction or fantasy novels.

Drew Magary — too young to be worried about death

So here comes The Postmortal by Drew Magary and he attempts to introduce two elements of novelty. First, the form comprises blog entries and other digital documents supposedly recovered from a “long-lost” machine and edited for publication, i.e. it avoids the more conventional prose as narrative approach. Second, unlike McCarthy, he’s chosen to write a pre-apocalyptic book. Except, to justify the exchange of nuclear weapons, he insists we go down the well-trodden road of immortality. Of course, our mythology has always featured lack of death as a sign of divinity. All the classical gods were immortal and, better still, more or less immune to injury. Even if someone bad tempered chained you to a rock and had a hungry bird start eating your liver, it would keep growing back thus hinting at a possible drawback to the inability to die. Indeed, once people start thinking about the practicality of immortality, it’s easy to come up with a whole range of problems. The most obvious focus on the inexorable rise in population set against finite resources of food and energy. But then you get into all the nitty gritty of what people would do and how it would be financed. Today, we are burdening our young with the costs of healthcare for the ageing population. If people were frozen at the physical age when they were treated but could still have all the traditional problems of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on, how long might society have to subsidise their care?

Drew Magary is actually attempting something rather tricky. The politics of the situation are very interesting, but even the most thoughtful of political thrillers has to have gunfire and explosions at some point. Few people today are prepared to wade through talking heads deconstructing how the Democrats and Republicans might view the issue of access to the immortality treatment. For example, Messiah by Gore Vidal is not currently a bestseller, yet the theme of the book is identical, i.e. that there are too many people in the world, most of them have no value, so killing them off under the cover of Cavesway, a death cult, is the kindest thing to do. In The Postmortal, once the immortality treatment is “out there”, the only thing rational governments can do is kill off as many people as possible without being caught doing it — that would be bad politics. So Magary avoids Vidal’s long Platonic discussions and gets on with the more action-based stuff. He has a pro-death movement start a bombing campaign against the researchers and doctors supplying the treatment. Naturally, they are given the support of the Catholic Church which is threatening to excommunicate anyone who tries to escape God’s judgement by postponing death. Some of the individual ideas are great fun like the rare Peter Pan cases and, as an item on a must-do list, the desire to machine-gun a dead cow in Cambodia — I suppose life can get pretty boring as the years go by and this is just the thing you need to enliven you for another twenty years. In the end, Magary explores how the world community might react in a reasonably rigorous way. The problem is that we lack any real overview. This is one man’s experience and, although he’s in a position to see some Government policy in action, we have no idea what drives the process he’s engaged in. Similarly, the China bashing is beyond stereotyping and the Balkanisation of the Soviet block a hoary cliché. These just pander to American readers’ prejudices. Nevertheless, The Postmortal remains interesting. As some evidence of this, I note that, under the title The End Specialist, it’s been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award for best novel. I can’t say that I’m very impressed by the shortlist and I don’t expect it to win, but the fact that some people with experience of the science fiction world think it a contender is indicative of quality. It was also shortlisted for the 2012 P K Dick Award but did not win.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: