The First Immortal, James L. Halperin

Del Rey, 1998, 342 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-42092-6

Sometimes, it’s difficult to say what’s advancing faster; science or science-fiction. One of the best examples of this might be the recent interest in immortality. To live forever! To end death! To cast off the chains of predetermined lifespans! Sound interesting, but the wonderful thing is how we’re not only talking about it, but we’re doing so in a perfectly rational way. The underlying question doesn’t seems to be “is it possible?” as much as “when will it happen?”

James L. Halperin’s second novel The First Immortal has a large canvas (two centuries) and an even larger goal: to be the definitive novel about the coming obsolescence of death. In many ways, it succeeds.

Faithful readers might remember James Halperin’s first novel, The Truth Machine. An ill-written, but fascinating novel about the development and consequences of a perfect truth machine, it was a splendid example of pure Science Fiction written outside the genre of SF. (Both novel share the same universe, though The First Immortal goes further in the future.)

The First Immortal is a bit like The Truth Machine on Prozac.

On one hand, it loses the fantastically unlikely characters of the first volume and tones down most of the embarrassing tendencies of the first volume. The afterword is shorter. It’s better written too, although no one will praise the writing other to say than it’s readable. Halperin exerts more control over the plotting, and the result is a better novel.

On the other hand, immortality is not exactly a new subject and considerably less so when compared to a perfect truth machine. A lot of the quirks that made The Truth Machine so infuriating at times also gave it its personality: Since these are ironed out, The First Immortal is less memorable than its predecessor. The ludicrous yet exciting main conflict of the first book has here been replaced by a series of believable, but uninvolving mini-crisis. No wonder that the half of the book is so excruciatingly long and the last hundred seems to be all sugar & sweet… (Idle thought: the book probably wouldn’t work half as well with crackerjax writing and characters… or wouldn’t be as accessible—same thing.)

But considered on its own terms, The First Immortal isn’t bad as it may first seems. Halperin is an enthusiastic optimist (perhaps too much; the resolution of some problems is more formulaic than convincing), and the story shows it, with all its mock-newspaper heading chronicling humankind’s progress over the next hundred years or so. The result is uplifting. The ultimate prize being to live forever, who would dare not being pleased with Halperin’s extrapolations?

From a scientific standpoint, the novel holds together very well. Halperin is obviously someone who’s as meticulous in his research and he is brilliant in integrating it. There are few discernible flaws in his argumentation (though some will quibble about deadline, psychology and sociology) but -ignoring the fact that the protagonists all seem to be world-leaders in their chosen genres- the scientific breakthroughs all seem plausible, even inevitable. Most extrapolative writers concentrate on a single technology at the expense of all others, but here Halperin makes a credible effort at creating an all-encompassing future.

The First Immortal isn’t such a good choice for the die-hard SF fans, who are already quite familiar with cryogenics, A.I.s, nanotechnologies, virtual reality, digital personality copies, cloning and the rest. (In the introduction, Halperin caution the reader to be open-minded, a singularly useless caveat in the case of SF readers.) An intriguing use of the book, however, could be to painlessly introduce non-fans to a whole array of genre devices. Paperback stocking stuffers?

If anything, it might popularize a more hopeful, more optimistic vision of the future. And that would be quite a coup in itself.

Watch this space for “The First Immortal; a retrospective”, to be uploaded in… oh… January 2098.

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