The Immortals, Tracy Hickman

ROC, 1996, 430 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-45404-9

WARNING! The following review contains spoilers. I just don’t care, but you just might.

The following quote from the book’s after word pretty much says it all:

“I had wanted to write this book years ago, but could find no one who was interested in publishing it. I was told—why would I want to write something, so obviously serious as this? I wasn’t the right time, some said. It wasn’t commercial, said others. I told [friends] I wanted to write a near future book about AIDS concentration camps. They were vehement in their response: they thought it was a terrible idea.” [p.427]

Hickman then goes on to demonstrate that the friends in question were bigoted fundamentalists (“I don’t hear from them much lately” he adds wryly), but this doesn’t really distract from the three most important words of this excerpt: “a terrible idea”

On one hand, I can admire when an author goes on a crusade. But only if it’s done with an appropriate degree of wit and sophistication. It may mean very little or very much, but whenever one embarks on an AIDS diatribe (or any kind of social crusade), one must do so very carefully, or risk trivializing the message.

Sadly enough, that’s the case with Hickman’s The Immortals.

In the near-future, an AIDS-fighting cure becomes even more virulent, evolving into a form called V-CIDS. It seems to be airborne-carried and as deadly as the disease it was designed to cure. Victims are identified and sent in concentration camps in the Utah desert. In comes a man, looking for his estranged son.

The particular camp he walks into is led by a fundamentalist dictator, who segregated the camp in “straight” and “gay” sectors. But the casual violence, overburdened health facilities, complete human misery and constant hate are trifles compared to what the protagonist eventually discovers: The camp is only one of many, and they’re all designed for one thing: Complete destruction every few months. At a given time, bombers lob a few FAE canisters above the camp, which ignite and burn everything down to ashes in a matter of minutes. A few days later, the camp is rebuilt and the cycle begins anew—with a brand new shipment of V-CIDS victims.

I’ll admit it; this is the only part of the book that got a good reaction out of me. The sheer orchestrated evil of such a construct is enough to make anyone read carefully and remember the details. Hickman has imagined an all-too-plausible update to the Nazi’s cremation camps—with an even greater degree of efficiency.

Too bad that such a terrific concept is encased in interminable grimness. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but a far more effective method of presenting such a concept would be in a short story. Big revelation. Cue sound of bombers in the distance. End of story.

But noooo. Our protagonist finds his son, realizes his impending doom, manages to overthrow the evil fundie bastard and gets fried to a crisp. (There is an optimistic kicker which I’ll keep for anyone still undeterred enough to read the book, but it doesn’t change the fact that most are dead-dead-dead by the end of the novel.)

But beyond the downer and overall sense of futility, there’s the oh-so-slight detail that The Immortals is just not a very pleasant book to read. The characters are indistinct, featureless and unlikeable. The writing is muddled, dull and unfocused. Thematically, Hickman coasts too much on a SCHINDLER’S LIST atmosphere, and not enough on any real effort to make us care. Rather that sticking to the story, Hickman goes everywhere and anywhere, never giving his narrative any focused energy. Most of the book is spent waiting for things to happen, and even whatever happens prove to be pretty much useless.

In the end, it’s not quite “a terrible idea”, but certainly an ill-executed one. Such a somber, serious subject can become tedious if handled with anything less than a perfect touch, and The Immortals quickly cloys itself in a featureless sermon that transcends whatever good intentions it had. You don’t have to be a bigot not to like The Immortal: you just have to be disappointed.

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