Heralded as a “population-bomb dystopia in the spirit of Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, and the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, Drew Magary’s The Postmortal presents a world where perhaps the most dreaded disease of all has been eradicated: old age.
Called “The Cure”, it halts a person’s aging process. Take it at age 25, and you’ll be 25 for life, at age 39, and you actually will be perpetually 39. To be clear, the cure doesn’t make people live forever—people can still be murdered, have a heart attack, or die from cancer—but they’ll do it looking a dreamy 26.
In June 2019, the cure is illegal, controversial, and expensive. By August of the same year, it’s legal and affordable. It’s always controversial.
The story follows John Farrell, a young man who receives the cure (illegally) in June 2019. His narrative is juxtaposed with emails, newspapers clippings, and transcripts from various news programs.
The story hits many of the expected points and addresses many of the anticipated ‘what ifs’—what happens to the food supply (don’t worry—it’s not people), fuel supply, social security, and marriage. After all, the cure brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘til death do us part’.
The book also includes some slightly less expected but certainly appreciated touches—like a scientific explanation for the cure that involves DNA and fruit flies. Inserted into the narrative as an article from Slate, we learn “Graham Otto [creator of the cure] never set out to conquer death. He was just hoping to help out the redheads of the world… Working with a team of fellow geneticists, Otto targeted this gene in hopes of finding a way to color hair through gene therapy.” Much to the disappointment of his wife, who was looking forward to “never having to pay three hundred dollars for highlights ever again”, Otto didn’t find a way to genetically alter hair color… but he did find the cure.
Because of the book blurbs, I expected some humor and wasn’t disappointed. I particularly chuckled over: “The producers of Saved by the Bell reboot petitioned the governor of California to allow them to administer the cure to the show’s teenage stars, so that their characters wouldn’t have to graduate in the show”.
I didn’t expect some of the quietly thoughtful and moving scenes such as when John’s father, who received the cure with some reluctance, dies of pancreatic cancer: “He let out an exhalation that lasted a minute, blowing his spirit out of his body. His fate was his own now. His eyes opened wide, the whites now a yolky color. He took both our hands and spit out his last words. ‘Thank you. This is good. This is good.’” Or the sobering story of the mother who gives the cure (illegally) to her eight month old daughter.
The subplots or side plots also abound. We have the “Greenies”—a group of dissenters who carve birthdates into people’s skin. John looks at the 10/1/1990 engraved on his own arm and thinks “That’s my birthday, all right. My real birthday. I used to celebrate it when I was a kid. Now three monsters will forever mock me with it.”
Another sub plot revolves around the Church of Man, of which John’s son is a member. It’s a nondenominational church/cult that believes “the greatest faith we can have is faith in one another. We believe that too often people are intolerant of one another because they fail to recognize the transcendent power of their fellow Man. We are the creators of this world…” and also believes “that our own holy vessels should not be polluted with toxic processed foods”.
The main plot is a little more difficult to track. We follow John through his romantic interests, his jobs, his health issues (mental and physical), and his quest for a blonde he spots early on in the book: “She was nearly six feet tall… naturally tanned. California blonde. If she hadn’t been standing before me, I’d have sworn she could only be created with Photoshop.”
But it’s not a plot in the most traditional sci fi sense. Usually (and, of course, there are always exceptions) the sense of purpose is very clear in classic sci fi. The Invisible Man or Frankenstein’s creation must be caught, aliens must be defeated, the government must be overthrown, the technology gone rogue must be stopped, the mystery must be solved, etc.
The Postmortal doesn’t really feel like any of these stories, but then, perhaps it isn’t supposed to. Consider how the book opens. The opening paragraph relates:
In March 2090, a worker for the Department of Containment named Anton Vyrin was conducting a routine sweep of an abandoned collectivist compound in rural Virginia when he stumbled upon an eighth-generation wireless-enabled projected-screening device (WEPS.8) that was still functional after charging. Stored inside the device’s hard drive was a digital library containing sixty years’ worth of text files written by a man who went by the screen name John Farrell.
This section ends:
Farrell was a remarkably fastidious record keeper. He used the LifeRecorder app to preserve and transcribe virtually every human interaction he had, and he incorporated many portions of those transcripts into his writing. In its entirety, the collection contains thousands of entries and several hundred thousand words, but for the sake of brevity and general readability, they have been edited and abridged into what we believe constitutes an essential narrative, and incontrovertible evidence that the cure for aging must never again be legalized.
This is exactly what the book feels like. And the sense of purpose often simply seems to be how to we get from point A—most people happily taking the cure to Point B—where the world is in disarray and the cure is once again illegal. It’s an interesting approach; plus it’s just fun to speculate what might have been in the entries not included in the “essential narrative.”
While the structure and purpose of the book may be unusual, The Postmortal still includes some of the best aspects of classic science fiction—in particular it calls to mind the works of H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut and the films Soylent Green and Brazil. But it does one thing perhaps none of these works do—it makes growing old seem pretty cool.