The Immortals; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

There seems to be enough interest in James Gunn’s work that I’ll continue.

I’ve read most of Gunn’s work. Unfortunately, I didn’t write anything up on a lot of it.

I think he deserves a detailed treatment like some of the other authors I like. That is in the future, though, since I already have more immediate projects I want to tackle.

Apropos of little, I always think of this book when visiting the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota — close to an entire town given over to medicine.

Joachim Boaz took a look at the novel too.

Raw Feed (1990): The Immortals, James Gunn, 1962.The Immortals

This novel belongs to that sociological sf school of the fifties and early sixties — a time of much great sf. In it, one sociological trend is extrapolated — often to absurdity — to see where it might lead. This may seem like an absurdly unrealistic style — especially in the age of cyberpunk authors like Bruce Sterling who extrapolate several trends at once — but it’s perfectly valid. It’s not sf’s job to predict the future. Any success in that regard is usually limited and coincidental. Extrapolation is ideally suited to philosophically examining the issues surrounding a matter — which is Gunn’s forte.

Here the scientific extrapolations, at least technology-wise are limited — mainly a gamma globulin factor in the blood of the Cartwright family which grants immortality. The novel uses the now dated concept of cancer, arteriosclerosis, and old age as one disease that can be cured by keeping the circulatory system operating.. (Now we know, of course, cancer has many causes and that good arteries aren’t the only secret to long life.) Gunn uses the concept of immortality transferred by blood transfusion to explore a variety of questions.

Gunn looks at the way humanity handles the idea of death. As is repeated throughout the book, we’re all dying. It’s just that with some death is more imminent. Life is a chance to produce. Gunn’s attack on the idea of intensive medical care to prolong life includes the argument that those so treated are often not the most productive members of society. The book is also a call to live life fully. As Dr. Pearce says to Leroy Weaver — ruthless, evil millionaire — you must feel religious about your job or not do it.

Gunn also looks at medical care and society’s attitude toward it. Indeed, immortality is simply the ultimate quest of medicine. Gunn asks if we really want it and do we know what it will cost. His questions seem just as timely in an age where we talk of medical costs rising, being rationed, and socialized medicine. Regarding the latter, he says, in answering the objection that socialized medicine would lead to society setting standards for whom gets care, he points out that selling medical services on a free market also uses an arbitrary standard: money and the treatment of those who can make it — not always society’s best and most productive members. He argues for considering the social cost of medical care at all costs: the diminishing returns of paying ever larger amounts to prolong a life already beyond its productive years; the continuing drain on resources by giving hospitals tax-breaks, subsidies, research grants; the pervasive hypochondria. Gunn also considers other hidden costs which have less importance due to medical advances: specifically the problem of passed on genetic defects. With contraception technology, genetic testing, and abortion, this problem is a lot less today.

Other problems in modern life were pinpointed early by Gunn: pollution, antibiotic resistant disease, and stress related diseases. Gunn may be hinting many diseases are psychosomatic in origin when Russell Pearce tells Harry Elliott that he helps people, as a healer, heal themselves. Early in the novel, Pearce tells Medic Flowers that “A sound mind in a sound body” is the ancient wisdom medicine thought. He is referring not only to psychosomatic disease and the later seemingly psychic healing of the novel’s end but also the novel’s major thematic statement: “Nothing in excess”. Pearce functions as the voice of reason and moral commentary in the novel. Even life, says Gunn, can come at to high a price. Yet, Pearce is dedicated to medicine. He doesn’t object to immortality. He just realizes the tremendous problems it will entail. Indeed the world of immortals seems scary and society must adjust to the shock slowly. Pearce also attacks medicine for dividing men into those with white coats and patients, for doctors becoming little more than technicians (perhaps he is implying they should help the soul as well as the body). The last, however, is a tentative conclusion. Gunn makes an implicit and quite valid analogy between medicine and religion: both with ritual, jargon, and pushing back of death. Gunn compares his future medicine to the medieval church. Both drain and destroy the very society that supports them. The medieval patterns shows up elsewhere with the references to bosses and squires.

The narrative structure is one Gunn frequently uses in novels: a series of linked novelettes or novellas with some common characters throughout. Here Dr. Russell Pearce appears the most — in the first, third, and fourth parts, and I liked it. While the fix-up of four shorter works didn’t flow smoothly, the disjointed quality (for instance we sense an entire, interesting story behind how Jason Locke, private eye of the first part, becomes the ruthless director of the search for the Cartwrights in the second part or more detail of Pearce’s life) added an interesting flavor. The lurid details of head hunters (a precursor to Larry Niven’s organleggers) and defaulters on insurance payments (i.e. unwilling organ donors) and roving gangs of company policeman in training lent an adventure flavor along with the decay of Kansas. (It was Gunn who remarked in an essay that most sf writers get around to destroying their hometown.)

All quite lurid — especially the evil, disgusting Weavers. Throughout the novel, Gunn makes even his most unpalatable characters utter truths — often unpleasant. That is especially true of Weaver. Governor Weaver may be the first in that tradition of disgusting, obese (and, here, incestuous) villains carried on by Baron Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune or the cannibals in Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas. The Weavers are power mad and ruthless. Yet, they do pose valid questions as to whom is most valuable to society and most deserving of care.

All in all, a narrative of strange, disjointed, lurid flavor and worthwhile philosophical questions. For a sf treatment of immorality, it’s quite good for it strikes at the very heart of the matter: how much is life worth even without immortality? Gunn is less interested in how immortality could be achieved than about if it should be attained. Not for trite reasons often given — the supposed value of struggle and the preciousness of fleeting life or eternal boredom — but deep philosophical questions.


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9 thoughts on “The Immortals; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

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