Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Postmortal - speculative fiction done right.

 Note: This is a short one, but don't worry, I'll be posting more throughout the week.  I promise.  Some of these dang things have been backlogged for about a month.

            Speculative fiction holds a special place in my heart.  I would consider the 7th grade to be the year that I really became as dedicated to reading as I am today.  The book that got me to transition from young adult literature to the heavier adult stuff was Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.  Since then I’ve read everything that I could from Dr. Crichton, even trying to track down the non-fiction works that are out of print with varying levels (read: complete lack of) success.  Those of you who know Dr. Crichton’s work will know where I’m going with this, because Michael Crichton is the disputed king of modern speculative fiction.  Between Sphere, Timeline often thought of as the goofy Michael Crichton novel, the controversial State of Fear and the admittedly pretty impenetrable and egotistical Next, Michael Crichton has dominated the genre since the 1980’s with a slew of highly intelligent and entertaining titles.  So why are these stories (at least to me), the gold standard in speculative fiction?  In order to dissect such a question, I’ll be looking at another novel by a different author with similar themes and traits, in particular this novel deserves a bit more recognition by the public at large.

Today’s subject, The Postmortal by Drew Magary is much in the same vein as Crichton’s tales.  The story follows a twenty-something lawyer living New York in the not entirely far away future, I don't think a specific date is ever given in the book, but call it like 2015 or so.  The story’s framing device is a blog that John Farrell, the aforementioned young man, maintains at an almost obsessive level.  But John is small fish in this case, he’s pretty much just the most effective witness that he needs to be at any given time.  To be honest, his character arc takes a few bizarre turns to make sure that he is at the right place at the right time.  The real story concerns the world at large.  See, a Swedish scientist, in an attempt to cure the world of gingers (seriously), accidentally discovers a eugenic cure for aging.  The story is divided into a number of time periods with “The Cure” still illegal when the novel opens. 

The story uses John, who is actually kind of a tool at the get-go, as the everyman who observes what happens to the world once people stop aging.  John initially rationalizes that he wants the cure for this exact reason, before admitting that he's horrified by the concept of death.  The real meat of the story, at least for me, is how immortality changes human culture, and then how necessity changes the culture of immortality.  The obvious problem is of course, the problem of overpopulation, but the author also makes some interesting and logical leaps.  A perfect example of this is in the Church of Man.  The creation of immortality essentially eliminates the need for religion that focuses on what happens after one dies.  To that end, the Church of Man, a faith that emphasizes faith in one’s self and in one’s fellow man, is established.  The Church of Man is a controversial subject and despite the fact that John voices his own distrust for the group many times, the new faith plays a key role in uniquely dystopic future of the last acts.

            This is what speculative fiction is about.  The author picks a big idea, and runs with it, all the way the somewhat insane and inevitably conclusion.  But there’s a single kernel, deep down inside both the tales of Michael Crichton and The Postmortal that to my mind, allows them to be what I consider to be the best in their genre.  They could never happen.  Okay, so that’s not strictly true, a lot of what Crichton wrote about has potential but it’s still pretty far out, and The Postmortal takes things one-step further by having something that might as well be fantasy.  In some regards this could be called out as taking easy way out.  A lot of speculative fiction is about the author deliberately stating their opinion through the progression of their interpretation of a likely event be it a pandemic, the creation of just over the horizon technologies or the like.  But when the idea is utterly absurd like the reanimation of dinosaurs through DNA found in amber or the discovery of a cure for aging, the ideas that are examined couldn’t have been nearly as deep.  I doubt that with a more realistic topic that Michael Crichton could’ve used the theme of chaos theory as effectively.  Similarly, The Postmortal examines issues of self-image, confidence, relationships and faith through its unique framing device.  Furthermore, too much speculative fiction is about providing the audience with an answer.  These horrors can be prevented if…is the vibe that I get from many of the stories that I’ve read.

Now, to be fair, Crichton wasn’t above this himself.  Sate of Fear is very much about the author’s stance on global warming but even then it just makes a point, it never offers a solution, though it takes a gleeful pleasure in dismembering many of the then current theories on the matter.  What I’m talking about is more evident in Dr. Crichton’s earlier works.  Jurassic Park wasn’t strictly about cloning dinosaurs, it was about exploring the question of how we can use science in our society particularly genetics.  The Postmortal is much the same.  Drew Magary’s story isn’t about the author’s stance on a situation or giving a solution to a current problem.  It’s an observation of the human condition and attempts to examine what happens to that condition when you remove a key part of the whole “human” thing but it never gives any direct answers to any of the questions that it asks.  To me this is what good speculative fiction does.  It asks questions and leaves the answers in the hands of the reader.

I hope that this article has been sufficient enough to spark some interests in speculative fiction.  Michael Crichton isn’t the only excellent writer in the genre since it’s so popular with writers.  You should also pick up The Postmortal since you know it’s utterly crazy.  Next time, we’ll discuss the book-to-film adaptation and the rare impossible adaptation.

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