I’ve seen human foibles that have resulted in temporary maiming or momentary loss of life. People stumble into manholes, are hit by falling objects, trip into the paths of speeding vehicles.
And when it happens, people laugh, because no matter how gruesome the event, that person, just like the coyote, will be back in a day or two, as good as new, and no worse—or wiser—for the wear.
Immortality has turned us all into cartoons.
In 2016, a novel called Scythe by Neal Shusterman—award-winning author of Unwind and Challenger Deep—was published, and I loved it.
Scythe is the story of a post-mortal world, united and benevolently watched over by an advanced, omniscient AI called The Thunderhead—the sum total of humanity’s knowledge, dreams, and wishes. While The Thunderhead can see all and intervene to protect its subjects, it also isn’t completely all-powerful. Humanity created one more system in order to self-maintain and keep its altruistic protector from becoming its tyrant overlord: Scythes. A completely separate, self-governing body, the Scythes are the true watchmen of society. Scythes alone have the power to glean—that is, to permanently kill their fellow humans. And kill they must, for in a world where old age, disease, and accidental death have been irradicated, someone needs to keep the population under control (and remind humans of their own mortality). Scythe follows two young people, Rowan and Citra, as they begin on their apprenticeship to become Scythes and gradually shows us the tension and corruption that inevitably comes with unchecked power.
This January, the second book in the Arc of a Scythe trilogy was released. Thunderhead picks up immediately where Scythe left off, still following Rowan and Citra (now Scythes Lucifer and Anastasia) as they navigate a fraught scythedom and avoid those who oppose and desire their final deaths. But Thunderhead is not just the story of two young Scythes, fighting the system; no, it is also the story of the AI who watches and waits, slowly making its own moves and plans to adjust the sickness it senses but is prevented from acting upon.
Besides the fact that they are both utterly excellent books, in both Scythe and Thunderhead, the concept of post-mortality and the ramifications of a world without death are central, fascinating themes. Which got me thinking: what other books out there examine a post-mortal world? And which ones do it in a way that carefully weighs the strain on resources, both economic and human, that such a world would entail? Certainly there are many monster novels about immortality (I know this because I tried looking for other books about immortality and that’s all I got)—and while Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend or Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire are technically about the human cost of immortality and awesome in their own right, they don’t quite get at the mortality question in the same way.
Hence, this list—inspired by Shusterman’s Scythe and Thunderhead, here are some (non-monster) science fiction books about the horrors of immortality.
Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman. In a world where death has been conquered in almost all of its forms because of a super-AI, possessing the medical ability and technological savvy to revive any salvageable body, humanity has lost some of its vitality. In order to maintain order and control the population, Scythes are given a quota of humans they must glean—that is, permanently kill each month. With great power comes great responsibility—Shusterman follows this thread down the Scythedom as well as from the perspective of the Thunderhead, and It. Is. Awesome.
The Eden Cycle by Raymond Z. Gallun. A science fiction novel from the 1970s, The Eden Cycle is set in a world in which humanity has received the gift of immortality from aliens. With the abililty to create their own worlds, each based on historical eras, two humans explore the adventures that immortality provides… but where does that adventure end? How long can humans endure a virtual world of permanent bliss and freedom from consequence of death before they tire of it and realize it is simulation and not reality? The Eden Cycle follows two humans as they make this realization, and decide what comes next.
The Postmortal by Drew Magary. This is perhaps the closest analog to Scythe and Thunderhead on this list—Magary envisions a pre-apocalyptic dystopia in The Postmortal with his world where aging can be halted with a single cure (but humans can still die or be maimed thanks to disease, accident, suicide, or murder). Magary’s view of the post-mortal world is narrated by the full-of-ennui perpetual 27-year-old, John, who shows us just how narcissitic a society of eternally youthful humans could become. As more people get the cure—especially after it is first discovered—the polarization between old and young becomes more pronounced. As the years pass, resources are drained, humanity wallows in its own apathy, and the world is a very ugly place. If you’re looking for a satirical and thought-provoking (if relentlessly pessimistic) view of the post-mortal world, look no further.
Starters by Lissa Price. This one is a bit of a stretch, but shares some qualities with post-mortalism that give it a place on this list. In a world ravaged by a biological weapon that killed humans between the ages of 20 and 60, children and teenagers are left to fend for themselves… and be exploited by the sexagenarian-plus population. Enter a corporation called Prime Destinations, which exchanges saftey and money to its youthful employees in return for allowing elderly patrons to briefly inhabit their bodies. Briefly, right?
The Immortality Virus by Christine Amsden. Another more contemporary novel, The Immortality Virus is a mystery/police procedural, following a signal that caused the human race to suddenly stop aging in the mid-21st century. No one knows why the signal appeared or how to reverse it—but after four centuries of non-aging, the world has become a very dark place. The Immortality Virus follows a former cop/current PI Grace Harper, whose mission is to find the originator of the virus and reverse it, in order to save the world.
The Declaration by Gemma Malley. Last but certainly not least, there’s the Declaration series by Gemma Malley. In Malley’s vision of the post-mortal world, in which longevity drugs can be taken to permanently halt aging and dying, there is one big problem: overpopulation. In order to prevent the world from being overrun with immortals, a Declaration must be signed by all of its citizens—no citizen can procreate without giving up one life for their child’s life. Of course people don’t follow that rule as they want children and to live forever—and those resource-wasting children that are born without paying the mortality fee are deemed Surpluses and are treated as slaves. The Declaration is a Young Adult novel that follows this premise to its bitter end through the eyes of two Surpluses—and I highly recommend it.
So there you have it! A list of post-mortal books that share a few central themes (overpopulation, resource control, and a unifyingly dystopian vision of the world). Any other post-mortal recommendations are welcome!