First off, let me acknowledge that I failed in my plan to read a happy novel. Drew Magary’s The Postmortal is chilling. When this book was recommended to me by a friend, their description of the plot led me to expect Magary’s vision of a horrific future to be reminiscent of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Though certain aspects of his novel certainly have parallels to Orwell’s and Bradbury’s works, Magary does not look to the government as the agent of societal destruction; rather, he turns to something typically lauded in modern society: scientific progress. Further, Magary doesn’t just show an oppressed society, he shows one that is tearing itself to shreds from the inside out.
The novel begins with a forward, explaining that the following text is a sample of the personal journal of a man named John Farrell, and that all he writes seems to be true and line up with known historical events. John’s journal begins in 2019, when a proven cure for aging has been found and become available on the black market. The cure for aging doesn’t make a person immortal — it just stops the aging process. People can still die from disease, starvation, getting shot, etc. John gets the cure, freezing his age forever at 29. He doesn’t tell anyone at first, not sure what people will think, but his best friend weasels the truth from him and begs John to take her to the doctor that gave him the cure. He relents, but tragedy strikes when a pro-death terrorist bombs the building, killing John’s friend and many others.
This early tragedy sets the tone for the entire novel. John will briefly find happiness in his ageless state, then have it violently ripped away from him. The novel spans sixty years, but Magary deftly shows the reader how quickly the natural order is derailed, and how extreme the consequences are. The black market cure is eventually legalized, and almost everybody flocks to the doctors to have their age stopped in its tracks. People begin differentiating their “cure age” from their “true age”. When no one is dying, the expected problems come to fruition. Overcrowding. Food shortages. Fuel shortages. Housing shortages. Skyrocketing prison population. Ageless soldiers create massive national armies, then splinter into Rogue Military Units, or RMUs.
John works as a lawyer, where the cure for aging creates all sorts of new niches for legal work. Wills and estate law begin to fade away, though marriage and divorce law take on a whole new weight. Divorce statistics explode when “til death do us part” suddenly isn’t a given anymore. “Cycle marriages” become popular; they essentially are a marriage contract set to last a certain amount of time (twenty years, forty years, etc.), after which each person can either go their own way, with their own assets, with no hard feelings, or opt in for a second cycle. It’s not just marriage that changes after the cure; regard for human life, raising children, education, and planning for the future all fall by the wayside. Gangs of many different types spring up in every sector of society. They cause mayhem and pain, and even seem to thrive on the chaos left in their wake. The fundamental building blocks of society worldwide begin to crumble, and nobody seems inclined to pick them back up.
After a string of personal tragedies lead John to feel he has nothing left to lose, he becomes an End Specialist. Essentially, he carries out government-sanctioned executions. Some people are weary of the world and ask for assisted suicide. Some are criminals that are deemed to dangerous to continue living. Even more darkly, some are simply senior citizens that the government has decided to eradicate. This is where Magary’s novel becomes its bleakest. John sees the world as it has become: a cannibalistic entity that survives only by self-consumption.
The Postmortal is a quick read, and tough to put down despite its utterly depressing view of the near future. John’s journal is comprised of not only his own entries, but also transcripts of news reports, presidential speeches, and internet chatter. John finds brief moments of happiness, and it is those moments that I found the quiet, whispered message behind the blaring warning about humankind’s current course in the world. Magary reminds the reader that there are things worth living for, and not one of them can be bought or sold. There are other interesting themes of class warfare and international relations, but the real heart of the story is John’s arc through cocky semi-immortal, adult understanding, and disillusioned drifter. The novel reads like a sci-fi adventure, but saturated with real emotion, and realistic actions and consequences.
It’s a story that has been imagined before, certainly. There are stories about the lonely immortal in many cultures, stretching back thousands of years. Magary’s novel is certainly worth reading, if only to remind us that we can’t afford to ignore the problems facing today’s world. It’s a good book, but kind of a downer. The Postmortal left me with the words of Freddie Mercury drifting through my mind: who wants to live forever?
A review of the Hunger Games movie is coming soon! Happy reading!