Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Immortality in fiction is fascinating, because it’s a way to vicariously cheat death. When I started to think of all the different ways in which a character can be immortal, the list was a long one, but the directions in which such a story could proceed were almost as numerous.
So what forms does immortality take?
Negation of aging/damage/injury
Sometimes it can be caused by the protagonist being immune to injury or disease, or simply recovering from this kind of thing very quickly. A short story that had originally been printed in Asimov’s featured a heroine whose body quickly repaired any damage it took – basically, she was a regenerator.
Since she was tired of living, she kept putting herself into situations where she would be killed, but her physical capabilities kept rising to the occasion. I’ve forgotten the title of the story and the author’s name, but it was an excellent read – especially the end, where the heroine’s gift is finally defeated (or is it? Da da dum!).
The character’s protection from aging or sickness could also be a feature of their race – Tolkien’s elves, for instance, or vampires. Though a race where few if any individuals die naturally might well end up outcompeting any rivals and threatening its own resources or food supply.
Or such protection could be a gift only a few individuals have. The characters in Erin Hunter's YA series Warriors are cats, but only the leaders have nine lives - literally.
Another way to deal with injury or the effects of age is to pass these on to some receptacle (a la The Picture of Dorian Gray) or scapegoat. Provided this was always available to a character, they could technically stave off death for a long time.
Transfer of mind/personality
This can be a lot of fun, because there are so many ways such a transfer could take place. It can also provide a few surprises for other characters, if they don’t realize or recognize that such a transition has taken place.
In Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Doro can “jump” into another person’s body, taking it over entirely; the host stops existing at that point, and Doro lives on in their body. He also does this involuntarily if he’s injured, instantly possessing the nearest human body, which means he can’t be killed or even attacked. It’s one way he keeps his (human) subjects under his control.
This might be seen as a negative – basically, a mental parasitism that ignores the needs or wishes of the host. Or it might be a positive, if that’s the only way to keep alive a brilliant scientist or a great humanitarian (I like the irony there).
On the other hand, a transfer could be made to something non-sentient or even non-living which has been developed specifically for that purpose. When I first read the Wild Cards series and made up a few new Aces for fun, one of them was Rider, who created mindless clones of herself through a mitosis-like process where these budded off. Said clones were then stashed in various long-term-care facilities over the world, and whenever Rider was killed, her consciousness would transfer itself into one of them.
In James Herbert’s Fluke, the main character slowly comes to realize that he was once a man who was murdered and whose mind is now in a dog’s body. And in John Saul’s Shadows, a child’s mind uploads itself into a computer at the end of the novel.
The character’s personality usually stays the same in such situations, but one thing I enjoy about Doctor Who is how the Doctor’s personality doesn’t get shuffled from one regeneration to another. Instead, he changes significantly each time. This probably won’t be feasible in a single story or novel, but it was one of the ways the TV series stayed fresh.
There are probably many more ways in which characters avoid going into that good night – and a near-infinite number of stories that can be told as a result.