Deities, vampires, demons, elves, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, genetically enhanced humans, sentient ships, aliens. All immortal, or living a life that’s quite a bit longer than the average. I love reading about inhuman aliens, about immortal characters, about the other that is, in some deep way, truly other. And so I am always more than deeply disappointed when the alien is merely a human with purple skin and the 400-year-old vampire prince has all the personality of a petulant teenager with pointy teeth. I am looking at you, urban fantasy. You, space opera. You, paranormal romance.
Immortality, like any story decision, deserves to be more than a cursory afterthought. Especially when its immortality granted to someone who would otherwise be human.
The questions are endless: What is it like to still be healthy and alive after a hundred years? In two hundred, how much has society changed and what is your role in it? In two thousand, how do you see time and the people around you? Does your perception of time continue speeding up, or do the days drag by? How has your religion changed, if it’s even still around? Is the passage of time oppressive or inspiring? Does living forever mean disengagement and bitterness, or compassion and patience? Which languages do you choose to learn and how often? What up with science? Have you upgraded your rotary phone yet?
Ever have trouble talking with an older uncle about things you care about? Image your uncle grew up in ancient Mesopotamia. Or was a nomadic shepherd on the Asian continent somewhere. Or a British sailor on a whaling ship. Now he asks you what you’ve been up to. Probably in ancient Chinese.
Immortals in romantic subplots
Is that a 475-year age gap I see? Is that a teen dating an octogenarian?
Immortal love interests are ubiquitous in the romance genres. They come with troubled pasts – history is no cakewalk, after all. They demonstrate the weight of history through outbursts of anger, their iron-clad control, their impassive countenance, their pushy, alpha-male tendencies.
I always feel vaguely cheated. Is that it? Is that all? You’ve lived for hundreds of years, and all I get is a foot-stamping romance-novel trope, muttering “mine” uneasily under its breath? You are my immortal heroines acting with all the self-possession of a teen high on red bull and sugar.
Heaven knows, the immortal hero can be angry. The ageless heroine can be flighty. These characters can be anything. Desperate. Struggling with PTSD and depression and psychoses. Delighted and enjoying life. Bitter. Brilliant. Dull. Powerful. Jaded. They should not be flat and drawn from a bag of thoughtless clichés.
Practice makes boring
I finished Devil’s Daughter a few weeks ago.
“They switched the trope. It was the all-powerful immortal girl falling in love with average-Joe journalist,” I told a reading friend. “She had to protect him, tried to warn him off doing something dangerous and stuff.”
“So what d’you think of her?”
“Actually, she was kinda boring. She just…kinda had everything in hand.”
And that’s the other side of the immortality coin.
Lucinda from Devil’s Daughter is the daughter of the devil and Eve, which puts her age at anywhere from the biblical creation of the world 6,000 years ago to science’s first modern human 40,000 years ago, when the archaeological record shows homo sapiens first started cave painting. You’d think that after at least six millennia, Lucinda would have a handle on most things. And she does. And she’s kinda Mary Sue about it.
We are all immortals, I suppose.
This is my cat. She is glaring at me because she knows that, unless she manages to smother me in the next two or three years, I am going to outlive her by at least fifty year.
This is my other cat. He’s nine years younger, and still shines with the optimism of youth. He thinks we’ll be together forever.
There are also dogs. One living, one dead. A hermit crab, long gone. A couple fish that met an untimely end.
I could watch over fifty generations of mice trying to make their way to the promised land under the floorboards of the kitchen. I could live through millions of generations of flies.
Am I a god, then? Morelike a petty tyrant.
A glimpse of forever
What happens when a human gets a dose of forever? Kage Baker’s Company series takes it as close to realism as it could; the older immortals are shorter, sometimes with eerie proto-homo sapien features. Eventually, they can no longer pass as normal in society. Sanity is always a concern.
Constantine from Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, though less than 200 years old, is already eerily other, his coping mechanism Zen spirituality. The Doctor hides in the adrenaline rush of chasing mysteries. Wolverine morosely chops wood in Canada.
Dorian Gray pursues a life of excess. Frankenstein’s monster is all alone. Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim lives forever, but only within his memories. Zelazny’s Amber characters while away their forevers putting Machiavelli to shame and post-Nirvana Sam has to relearn to care about material things. Patricia Brigg’s ancient werewolves go mad or fade into their animal selves. Sometimes both.
What is it like to live beyond a century? Jonathan, the 182-year-old giant tortoise of Saint Helena, isn’t talking. The 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine in California had no comment.