Deities, vampires, demons, elves, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, genetically enhanced humans, sentient ships, aliens.
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. What happens when immortality is 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? Do people still understand you when you talk? Which languages do you choose to learn and how often? What up with science? Have you upgraded your rotary phone yet?
Ever try talking to 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. 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 often 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? Or else you are my immortal heroine 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. Childish. Zen. Powerful. Jaded. But the one thing they should not be is 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, that sort of thing.”
“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 the archaeological record’s first modern cave-painting human at 40,000 years ago. 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.
Which…makes sense, if you think 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 years.
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 more than fifty generations of mice trying to make their way to the promised land under the floorboards of my kitchen. I could live through millions of generations of flies.
Am I a god, then? More like a petty tyrant, perhaps. But, compared to them, I am those few steps closer to immortality.
A glimpse of forever
What happens when a human gets a dose of forever? Kage Baker’s Company series takes a stab at realism. Her ancient immortals struggle to pass in society. Sometimes, they come with eerie proto-homo sapien features. Sanity is always a concern.
The vampire Constantine from Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, though less than 200 years old, is already eerily other. His coping mechanism: Zen spirituality. Patricia Brigg’s ancient werewolves go mad or fade into their animal selves. Sometimes both.
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 in Machiavelli plots against their equally bored siblings, and post-Nirvana Sam has to relearn to care about material things.
What is it like to live beyond that human lifespan? Jonathan, the 182-year-old giant tortoise of Saint Helena, isn’t talking. The 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine in California isn’t either.