Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

Thomas Blaine, junior yacht designer, is killed in a car crash in 1958. In 2110 he's brought back to life by the Rex Corporation, who plan to use him in their marketing campaigns. That plan quickly falls through due to legal worries, so Blaine is turned loose to wander New York City.

Rex Corp. employee (and transparently obvious eventual love interest) Marie Thorne takes pity on him and invites him to view the death and reincarnation of the company CEO. (And from the CEO's point of view, Blaine will have an opportunity to see just how painless death really is. He'd save Rex Corp from any number of legal headaches if he'd just quietly commit suicide.) The reincarnation goes awry and the CEO's soul fails to settle in his new host body, which goes zombie and starts shambling after Blaine. The zombie has unfinished business to settle with him, but can't recall exactly what...

Robert Sheckley was a prolific author, although his influence on other, more well-known writers may be his greatest legacy. Immortality, Inc. is a fast comic read, fairly amusing (if you remember not to lose the 1950s mindset) and a reminder that I ought to be reading more classic SF stories. Not that this is a value judgement, but I could probably read eight or ten of these babies in the time it takes me to read one China Mieville.

In this novel Sheckley creates a classic retro future: flying cars, jetpacks, Venusians and Martians (the latter are largely Chinese), and classic old-fashioned relations between the sexes, which more than anything else marks this novel as a product of its decade.

This particular future's chief distinction is that science has proven the existence of an afterlife, at least for a few dedicated souls who have undergone years of rigorous mental training.

Or for rich people. They can buy their way in. Are you really surprised?

Kudos to the story for keeping me guessing as to where it was going until the very last couple of pages. That said, if you're reading it now, my advice is to just ignore that last chapter. It's just a couple of lines of dialogue. Don't read it. The book is much better off without it.

The "20th Century Man Awakens in the Future!" theme has been done many times, but the most interesting comparison to make is to Frederik Pohl's 1969 comic novel The Age of the Pussyfoot. I think so, anyway, since it's the only other novel in the subgenre I've read. You could put together an entire seminar on comparing and contrasting the two, but it would be more entertaining just to discuss which one reminds you more of Futurama. The Pohl novel is more Futurama-like in its tone, but if the suicide booths in the very first Futurama episode aren't a deliberate Sheckley shout-out, then they're a pretty awesome example of creative convergence.

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