Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Tragedy of Immortality

I attended college back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and one year I took an English elective in Science Fiction. My term paper examined one of the pervading archetypes of one of my favourite authors, Roger Zelazny, that of immortality. He wrote of superhuman characters who were immortal due to their supernatural heritage; of those who were immortal due to the manipulation of biology or technology; and those whose immortality was due to a genetic fluke.

That last was the story of Conrad Nomikos in the 1965 Hugo Award-winning novel ...And Call Me Conrad (later republished as "This Immortal"). It is set in the (unspecified) future after the Earth has been devastated by nuclear war. Nomikos is Greek, and it is implied that he has been around for a loong time -- maybe as far back as Classical Greece, and he may be the inspiration for numerous heroic legends throughout the intervening centuries.

Marvelous, is it not, to have lived through three or four millenia, to see so many changes and having lived through so many adventures? But as Conrad reflects on his long life, he tells us that it is mostly a process "of saying goodbye." To be immortal in a changing world means that everyone he knows and cares about dies; his familiar haunts, the streets, the cities, crumble to dust. Even the landscape changes. He tells us that the only way he can cope is to "keep moving," to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in the hope that dumb, capricious fate will eventually present him with a novel challenge, a cause with which to engage himself.

Such a long life can clearly be a tragedy. I wonder sometimes at the desperation of religious believers to attain an immortal afterlife, apparently in the hope that it will make up for the dissapointments, failures, suffering, and losses of this life that we are born into.

A sentiment similar to Nomikos' is expressed by the character of New York City Mayor Amalfi in James Blish's 1956 "Cities in Flight" quadrilogy, which takes us to the end of time and space, to the void of final oblivion. A number of humans, due to the discovery of "anti-agathagic" drugs, have lived to see The End; but their physicists have determined that they might be able to seed new universes to replace the one destroyed. Those last people are given a strict order as to how they should vent their space suit's atmosphere, how they should dismantle their suits and send their mass into the Void, and to finally press an explosive charge attached to their bodies to scatter the constituent elements from which new matter may precipitate.

Amalfi takes a different approach. I must paraphrase here, unfortunately; but he expects that his companions, in their long years of habits, in their fear and uncertainty, will follow the instructions absolutely. But he feels that he has "ridden the bolts" out of the old universe - he wants to create something new! So, he violates the Plan, simply declaring, "Let There Be Light," and activating the detonator. If I remember correctly, the final line of the series is, "And a new Universe began."

There have been movies and television programs that have touched on these themes; in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the vampire Spike carries several centuries of regrets for poor decisions; in "Highlander," the main characters contest each other over multiple centuries seeking a supernatural "enlightenment" after the final battle. But they do not dwell overlong on the consequences of their long lives. The focus is more on the powers and perils that have accrued them.

But a new program examines the personal cost of immortality, and I am hooked. It is entitled New Amsterdam, a detective show set in New York City. But the hook is the central character, John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster Waldau), an immortal born in Holland in the early 1600's, and one of the initial colonists of Manhattan Island.

Now, I generally despise the Fox channel because of what they present masquerading as "news;" sound bytes presented out of context, jingo, propaganda, and outright lies, all presented for viscious, voyeuristic entertainment (in my (not-so) humble opinion, of course). New Amsterdam, however, seems to have a very human soul, as it follows John on a quest whereon he reflects on his experiences and utilizes the many skills that he has learned over a four-hundred year lifespan.

In 1642, John gave his life to save a native American from a colonist's sword. In repayment, he is resurrected and given immortality in order to obtain a special gift: finding his One True Love. Once they "join their souls," he will regain his mortality so that he may enjoy a normal life with his beloved.

For truly, despite his wealth of knowledge -- he has obtained a dozen prestigious degrees -- despite his skills honed over the centuries -- despite the many people he has known, and the incredible changes he has seen -- life has lost its savor. He no longer names his pets, he gives them a number. He is cynical, and insular. He approaches all women, wondering, 'Is she the One? Is She?

While he chases a petty criminal through the subways of New York, Amsterdam appears to suffer a heart attack, but he awakens with the certain knowledge that She must have been near. But, how to find her? If he finds her, how to woo her?

With the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam transforming into the English-dominated city of New York, thence into an international metropolis, the changes in period and culture, mores and expectations, serve as as the frame for John's memories and experiences in collision with the fulfilment of that long-ago promise: finding his True Love.

Can't you tell, I like it very much?

Check it out.

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