A wise man once said that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. Science fiction creating scenarios which put an end to the certainty of the former (more often than the latter, it seems), extended life and immortality are commonly used tropes of science fiction. But they are less commonly examined tropes of science fiction. More often a means of disguising the immense lengths of time necessary to travel across space or a splash of virtual life eye-candy to alter perspective on existence, there are a limited number of genre works that peer deeper into the mortality of death in the immortal future.
With such an introduction and such a title, one might expect Brian Stableford’s 1995 “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death” to be a morbid discourse on murder, funeral rites, war, suicide, entombment, etc., moving forever downward into the gloomy depths of despair. Such is not the case. Stableford’s tone may be consistently staid, yet the tale eases forward with subtle dynamism; Gray’s History is as much a survey of the man’s research as it is his personal life and thoughts regarding mortality in the context of biotechnical advance. It thus instead makes for a beautifully nuanced sociological discourse.
Surviving a serious brush with death as a child, Gray grows up with interest in history. Advances in technology having granted humans emortality and rendered manual labor unnecessary, he is one of the billions of adults with nothing but free time in a utopian future, and chooses to enter the scholarly ranks and become a historian. A largely private endeavor given the ubiquity and access of information, the success of his initial publishings on the subject of ancient death rites slowly lead his research through the ages. Classic Greek to modern times, Thanaticism to cyborganized humans extending through the universe, Gray takes an ever evolving view of mortality in an immortal world.
The narrative of “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death” is thus presented in alternating voices. One the first-person of Gray as he tells his own personal history and the second an unknown third-person narrator rehashing the central content of each of Gray’s volumes of history, they slowly converge upon one another as the time frames draw ever closer to one another. Gray’s life choices forming an interesting counter-point that both affects and is affected by his work, Stableford does a magnificent job getting into the head of someone truly looking at eons of life, yet life that is still subservient to random chance, accident and the context of the human history of death.
The novella thus forms an engaging companion piece to two other novellas: Frederik Pohl’s “Outnumbering the Dead” and Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium”. (Silverberg’s “Born with the Dead” is likewise headed in a similar direction, but “Sailing to Byzantium” forms the stronger analog.) Pohl, Silverberg, and Stableford’s protagonists all confront mortality in their own story’s context, and no matter personally or vicariously, each of the authors holds immortality up as a mirror to its perception. Pohl’s is perhaps the most classically humanist, Silverberg’s the most classically science fictional, which leaves Stableford’s, in its survey of history and personal story, the most comprehensive. Each quality in their own right, Stableford’s spin is the balance of plot and imaginative rumination.
In the end, “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death” is a wonderfully thought out, structured, crafted, presented, and ultimately subtly engaging work of science fiction. Biologically induced immortality and cyborged humanity nothing new in genre, Stableford nevertheless looks below the surface of these tropes to find the human heart, and to discover whether it still beats. The prose elegant, the delivery a blend of philosophizing and, and the story tightly bound up inside, Stableford has produced a small, gray gem.