I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Robert Sheckley is one of the real Big Three from science fiction’s Silver Age. Heinlein or Asimov can take a seat, preferably both. Producing more sophisticated, intelligent content, having a deeper focus on the human condition, and being a better word-by-word, line-by-line writer than Asimov and a more universal humanist than Heinlein, his novels, nevertheless, have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of historical recognition. This blog’s charter does not include beating a drum for overlooked books and writers, but in exploring classic science fiction I certainly have come across works bearing that second look. Sheckley’s brilliant debut Immortality, Inc. (1959) is well worth a return visit.
Where Asimov often prostrates himself to the possibilities of science and technology, Sheckley lends a more skeptical eye. Dynamically satirical, Immortality, Inc. looks at the pitfalls of life-eternal via time travel, all with a witty eye to humanity’s virtues and vices. Thomas Blaine, rich yacht designer, is driving down the road one day when an accident takes his life. His last thoughts on mortality, it’s something of a surprise to wake up, alive. His mind having been illegally transported by the Rex Corporation a century into the future, he wakes comfortably his mental self, only in a stranger’s body. But it’s out on the streets of 22nd century New York that Blaine discovers just how slight the idea of death has become.
Suicide booths, bezerkers (people who go crazy and kill in public—sound familiar?), zombies (people whose mind transfers to the future only partially succeeded), a new and improved Church (when the spiritual afterlife has been replaced by a physical one, what else can the Church do?), human hunting games, corrupt body practices by the rich, corporate malpractice, and a variety of other scenarios are encountered by Blaine in the “immortal” world of the 22nd century. His path through these encounters no-holds-barred, Blaine and the reader experience, often through the blackest of humor, just what it means to be in a society where the need for heaven, hell, and the fear of death have been removed.
Stylistically, Immortality, Inc. is a riot. Sheckley’s tongue forever in cheek, the suicide booths, the justifications Rex Corp. and others offer for their actions, and the wild social scenarios resulting from the significantly diminished meaning of death are a rollercoaster of dark humor and sharp human observation conveyed in cutting prose. Undoubtedly later writers like James Morrow and Bruce Sterling (one of contemporary science fiction’s most under-appreciated satirists) were influenced by Sheckley.
In the end, Immortality, Inc. is a fine debut novel that gives every indication of the writer Sheckley would go on to become. Perpetually killing two birds with one stone, humanism is juxtaposed upon engaging storytelling, dark humor is plotted versus real-world concerns, and religious and social idealism are taken to task by a bit of fantastical technology that spins the idea of ‘alive’ in a new direction—at least foremost so. Multiple layers to what on the surface could be a simple time travel story, it shows a sustained intelligence and wit that renders Asimov’s major time travel novel The End of Eternity incomparable, and anything by Heinlein too narrow ideologically. #CampaignnewBigThree!!