Saturday, May 10, 2014

To Live Forever

Author: Jack Vance
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1956

A recent reread of this book reminded me why I generally reread others of Vance's books instead of this one when I'm looking for a dose of restoration of my faith that books don't all suck. Compared to the rest of Vance's oeuvre, which includes hyper-intelligent sardines that maintain part-ownership of a sardine canning plant, a galactic criminal who spends several fortunes mining a moon into the image of his own face to get revenge for a disappointing real-estate deal, and a planet where murder by poison is commonplace but throwing sour milk on one's grandmother is a capital crime*, To Live Forever is nothing special. It relies on heavy-handed allegory and a setting that appears to be Earth in a not-too-distant possible future, and as such, it fits right in with much of the sci-fi of the fifties.

The idea's an okay one. On this version of Earth, civilized humanity's packed into a relatively small area, with wilderness and barbarians without. Because of limited resources, everyone only gets a certain allotted lifespan, with extensions possible based on contributions to society. There are machines like ATMs where you can get a readout of your remaining life in a handy graph format and find out when the executioners are likely to come for you.

Making this state of affairs more bitter for those of low status, immortality is a technological reality, and it's reserved for those considered worthy of it. Our hero, though already immortal, has lost his place among the society of his equals and is determined to get it back. In typical Vancian style, he manages to cause utter mayhem in the process. Also in typical Vancian style, various pompous blowhards get their comeuppance simultaneously. (Vance is the best at satisfying revenge stories; he's the spec-fic Rafael Sabatini, and in more than just that way, come to think of it.)

Anyone who's read Jack Vance will already know that he could probably rewrite the phone book into a gripping mystery, alternately darkly hilarious and almost unbearably poignant. He was (sad to say, he died in 2013) a master at combining horror and humor and at drawing out the funny tragedy of human life with just a few sentences. Any aspiring writer who doesn't want to slit his own wrists a little after reading Vance, just because he'll never be that good, doesn't have any sense of proportion.**

So To Live Forever isn't bad at all -- it's Vance, and he's never bad. It's just not that engaging. The hero's motivations are entirely selfish up until about 95% of the way through the novel, and he's not funny or weird enough (for Vance fans, think of Cugel) to redeem his essential unlikability. There's also the fact that the story's mostly depressing, featuring a variety of unhappy people living mostly meaningless lives. And then there's the aforementioned fifties-style problem: this book has a message.

For a writer of science fiction, Vance maintains an unusually small scope in his novels. Almost all of them are structured like mystery novels. There are no battles to determine the fate of the galaxy, his protagonists aren't secretly the emperor of anything or the only remaining Furyan or whatever, and generally the central mystery of the story is important to a very limited group of people. This restricted focus is where Vance shines; his angel is in the details, while his devil, as demonstrated in To Live Forever, is in the big picture. With this novel he tried to make a larger point about the Meaning of Human Life, and in the process lost his usual effortless grasp on what it means to be a human being. In other words, it doesn't rank among Vance's better works, though it'd be a masterpiece for most of his contemporaries.***

This book gets three stars, one of the only Vance novels I'd rank that low. For an introduction to this truly stupendous author, try The Demon Princes or The Complete Dying Earth. Vance enthusiasts will enjoy this one, though, particularly if their only other choice is Isaac Asimov.

* I'm not going to say which books I've referenced here. You should immediately go and read them all to find out for yourself.

** He's basically the Total Perspective Vortex for sci-fi and fantasy authors.

*** Yep, looking at you, Eando Binder.

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