The Immorality Virus
Twilight Times Books (266 pp, $18.95, June 2011)
Reviewed by Andrea Grennan
In a world where aging has been erased, the “Change” may have ended Alzheimer’s and arthritis, but it hasn’t ended starvation, murder or suicide. The Immoratity Virus explores a dystopian view of a world where immortals aren’t a vampire few, but a human many, and looks at the problems that could ensue from such a “Change.”
Grace Harper has been born into this new world, and lived 180+ years in it, most of them uncertain and miserable. When hired by a wealthy man to find the person who created the immortality virus to see if it can be undone, she embarks on a quest which results in nearly every faction of society being arrayed against her, for a variety of reasons.
Why would anyone want to give up immortality?
In this, Christine Amsden’s second novel, there is no upside to immortality, except that dementia no longer exists. Given the overwhelming hideousness of this proposed future that may not be a kindness. In The Immortality Virus, the only thing immortality brings humankind is increased misery, poverty and nihilism. Oh, and starvation. There is a lot of starvation in this book. Those who are not the wealthy “one percent” are invariably paranoid, treacherous, exhausted and starving, or some combination thereof. The wealthy are simply paranoid and treacherous.
Murder is a constant part of this future, for anything from trying to get in a public building to lingering too long in a store, and there are more than a few references to Soylent Green, a bit of an anachronism for the 2500’s. Hopefully cheesy 70’s sci-fi flicks will not become immortal themselves.
Ms. Amsden has created a very thorough world, and it is clear that she knows exactly how it functions (or not) and why. Such a feat is quite impressive, but it was difficult to understand how a culture that creates hovercars and amazing wireless technology has gotten absolutely nowhere with agricultural yields. If this seems like picking nits, the issue of food (and lack thereof) drives a great deal of the conflicts and drama in the book.
This perspective makes The Immortality Virus a bit exhausting: there is no humor, kindness or humanity to ease a very harsh idea of a possible future. Amsden tries to humanize Grace Harper, but was unable to give enough of a glimpse into her interior life to make her random acts of kindness seem anything but halfhearted and grudging.
Grace’s general nihilism makes it impossible to understand why two very different and seeming wonderful men adore her, risking death and dismemberment to save her, while other women seem not to exist for them. As a general rule, men don’t find cranky, depressed and resolutely humorless women to be irresistible – they are instead very resistible.
The idea of the exhausted and world-weary heroine is now a tired cliché, and does not serve this novel well. Grace Harper loathes the idea of being in a relationship, although flings are certainly acceptable, leaving her suitors to rather swoon after her, in a reversal of several hundred years of great literature. It leaves the men emasculated and Grace without a heart. Also disappointing is the reason for Grace’s hardheartedness, a reason that is threadbare from prior use in books, movies and songs.
Setting aside the difficulties of Grace Harper, part of the novel’s problem lies in taking on a very large idea and populating it with other very large ideas, such as slavery, domestic violence, the plight of the poor, and just to keep it light, some sort of civil war that is constantly referred to but not seen. Most puzzling is the fact that the unseen war creates and resolves some twists and turns in the plot but the reasons for it remain unclear to the final page.
For any author having this many issues in play can undermine character development, which seems to have happened in The Immortality Virus. If these issues had been addressed as character conflicts rather than as fait accompli, the reader would have likely had a much greater emotional investment in the outcome. Unfortunately, Ms. Amsden chose to sacrifice real character development and instead address issues, and the book was the poorer for it.
Andrea Grennan is a writer and reviewer living in Michigan along with her problem-solving Mensa cat. Miss Grennan knows nothing of sports, but likes dissecting various books, movies and TV shows, using her University of Detroit Fine Arts degree and extensive knowledge of the classics to wear down those who disagree with her. Her tastes in the above are eclectic and wide-ranging, and include most genres and eras. Her blog will be up and running soon.