Was there an optimum beyond which medicine consumed more than it produced in benefits? And was there a point past that at which medicine became a monster, devouring the society that produced it?
Title: The Immortals
Author: James E. Gunn
Rating: 2/5 stars
When a dying old man receives a blood transfusion and temporarily regains perfect health and a decades-younger appearance, the stage is set for a story about the unquenchable hunger for life and the lengths people will go to in order to get more of it. For the donor who provided the blood is, unknowingly, the first Immortal, possessor of an incredible mutation which provides an anti-aging component in his blood chemistry. And the old man just happens to be a ruthless multimillionaire who will do anything to get more of that special blood (the effects of the transfusion last only a few months). Of course, the only way to get the blood is to find the Immortal who has it. Soon he and his offspring become the focus of the biggest manhunt in history. If they are caught, they have a dismal future in store — a life of virtual slavery, being confined and tapped for their precious blood so the world’s richest men can benefit from it.
Actually the Immortals appear very little in the book, primarily at the beginning, and play a relatively small role. As you read on, you find that the book is really all about issues relating to medicine and its role in society, and especially about its differential availability to those at various economic levels. Indeed, the hunt for the Immortals is really a metaphor of sorts for the privileged status of the ultra-rich who have access to the best, most cutting-edge medical care. The blood of the Immortals is about as cutting-edge as you can get, and therefore the rich feel they have some kind of special claim on it. The dying millionaire mentioned above says:
“Why should some nobody get it by accident? What good will it do him? Or the world? He needs to be protected — and used. [...] We’d save the best men in the world, those who have demonstrated their ability by becoming wealthy.”
Gunn presents a dystopic vision of a future world in which urban decay is rampant amidst massive economic decline. The cities are slowly dying. Their building are crumbling into ruin, with one exception: the hospitals. These bright shining beacons of power and wealth are expanding, taking over the cities block by block. Medicine has become an empire dominating society, as the one industry people are still eager to pump their money into, in return for whatever benefits they can squeeze from it. This addiction to even the slightest advance in health care is one of the book’s central points, stressed over and over again. As in the opening quote, or here:
“The lifespan can be extended to a reasonable length without overburdening society. Then we run into the law of diminishing returns, and it takes just as much again to push it a year further, and then six months, three months, a week, a day. There is no end, and our fear is such that no one can say, ‘Stop! We’re healthy enough!’”
The book also paints a picture of an extremely mercenary medical establishment, with the hospitals protected by high walls and their own private armies, and their armed medics traveling around in armored ambulances. Gunn does here for doctors what Bradbury did for firemen, transforming them into the opposite of what we feel they should be. He also echoes today’s frequent discussion of the problems surrounding health insurance. The poor living in the urban ruins get no real medical care, relying instead on either primitive home remedies or dangerous black market medicines. The suburban rich, and whatever remains of a middle class, are able to afford medical contracts. And keeping the payments made is a matter of great attention; defaulting on your contract can get your body “repossessed” for organ harvesting.
Gunn puts forth some good questions about a very important component of modern life, our health care. And there’s some good satire here. But overall I must say I wasn’t very impressed by The Immortals. For one thing, it’s a bit too repetitive and, well, I guess the right word would be “preachy.” For another, this is a fix-up novel, put together from four separate stories previously published in magazines, and they don’t seem to fit together very smoothly; the book as a whole has a rather disjointed feel to it. This is not Gunn’s best writing, not by a long shot.