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Time heals all wounds August 29, 2009

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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An appropriate sub-heading to this might be ‘Time heals all wounds, Tide causes them’. This is a post that has been at the back of my mind since about February, when I finally read The Chaos Crystal, the fourth and final book of Jennifer Fallon’s Tide Lords series. But the ideas have been with me since 2006, when I read two series that I found extraordinarily influential: Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (yes, point and laugh now) and Sara Douglass’s Troy Game series. It’s probably fair to point out here that this post will be liberally sprinkled with spoilers for all three series.

What these books have in common is an emphasis on the theme of immortality, and its moral and ethical implications. In Anne Rice’s series, this immortality is the result of vampirism, and is an imperfect immortality – her undead can die, although, as the series goes on, you might be forgiven for thinking that all vampires are undead, but some are more undead than others. In Douglass’s series, the main characters are immortal through reincarnation. They all become bound up in the ‘Troy Game’, a labyrinthine weaving pattern that is linked to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, the fall of Troy, and, eventually, the history of London. The characters screw up so epically in their first lives that they keep getting reincarnated (picking up various divine and semi-divine qualities along the way) in order to fix things up in their next lives. But Douglass’s immortals can – and do – die, provided enough supernatural firepower is thrown at them.

Fallon’s immortals are different. They really, really, really cannot die. Some of them have lived for millions of years. One of them, Cayal, has lived for several thousand, and is starting to get anxious. He becomes suicidal because he’s worried that one day he’ll get bored. (Fallon originally wanted to name the first book of the series ‘The Suicidal Immortal’, which gives you some idea of what she thought the focus would be.)

But whether the immortals of these books get their everlasting life from an exchange of blood, a malevolent, city-destroying Game or by walking through a fire (as in the Tide Lords), they share a concern with the way immortality affects people (and I use the term loosely, as you shall see below). Immortality does two things, not quite simultaneously.

It gives people freedom – that is, it releases them completely from the morality and constraints of society. On one level this means that immortals are free to be outrageous (the vampire Lestat becomes a rock star, swaps bodies with a human being to re-experience human frailty and mortality and goes on a Dante-esque journey through heaven and hell all within a few years; one of Douglass’s immortals is reincarnated as Charles II, surely the very definition of outrageous excess). On another, it means they’re free to outrage (Asterion/Weyland, the reincarnated Minotaur, plants an imp in the womb of Cornelia/Caela/Noah/Eaving which causes her constant pain and eventually rips its way out – and, being Douglass, this is the start of a beautiful relationship. That I also end up viewing this relationship as beautiful is either testament to Douglass’s talents as a writer, or a marker of my own insanity). Fallon’s immortals tend to be more of the second type – mad, bad and dangerous to know. The common thread is that all of them behave like the gods of Greek mythology: not omnipotent, not omnipresent, and certainly not omniscient, more interested in their own amusement and gratification, no matter how many human veins they have to drain, cities they have to flatten, or, in the case of the Tide Lords, worlds they have to destroy, to achieve it. This kind of immortality is at once intensely human – childishly destructive – and utterly inhuman – id incarnate. They see the world as their playground, even if the playground is built out of bones. When they notice human beings at all, they might as well be looking at an alien species, they are so divorced from what it means to be human. You see, human morality is utterly bound up in human mortality, the threat of death. Take that away, and the morality has to change.

(Oddly enough, to segue briefly away, this is how I’ve always viewed Cathy and Heathcliff. They’re so utterly, completely bound up in themselves that they cease to resemble human beings at all.)

This has other implications for the morality of immortality. You’d think the by removing the threat of death, immortals would be more compassionate to their fellow ever-living living ones, but no. Think of your Greek myths. Immortals love to hurt one another, but without death to restrain them, their torment eventually takes on the characteristics of a game. Oh, sure, the hatred might be vitriolic and caused by real grievances, but eventually it falls away due to the sheer weight of accumulated time. Life is too long to hold grudges. Just as siblings tend to be more forgiving of one anothers’ faults out of a kind of respect at having grown up in the same circumstances, immortals in this type of literature will eventually forgive and even love their deadly enemies out of a kind of respect for their shared existence.

Time heals all wounds, you see, and time stretches on awfully long if you don’t have an Asterion with whom to share it.

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Comments»

1. jordanrastrick - September 2, 2009

How can you write a post about how fantasy depicts the effects of immortality on psychological traits without referencing Tolkien? Blasphemy! I demand a blogpost refund 😛

More seriously, the interplay between immortality and a human psychological framework is one of my favourite themes in both Fantasy and Science Fiction (so Speculative Fiction, if we must use the term…)

What about the philosophical and even theological implications? Can we say, then, that death is a good thing? Is it a boon that prevents our moral bankruptcy, a la Rice’s Vampires, or even just some sort of weariness with a fixed destiny within eternity, such as with Tolkien’s Elves?

Say human society discovers some form of immortality. Will the first generation to benefit from the technology then inevitably accumulate more and more of the available power and wealth and eventually cause civilisation to stagnate? Science fiction authors say, maybe!

The only roleplaying game I ever had serious interest in playing was Vampire the Masquerades, in large part because it addresses some of these questions.

2. dolorosa12 - September 8, 2009

Well, I left out Tolkien because I simply wouldn’t DARE to write anything about his books. I prefer to keep my posts limited to the more obscure corners of the library, simply so that I don’t have to waste my time in debates with crazed fans who know their favourite books so much better than I do and only comment to say YOU’RE WRONG!

The ethics of immortality is one of my favourite themes in SF, too (I think this is why I’m so drawn to stories about vampires). But one of the first stories I read that dealt with it was a short story in Isobelle Carmody’s ‘Green Monkey Dreams’. Have you read it? I don’t want to say anything more, in case I spoil the ending, but let me say that this story convinced me that death, or at least the threat of it, is necessary if we (human beings) are to have any hope of leading meaningful lives.

I wouldn’t describe Rice’s vampires as morally bankrupt. In fact, their stories are all about how they struggle to find and create a new moral framework to deal with the nature of their immortality.

Mortality does not have a monopoly on morality, but without it, morality is quite different. When you look at it, it’s obvious that human mortality has done so much to shape human morality, and if we all suddenly found a way to become immortal, society would probably collapse.

3. kahn - September 14, 2009

Just thought I’d drop a comment to say congratulations. I came to your blog by following a link on Jennifer Fallon’s website as she had noticed and found your comments above interesting.

Surely you would agree their can be no greater praise when discussing someone’s work then to actually get their attention with your point of view.

4. dolorosa12 - September 14, 2009

Thanks! I’m glad that the readers of Jennifer Fallon’s books (and blog) are dropping by to visit my little blog!

I agree, I’m very happy that Jennifer posted a link to my blog, and also quite flattered.


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