Genre Focus: Immortality
by Caleb Sica
There is arguably no more concrete climax in fiction than death. As a substantial endpoint towards our inevitable mortality, death is conformably viewed through the eyes of the human race with an overwhelmingly negative connotation. We mortals fear death. As learning beings, our evolutionary control on Earth is our curiosity. Within the three dimensions we are capable of grasping is a central component of our common fear of death; which is, the mystery we cannot direct our curiosity to understand upon its arrival. For we are ignorant, and perhaps, will always be regarding what lies beyond the plane of the physically living.
Recognition of the many facets of this particular subject and its levels should be stated. There should be a distinct separation between physical immortality and spiritual (or rather a soul’s) immortality. We must then conclude the factors which differentiate the two, as they both fall under the umbrella of perpetual life.
In the circumstance of a soul’s immortality, questioning the location and manifestation of a soul after death is part of our particular curious mystery. This is where the plausibility of our own immortality can be speculated. Duncan MacDougall, a physician of the nineteenth century conducted a widely known experiment where the difference in the weight of a human body before and after death was “three-fourths of an ounce.” Or “21 grams.” However, what happens to that mass and where does it go?
Under this logic, a human soul falls under the property of mass, and would therefore not be disassociated with physical immortality. This seems rather intriguing to myself, as I would like to believe that a life possesses something far beyond the bounds of simple physical properties. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a soul is defined as: “the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life.” There is a chance that the word usage itself was wrong, at least in the context of MacDougall’s experiment. In every definition I have come across there is a deliberate separation between a soul and the physical world. Constantly coined as “immaterial,” It would be appropriate to concur that either MacDougall’s experiment simply weighed a human life—a possible separate entity from a soul, or rather, he did in fact, weigh a soul, and its physical mass is only a small part of all it encompasses. A laptop may weigh 5 pounds and be “physical” yet it’s also capable of communication, transferring money, and producing soundwaves—all quite different from its quality of possessing mass. The purpose of life or a soul is a question that may never be answered, yet, attempts at explaining this mystery is a common and creative reoccurrence in fiction.
The first, of many speculative fictional avenues of this subgenre would be science fiction usage, and would likely be cyberpunk or other subgenres cohesive with collaboration of human biology and sci-fi technology. These enhancements to our natural construction may extend, and plausibly recycle our finite elements—or rather expired organs, to ensure a continual existence.
Another possibility of this avenue may be a gradual cyber takeover of our bodies. An epidemic of self-directed bio-ware acting upon its own accord may lead to our doom, otherwise, there are many conjectures on its repercussions for humans. Humans could be merely vessels or shells of our former selves to do its bidding, much like the matrix manipulated into fuel for a much larger system. We could, however, be manipulated by fellow men through this technology, submitting the population that utilizes this technology under constant surveillance and even control. This control could be utilized by terrorists, government or corporations, each seizing this new opportunity to address different agendas. However, this may just be speculation, and should not insinuate any disrespect towards the diligence of our universal health and biotech medical geniuses today, as I’m sure they are doing their very best to prevent a future apocalypse.
Next would be the foreign or alien entity present in a work. Rather than grant the status of everlasting life to a relatable human protagonist, immortality may be introduced to us through another being. Common examples of this in fantasy fiction are elves, as well as the Q in Star Trek and Darth Plagueis in Science fiction. Although, unfortunately for our Sith Lord, that didn’t save him from a backstabbing—or was it a back burning? Possibly an electrifying slumber? His body was definitely static during his sleep…. Let me stop.
The third reasoning behind an immortal presence in fiction would be one of divine quality. Conjuring new logic within the boundaries of predeveloped constructs of religion and legend alleviate the author from developing a believable rationale from scratch in order to grant the readers a comprehension of the specific immortality’s origins, boundaries, types, capabilities, functioning, and science. Utilizing religion grants the complete disregard of an emphasized rational logic due to its preliminary acceptance as an established construct; historical or modern. Gods are accepted as Gods, so to say they are immortal or why is generally redundant.
Now entire essays could be written on the discrepancies of immortalities various qualities, divine or not. These are displayed in previous examples in many various works of fiction. A familiar instance of this are Middle Earth Elves, who are inheritably immortal and stop aging physically. However this is not unlimited in all aspects, as elves can be killed or even die of grief. This would be a natural process for these fictitious characters, whereas a more science fiction world would perhaps incorporate additions to counter our limited natural human processes. So first we must make the distinction between human and not human then go and decide what rules apply to the non-human, from there whether or not
In the first literal Definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Immortality means: “Exempt from death.” However to say one is immortal, but can be killed is somewhat of a contradiction and must be clarified. Now I would also divide this into two simpler terms. One can die through either an internal or an eternal force. Internal comprising of old age, sickness and death through emotion, while external comprises of suicide , homicide, or any action of an outside force that brings death. And while gods are generally exempt from both and therefore the purest “immortal” there can be definition-wise. Anyone who falls exempt of at least one category of these two I would consider immortal. Middle Earth Elves an example exempt from an internal force (Although death from grief is debatable) while Wolverine is an example exempt from an external force.
I cannot say with that immortality is a particular subgenre, but rather a subject or element that when incorporated, invokes a certain questioning of life as both as a collective and a particular circumstance we are individually within. It provides emphasis of the scarcity principle to the resource of limited time. I believe when used in fiction, Immortality is best employed as a testament to the preciousness of our finite lives. Brad Pitt’s Achilles said it best in 2004:
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
Some examples of works that include Immortality in literature are: