Immortal Life by Stanley Bing
Stanley Bing’s Immortal Life attempts to carve a niche within the already-crowded company of cultural staples like Westworld, iRobot, Black Mirror, and any number of works in which advances in artificial intelligence and technology inevitably backfire. While this story at first appears to be one man’s attempt to overcome the limitations of the mortal body, it gradually becomes a warning against the exponential consolidation of cutting-edge innovation and power. If this sounds rather grim, know that Bing compensates with a whimsical comedic tone. Credit is due for a fresh take on the genre, but some of the supposed moments of humor flounder like off-brand Douglas Adams. Immortal Life certainly contains concepts both fascinating and alarming, but its crowded cast of characters and uneven presentation prevent it from soaring to greatness.
Conglomerate trillionaire and curmudgeon Arthur Vogel is 127 years old. Advances in medicine have made this feat possible, but it’s not quite enough; Arthur would prefer to skip the expiration process. His team of private researchers have digitized his consciousness, and plan to upload it into Gene—a 3D printed host-body that Arthur’s mind can control long past his physical body’s demise. With this new lease on life, Arthur plans to continue his financial conquest toward attaining a global monopoly. Except that Gene’s personality template won’t quite step out of the way, and fights back to thwart his invader’s intentions.
Had Immortal Life been set 3,000 years from now, there’d be less need for readers to wonder if their own society is heading toward the nightmarish depiction within. Not only is Immortal Life set in the 21st century, but includes characters that are well-acquainted with the 20th. Arthur and his cohorts are old enough to remember the days they attended Woodstock, bought a five dollar bags of weed, and gallivanted through nights of passion with girls they could never find again. They recall the days before the smartphone generation, back when kids after school “went out to play.”
Compare this to the world they now inhabit, in which daily life does not disappoint, but also never surprises. The news and information you consume is based on your established interests, and the hotels and meals you experience are centered on your preferences of previous enjoyment aggregated in a database. As generations pass, children are born into the system, connected to the singularity-esque Google zeitgeist that answers queries and solves their every problem. With these needs met so extensively, the portion of the brain responsible for independent problem solving shrinks due to non-use. It follows that, were the digital infrastructure to collapse, mankind would be subject to a helpless state of confusion. It doesn’t help that a majority of the globe’s informational infrastructure is owned and controlled by a monolith alliance of some curiously familiar entities (Amazon, Facebook and Google, to name a few).
Of course, the cautionary tale that “smart devices result in dumber humans” in itself isn’t groundbreaking. Bing justifies his tale’s existence by injecting a curious tone; instead of a grim, sterile eulogy, Immortal Life sometimes feels like a whimsical farce. The cover art and the back jacket summary don’t quite communicate this, but on page two the narrator drops an F bomb for no real reason. From there you know what’s in store. Sometimes the humor works well to highlight the embarrassing reality of mankind’s devolution into counter-productive technology, but other times it’s just there as a gimmick. In one scene, Gene is confused by an explanation of the Gene/Arthur consciousness-split, and the narrator explains that Gene felt as if someone had told him how to open a combination lock with his penis. Examples like this strike an uneven balance with the moments in which the humor successfully accentuates the story, which is unfortunate. One might expect the silliness to calm down in the novel’s final third, but it doesn’t. This hinders your ability to take seriously the ostensibly huge stakes that have developed.
For a novel under 300 pages, Immortal Life certainly contains a wide cast of characters and clever, visionary ideas of future technology and society. The book’s early phases put an emphasis on the warring personalities of Arthur and Gene, but ultimately it’s about humankind versus its well-intentioned but self-destructive evolution; Arthur and Gene are merely the side effects. The humorous presentation attempts to provide a new iteration of the technologically-dystopian genre, and though the results are mixed, the comedic stumbles don’t detract too heavily from the story’s innovative concepts and insightful observations. There’s a ton of great ingredients here, which could have perhaps been more smoothly presented in an HBO series.