“Only when life is short can one imagine that love lasts forever.” This line sums up one of the major themes of The Immortality Virus by Christine Amsden. Set in the far future, when the humanity stopped aging, this story explores such deep subjects as the price and benefits of immortality, while at the same time keeping up the break-neck pace and turn-the-pages feel of a good science fiction thriller.
This is no mean feat to achieve. It helps that the plot resembles the familiar mold of private investigation stories. The main character, Grace Harper, is a private detective, who was once upon a time a member of the police force but now is blacklisted by the powerful Establishment. For many years (really, decades!) specializing on finding missing people, she’s asked to find no one less than the scientist responsible for the virus that had stopped aging 400 years ago.
During her investigation, she confronts the issues of the benefits and drawbacks of putting stop to aging. Herself a 130-years old woman, she looks like 25, as almost everyone in the world does, including her own mother. Her generation, like so many others, have forgotten what it meant to age, while facing the daily horrors of overpopulation. Although no longer aging beyond 25, the people still can die from violence, disease, or—as so many do—from hunger. Only the select few actually get to live to a ripe old age. The gulf between the rich and poor has increased by leaps and bounds. Driven by despair, many people beg to be taken into slavery to work the farms. Some are kidnapped and forced into slavery.
Deciding whether aging should be reintroduced is no easy thing. Predictably, Grace is immersed into power struggles between many forces, from the pro-immortality Establishment to the select rich trying to bring aging back while keeping themselves still immortal to the pro-death terrorists who bomb the crowds pretty much at random just to decrease population, as well as those bent on reunification of the States. But, poignantly, the big political issues are paralleled by very personal ones, as Grace struggles with the old and new loves, and with her decision never to have children.
Overall, I find the book to be successful. The world has a convincing mix of futuristic and throwback elements, the latter magnifying the sense of a decaying society while allowing to keep a sense of familiarity so far into the future. I see it as a problem, though, that Grace at times comes across as less than professional. In particular, I found it hard to believe that someone that had been seeking missing persons for something like six decades (!) had never visited a farm, whereas the farmers were notorious for kidnapping people (a fact that she still thinks is a rumor early in the story). At times, she exudes the “everyman” feel, which may be beneficial for grounding the reader in the story’s world yet clashes with her supposed image of a seasoned veteran.
That said, the pace picks up quickly and does not let out till the end, through many a change of fortune, as we get to visit all sorts of locales, from the futuristic city-state to the slavery farms to the terrorist underground. Personally, I was distracted at times by the fact that everyone seems to be after Grace while she doesn’t really know much at all. I kind of like the idea that she causes havoc not because of holding the keys to the humankind’s future but because all kinds of forces think she may. Moreover, the real key to the story lies not on the political but on the personal level. So, when Grace is tortured for information, it’s the fates of her loved ones that she truly holds in her hands, not the fate of the world, which remains to be resolved in a potential sequel that this story asks for.