Drew Magary’s The Postmortal starts from a simple premise: A geneticist, attempting to isolate the gene for ginger-ness inadvertently stumbles upon “The Cure,” a treatment that stops the aging process. The Cure, initially illegal, floods the black market before the government — after much political and moral debate — eventually opens it up to the entire world with drastic and increasingly dire consequences.
Told from the distant future through the journal entries and article excerpts of John Farrell — a divorce lawyer with a cure age of 27 (meaning, he never ages past 27) — The Postmortal is best when its focus is on the dilemmas that The Cure creates, and the way in which the world reacts. It is fucking phenomenal sci-fi, meticulously examining the consequences of a society that never ages. Individuals are still capable of dying from disease, accidents, or murder, so in some ways, individual life gains more value; people are less inclined to join the military or engage in risky behavior because death means more than throwing away a life with 50 or 60 years remaining on it. It means throwing away the potential of infinite life. Moreover, divorce rates skyrocket — “till death do us part” gains an entirely different meaning when forever actually means forever.
In other ways, however, life loses value. Faced with the prospect of infinite life, there’s no longer any urgency. “The Cure” eradicates ambition, leaving the populace in a perpetual state of malaise and hedonism. The law lacks teeth; what’s 20 years behind bars when you have thousands more ahead of you? There’s also nothing to keep population in check; resources dwindle while the concepts of love, regret, and redemption lose almost all of their meaning.
Pitted against the “pro-cure” faction are the fundamentalist “pro-lifers,” who not only refuse The Cure but engage in terrorist activities designed to discourage eternal youth. They read initially like wackjob hippy tea-partiers, but as the novel progresses, and this incarnation of the world seems less viable and desirable, the ideological arguments of the pro-lifers gain traction.
What’s so remarkable about The Postmortal is how terrifying realistic it reads. How far is science from actually isolating the gene for aging and halting it (in the novel, The Cure is discovered in 2019)? And who would be granted The Cure? The super-rich, people under a certain age, everyone? The prospect of eternal life is compelling on an individual level, but chilling at a societal level, and Magary brilliantly navigates the forces at play on both sides.
Those familiar with Magary from his work on Kissing Suzy Kolber, Deadspin, or the half a dozen other online outlets for which he writes may be surprised at the depth of this novel, as well as the serious and grim nature of The Postmortal, although his blunt sense of humor frequently bleeds through. The use of journal entries is smart, allowing Magary to rely on the style of writing in which he excels: Short bursts of prose, dense but always vibrant. It makes for an engrossing and quick read (I knocked it out in under 24 hours) and tellingly, ideal for an eventual motion-picture adaptation (I’m shocked the rights haven’t been purchased yet). It’s an outstanding debut in serious fiction for Magary (who also wrote the hilarious but frivolous Men with Balls), a bold and challenging sci-fi novel that’s as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
(Full Disclosure: I write a weekly column for Uproxx.com, which owns Kissing Suzy Kolber, a website for which Magary writes.)