What happens when death becomes all but a bad memory? Do we eventually forget about it, or does our fear of it become even stronger? This is the main question that Dancing With Eternity poses, but John Patrick Lowrie goes much further in his exploration of humanity after it’s figured out a way to conquer death.
One of the nice things about medium-scale conventions is the ability to meet or read material from relatively unknown authors and sample their work in a way that you can’t in bookstores or over the internet. I picked up Dancing With Eternity at the GMX convention in Nashville, TN back in October. Valve (the gaming company) had a booth there, staffed by Ellen McLain (who most probably know as the voice of GLaDoS in Portal). Her husband, John Patrick Lowrie, wasn’t present, but she was selling his book at the booth. After a few kind words, I picked up the book. I don’t regret it one bit.
Synopsis: The story is told from the point of view of Mohandas, known to his friends as Mo. He’s nearly 2000 years old thanks to advances in medicine and technology, and he’s been trying out a new line of employment – acting. Unfortunately, he’s not terribly great at it, and a genome alteration to make himself more salable has left him in debt. Worse, the amount of money spent on the procedure wasn’t able to be written off his taxes, and he finds himself stranded on a backwater planet.
His ticket off-planet comes in the form of Steel, a beautiful but mysterious woman who meets him in a bar one day. She’s been looking around for another member of her crew for a secret mission, and offers to smuggle Mo out and pay down his back taxes in exchange for his support. Mo is suspicious, but can’t resist giving his support.
The details of the mission remain a secret, even after Mo makes it back into space, but he finds out that Steel and her crew has been down to the surface of the quarantined Brainard’s Planet. The planet is the source of an exobiological plague that eventually rendered three planets uninhabitable to humanity, and worse, one of Steel’s crew has come down with the plague, too. Steel convinces Mo that the situation is under control, and Mo decides to remain a crew member since there’s really no other option open to him.
The mystery of Steel’s mission deepens once Mo returns to Earth. Mo and Steel get into a couple of sticky situations on Earth, which Mo’s life experience helps them get through. Even after Steel offers to let him leave with the full payment she promised, Mo decides to remain a member of the crew to figure out what’s really going on. After a few side-stops, Mo figures out what’s really going on, and the enterprise is less than safe.
Dancing With Eternity is at the very least a richly-imagined and well thought-out book. The core of the story is swashbuckling, but at the same time it ties together a variety of musings about humanity’s relationship with death. Lowrie provides a lot of detail as to how society may change as technology and colonial expansion into the galaxy occurs.
Rejuvenation technology develops as an outgrowth of technology to fight cancer: once the ability to repair chromosomal damage is developed, the rest falls into place relatively quickly. The treatment for getting old is at first a privilege that only the rich, famous, or intelligent can afford. Treatment eventually becomes commonplace, but it’s still expensive: to get it, you take out a mortgage to be paid down with the earnings of your second life.
The biggest effect on human culture is the the steep decline in birth rates, both from political and social pressures. Since people live longer, the world population explodes, pushing the hard limit of Earth’s carrying capacity. Regulations are developed to keep population in check, but a social factor also emerges. With fewer kids, it’s easier to build savings towards the next rejuvenation treatment.
At first, containing population growth seems like a good thing. However, as terraformation presses further out into the galaxy, fewer warm bodies are present to keep the machinery going. As a result, terraformation companies, or trades, begin mass-producing people. To appease activists that see the creation of people solely to perform a task as immoral, the trades make a compromise. The people created by the trades are given education, but otherwise work as indentured servants for 60 years.
Once their contract is completed, they’re given a lump-sum capable of seeing them through another 55 to 60 years. Some work to increase their fortunes and avoid reentering the trades, while others live the easy life before returning to the trades to get their next rejuvenation treatment.
Death by accident is also prevented by another factor: the Net. The Net is a logical outgrowth of today’s technology – it’s essentially the internet, modified to the cyberpunk extreme and given FTL capabilities. If a person is accidentally killed, their Net connection preserves their genome and brain state, which are uploaded into a newly grown clone. The side effect is that if you die in this universe, you really have to want it.
There’s also a few other side effects: all but the most esoteric religions disappear, mostly for the reasons that you’d expect. With the fear of death removed, most of the death-salvation religions like Christianity and Islam disappear, while scientific advances do away with the rest. With those, a lot of social inhibitions on birth control also disappear, with a side effect of increased casual sex. Pregnancy almost never occurs, and all new human life is created by the trades.
The result of these huge societal changes result in the formation of theme-colonies. Over the course of events, Mo visits a colony where the old ways of Earth are still practiced (1950s-style) and a matriarchal society (where at one point the term feminazi would have been entirely justified), while others are hinted at.
I think the theme colonies are where the book hits some rough spots. I remember being a little bugged at the matriarchal society in particular. At one point in its past, males had been forced to go genomic conversions to female, or shipped off the colony entirely. The response from the rest of the colonies was to start a war, which quickly becomes a male vs. female clone of WWII. Fair enough, since we’re exploring issues here.
What seems a little off is that some of this information is viewed in the context of a 1950s-era colony. What I got out of it was that the gender roles of the 1950s were okay; there was this separate-but-equal thing going on. It kind of works something like this: the man provides for the family and otherwise protects it, while the woman makes decisions for the kids and the households. However, Lowrie uses a strawman feminist approach – the feminist colony is all about removing the influence of the male from society from the outset, rather than removing gender roles.
Other than some gripes with the theme colonies, Lowrie does a pretty good job at exploring the social fabric of the galaxy as it evolves over 2000 years. It’s a pretty fantastic mix of high adventure and the social side of sf. I’d definitely recommend getting this one to read. Prepare to budget some time out for reading it – it’s a brick of a book to be sure – but definitely worth it in the end. Lowrie has a stellar debut effort, and I hope to see more fiction from him soon.