Nominated for the 1959 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Robert Sheckley’s first novel Immortality, Inc. (variant title: Time Killer) (1958) has a somewhat checkered publication history. It was originally published by Avalon books under the title Immortality Delivered (1958) where it was abridged against Sheckley’s wishes. Unless you are a collector of the Avalon publication series I recommend procuring the complete 1959 Bantam Book edition with its gorgeous (and alas, uncredited) cover. Later editions were decked with rather unfortunate covers linking the book to the atrocious film Freejack (1992) (replete with Mick Jagger) which was supposedly influenced by Sheckley’s novel.
Thematically, Immortality, Inc concerns the societal ramifications of the important discovery that death is not the end of existence and neither does the Christian conception of the afterlife exist. As a result of this discovery, previously held supernatural occurrences such as demonic possession, ghosts, etc are explained in scientific terms. The novel is delightfully tongue and cheek in the style Sheckley developed and refined in his short stories of the late 50s — notably the masterpiece “The Prize of Peril” (1958).
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“What survives or doesn’t survive after death is the mind. People have been arguing for thousands of years about what a mind is, and where and how it interacts with the body, and so forth. We haven’t got the answers, but we do have some working definitions. Nowadays, the mind is considered a high-tension energy web that emanates from the body, is modified by the body, and itself modifies the body. Go that?” (30)
If you do, then this next step “logically” follows: “death hatches the mind from the body” (30). The mind is transferred after death, if trained correctly or facilitated by a machine, to a vast “switchboard” that rests at a “threshold.” The threshold leads to some state of existence beyond our realm. Before the scientific breakthroughs spearheaded by the incredibly powerful Hereafter Insurance Corporation, ”death trauma” (30) resulted in the mind dissipating or even incorrectly entering someone else’s body in some insane state — i.e. demonic possession. With the techniques developed, Hereafter Insurance Corporation can guarantee, for a substantial fee, the mind’s intact survival after death trauma. If you do not want to immediately head to the switchboard threshold and whatever lies beyond, then for an additional fee a surrogate body can be provided. Hopefully the mind of previous inhabitant has been correctly removed and body supplied willingly…
Into this unusual world Thomas Blaine, our playboy yacht designer hero, is unsuspectingly thrust. As a filmed advertising gimmick for a new type of power generator, the Rex Corporation transports Blaine’s mind after death from the past (time-travel is possible but illegal) into a new body in the future: “this poor bastard has just discovered that he died in an automobile accident and is now reborn in a new body. So what does he say about t? He says, ‘It’s unbelievable.’ Damn it, he’s not really reacting to the shock!” (6). Blaine’s discomfort and extreme confusion is all filmed for an advertising campaign!
In one of the plot holes of the novel, the Rex Corporation’s purpose for brining Blaine from the past is never brought to fruition due to the fact that they are too worried about the illegality of the transfer. Regardless, Blaine, once a tall lithe man is placed in a short beefy boxer-like body. He soon meets to the architect of the botched Rex Corporation campaign, the icy but lovely Marie Thorne… She forces him to sign a paper agreeing not to bring the corporation to court due to their “unauthorized saving of his life in the year 1958 and the subsequent transporting of that life to a Receptacle in the year 2110″ (10) and he is soon thrust, ignorant of the ways of this new world, onto the street.
A series of adventures follow, he is unable to find a job building/designing yachts so he joins the hunters — armed men who hunt the wealthy who own Hereafter Insurance and want to die spectacular an memorable deaths. He is exposed to the rhetoric of fanatical religious movements, attempts to join a show as a primitive man from the 19th century, meets colonies of humans whose minds incorrectly entered new bodies and thus move and think more akin to zombies, he finally finds employment designing vintage yachts all before the main plot threads, concerning another mind that wants to steal his body, come to fruition.
As with his short from the same year, “The Prize of Peril,” where the participants risk sign away their lives to the whims of the audience in a futuristic television program, Sheckley’s ruminations on death are fascinating. Because death lacks the same import and uncertainty that it once held societies opinions of it are transformed — it becomes a spectacle by the wealthy who want to go out in style, hunted by armed men on their lavish estates. Life is simply a intermittent period where enough money can be gathered to guarantee the survival of the mind. And for those who simply cannot find the funds suicide booths line the streets… Hopefully your mind is strong enough to withstand death trauma.
With the technology of the Transplant, where you can move your mind momentarily to a new body, Sheckley postulates all the new thrills one can experience: “Transplant is the new switch game, buddy. Are you tired of living? Think you’ve had all the kicks Wait ’til you try Transplant. So see, farmer, folks in the know say that straight sex is pretty moldy potatoes” (24). But even with all the new thrills (sexual experience, elaborate suicides) and benefits generated by the new technology, the world is in no way a better place. The standard SF trope of the primitive man from the past thrust into the utopian future is adeptly subverted. Sheckley conception of technology does not exude the stereotypical 50s naivete. And this pernicious tone despite the pulp trappings that makes Immortality, Inc. a rather unsettling experience.
Despite lacking cohesion and a rather run-of-the-mill action plot, Immortality, Inc. not only touches on some thought-provoking ideas but is told with the same appealing vigor as his short works. Although I am not altogether convinced that Robert Sheckley’s talents transfer to the novel form as brilliantly as they do to the short form, Immortality, Inc is recommended for all fans of 50s SF.