Raymond Z. Gallun is best known for his pulp sci-fi from the 1930s-50s. From the 50s onward he wrote a handful of novels of varying quality. The Eden Cycle (1974), probably his single best science fiction work, is a successful integration of pulp ideas and lush environments with a poignant and often haunting depiction of the social ramifications of a future world where everyone, "blessed" with immortality, can "live" in any virtual reality of their choice, shift from simulation to simulation at will, and spontaneously conjure new ones.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
In the near future mankind receives mysterious signals from space. Gallun is careful to slowly reveal the main backstory over the course of the first third of the novel. After the messages are decoded, they prove that not only does an alien species exist (the nature of which is never fully clear) but they are willing to give away a massive amount of technology. Logically, Earth is suspicious of such ostensibly altruistic motive despite the fact that the alien intelligences claim that the knowledge is to maintain peace across the galaxy. The technology itself is of the high concept nature -- i.e. incredibly outlandish. The reader has to suspend disbelief or else you will not buy into Gallun's pseudo-philosophical message. The technology not only allows man to be immortal but transfers their mind to a virtual reality node (A Sensory Experience Simulator) while their bodies are tended below ground in vast caverns. In the nodes, the mind can conjure any number of virtual scenarios and interact with billions of other humans in the network, and even other alien species which have integrated the technology into their own societies.
Slowly, humanity gives into the benefits of such a system, no wars, no overpopulation, and best of all happiness due to the technology's capacity to fulfill every possible wish! Most of the population voluntarily allows their minds to be transfered to the virtual reality nodes.
If you get tired of a virtual reality, one can simply transfer to another. If you want to find another "real" individual (or meet up with one you met earlier) then simply wish to find them -- if they want to find you, then the wish will be fulfilled. If you want to violate all laws, fly through space, pretend to be an exploding Mickey Mouse then do so.... If you want to have your memories wiped and relive any life, then simply wish that at a certain point the memories will be returned. Or, in the most drastic manner, simply wish away your memories all together. If you die in a simulation then you'll simply be transfered to another.
The plot follows Joey Martin and his love interest Jennie Murray (Gallun makes their chemistry believable) as they slowly come to realize that the world they live in, small town Purdyville, is actually a simulation. Of course, they had voluntarily undergone mind wipes, allowing the nature of their existence to only slowly be revealed to them. They move from world to world, sometimes together sometimes apart. Here Gallun indulges in his pulp tendencies and creates fantastic world after world, heaven, hell, aliens, historical reenactments, harems, roving bands of hippies, etc. Unsurprisingly, his language is bogged down with strings of adjectives. The novel is less about what happens in these worlds and more about the character development. Initially, the possibility of endless wish fulfillment keeps the protagonists happy. And for a while they successfully delude themselves into thinking they are truly happy.
Final Thoughts (*some spoilers*)
It is in the philosophical discussion of the sophistic nature of such a life where humanity is immune to the parameters of a physical existence (no sickness, no death, no children, etc) where Gallun excels. Joey and Jennie slowly realize, after several attempts to carry out more traditional and non-traditional lives in various worlds (separate and apart), the emptiness of it all. They can always wish to live as if they really existed in physical form but sickness, disease, always is escapable. Also, the human potential for creation is seriously curtailed, no one needs to struggle to play an instrument, to create a work of art, to be the strongest, the smartest... And if something new was created, who would ever see it?
Throughout the work Gallun speculates that such a transition to a world where you live through the lives of others, through impossible experiences, is already occurring, by means of the television! Such, little quips aside, Gallun poignantly conveys the complete helplessness of our characters as they meander through an seemingly endless sequence of worlds. I would argue that Gallun, more successfully than many other books with immortal characters, conveys the mental "reality" of such individuals.
However, the work is often overwhelming, the characters move from place to place, amazing vistas, bizarre characters fly by at incredible speeds. Running parallel with the slow evolution of our heroes as they realize immortality and endless wish-fulfillment increasingly threaten to deprive them of their humanity, I too became somewhat overwhelmed with Gallun's aimlessness, infinitely varied, infinitely extraordinary, infinitely soul-sucking "utopia." Perhaps, a shorter sequence of more limited (and a few extreme) worlds would have more effectively conveyed the message.
If you find a copy and pry your eyes away from the horror that is Kelly Freas' cover, you'll be pleasantly surprised.