Tom Doyle Guest Post: The Temptation of Immortality


War and Craft by Tom Doyle // VBCThe Temptation of Immortality

by Tom Doyle

In my American Craftsmen trilogy, what could possible tempt a magician-soldier or psychic spy? Readers of my first book discover that these powerful craftspeople come from long family lineages that have accumulated more money than any individual will get to use in their own lifetime. But that is of course the heart of the problem: some craftspeople want more life. Isn’t that the greatest temptation embodied in our gods and monsters?

When I last visited this blog, I discussed how the idea of the vampire haunted my work. This time, I want to focus in on the temptation and cost of immortality.

I have a keen personal interest in the question, as I’ve had my own recent confrontation with mortality. In 2014, I was finishing my second book, The Left-Hand Way, which is chock full o’ cancer images. It’ll surprise no one who believes in the perversity of fate or the power of the uncanny that I found out I had cancer. I was pretty certain I’d be dead soon, which made my fiction’s questions about mortality more intimately urgent—what would I be willing to do for just a little more life, a little time to finish the last book in my trilogy, War and Craft?

Fortunately, my existential dread was short-lived, and I was not. After a treatment consisting of Star Trek technology and medieval unpleasantness, I’m cured. Combining this with the current climate, I no longer desperately crave the barest extra increment of survival, but this more stoic perspective is possible because I know that I must die sometime. What constrains my powerful fictional protagonists, for whom death may be optional?

The answer isn’t easy. My characters are fully aware that technology will (within a generation or two) provide the very life extension that’s considered morally suspect in their supernatural realm, which makes any current limits seem unfair. Also, even prior to my recent mortal threat, I didn’t believe in the usual fictional cop-outs for when a character declines immortality; for example, that a long life would necessarily be boring, unnatural, or a defiance of God. So why shouldn’t my characters just seize all the future days they can?

In The Left-Hand Way, craftsman Dale Morton describes to Miki Kaguya the moral problem with the pursuit of a supernatural lifespan as he’s personally seen it: “Theoretically, life extension is harmless, but practically, well, it’s always different than that. When my Family sought immortality, it involved psychic vampirism, possession, and killing lots of people. And it never stops at just life extension. The goals become grander, and the killing goes on and on.” Part of this descent is that would-be immortals realize that they need tremendous power to protect their tremendous lifespans.

But like many moral principles, this one differs across cultures. As Kaguya-san (with a bit of Socratic irony) points out to Morton, “We’ve had centuries in the East where life extension was thought to be the right of a powerful man.” In my newly released third book, War and Craft, my protagonists journey to the craft world’s inspiration for Shangri-La, where powerful monks live for centuries. Their incredible age comes at the price of not really living very much; they are as physically inactive as a living person could possibly be. But they certainly don’t appear to be doing anyone any harm with their extreme ascetic practices, so the argument of inevitable corruption doesn’t seem to apply.

The root reason for my protagonists refusing immortality is an old one–it’s in the Odyssey, when Odysseus turns down godhood. Having seen the plight of the shades in Hades, he knows exactly what sort of sacrifice he’s making. On first reading, this struck me the as another example of humanity’s sour grapes—since we can’t have immortality, one of our great heroes casts it aside.

On further consideration though, Odysseus’s choice makes more sense to me. First, he’s seen the gods first hand, and it doesn’t take someone as clever as he is to realize there’s something wrong with their perspective from a human point of view; for example, Athena doesn’t seem to understand how long twenty years is for a mortal. Second, and more importantly, Odysseus has a sense of duty to his land and family–duty rather than love, because being away for so long he hasn’t been much of loving father or husband. This sense of duty runs contrary to the inactivity that would accompany an immortal life with Calypso and so would also negate the sort of immortality enjoyed by my craft Shangri-La monks.

Like Odysseus, my protagonists refuse immortality because it runs contrary to their concept of duty, which folds into it a morality of action versus inaction and a loyalty to friends, family, and loved ones. If they inadvertently stumble into life extension, they take oaths to die at seventy (the biblical three score and ten) if something else doesn’t kill them first.

I was reminded how strong such a sense of duty can be in the real world on this year’s anniversary of 9/11. Many online posters shared again the story of Heather Penney, the pilot who without hesitation was going to ram her fighter plane into Flight 93 until the passengers forced a crash themselves. For such people, the usual sort of immortality–immunity to old age–is perhaps not so great a temptation, as they know they may die in the line of duty anyway. The greater temptation for them is the power to better serve and protect.

But for those craftspeople who do not feel restrained by duty, the craft world has the necessary enforcement mechanisms. Some of this is simple peer enforcement–the cumulative wisdom and punitive action of the community. As a final recourse, beyond one’s peers are the Furies. My Furies are not supernatural beings, but they are nonetheless feared by all for the inexorable and sometimes hideous death that they bring. If a would-be vampire might consider the possibility of a future slayer, a craftsperson seeking deathlessness through evil means must consider the Furies. In enforcing the duties of others, it’s appropriate that the transcendent power of the Furies comes in part from their absolute dedication to their own duty.

Thank you for being such kind blog hosts!

Tom Doyle is the author of a contemporary fantasy trilogy from Tor Books. In the first book, American Craftsmen, two modern magician-soldiers fight their way through the legacies of Poe and Hawthorne as they attempt to destroy an undying evil–and not kill each other first. In the sequel, The Left-Hand Way, the craftsmen are hunters and hunted in a global race to save humanity from a new occult threat out of America’s past. In the third book, War and Craft (Sept. 2017), it’s Armageddon in Shangri-La, and the end of the world as we know it.

Some of Tom’s award-winning short fiction is collected in The Wizard of Macatawa and Other Stories. He writes in a spooky turret in Washington, DC. You can find the text and audio of many of his stories on his website, www.tomdoylewriter.com.

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