Jack Vance, To Live Forever (1956)

1109611I read Jack Vance’s 1956 sci-fi novel To Live Forever, AKA Clarges, a book set in an advanced city that has conquered disease and mortality but remains a dystopia. To avoid Malthusian dilemmas of overpopulation life-lengthening treatments are administered in stages by the local government, but only in return for doing good works. The city’s inhabitants are thereby obsessed with their progression towards immortality, the four preceding stages of which form the rigid caste system.

The plot concerns Waylock, a man who has fallen foul of this society, having relinquished his right to be immortal by murdering a rival press baron. He is amoral, ruthless, dogged, and clever, an anti-hero of a similar type to Ben Reich in Alfted Bester’s The Demolished Man, (1953) another book about a resourceful captain of industry trying to get away with murder in a megapolis. At the outset of the novel Waylock emerges from exile, having been presumed dead. He strives towards reclaiming his immortal status, but he is consistently thwarted by a young immortal woman with a grudge against him. His tanglings with the femme fatale antagonist and make up much of the novel.

Waylock enters myriad jobs as we see both the winners and losers of his society: immortals, near-immortals, mental-cases, assassins, rebels, bureaucrats, and lackeys all feature. Here, Vance depicts a people who have attained immortality but whose lives remain in drudgery. He targets meaningless careerism (‘striving’) and the self-satisfied complacency of the comfortable. At the end of the book he offers a solution to this scene, a way of adding meaning to the increasingly long lives that are afforded by technological superiority. By this, the novel still has a social relevance after sixty years. In general terms he expresses the idea that man must have a level of meaningful level of adversity and ambition for his wellbeing.

This book is a fast read with a well constructed society and anti-hero figure, of interest to readers of Jack Vance, SF dystopias, as well as cyberpunk readers with its familiar tropes of mind-altering drugs, flying cars, skyways, simulacra, double identities and memory transfer. It’s an ideas book but not so heavy handed as to neglect our entertainment, and so it’s a joy to read the anti-hero negotiating his surroundings, and be among the variously mysterious, humorous, violent, and exotic aspects and personages of the city. The plotting is superb, the dialogue is witty, and the ending is satisfying. 4/5

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