Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley omnibus containing his novels Immortality Inc., The Status Civilization, Journey Beyond Tomorrow and Mindswap (Italian edition)
Robert Sheckley omnibus containing his novels Immortality Inc., The Status Civilization, Journey Beyond Tomorrow and Mindswap (Italian edition)

The novel “Immortality, Inc.” by Robert Sheckley was published for the first time in 1958 in the magazine “Galaxy” with the title “Time Killer”. This is the expanded version of a shorter story titled “Immortality Delivered”.

In 1958, Thomas Blaine is 32 years old when he has a fatal car crash. When he wakes up he’s told that it’s 2110 and he reincarnated in a new body. But something went wrong because that body was meant to host the soul of another person. Still confused, Blaine starts discovering that after his death science has made leaps forward in the explanation of what were considered supernatural phenomena related to the afterlife.

Finding himself in a future so distant that his skills as a yacht designer are obsolete, Thomas Blaine must try to catch up. He tries to understand a world in which you can have an insurance to reincarnate, even if the process doesn’t always work properly. Ghosts, poltergeists, zombies and people willing to sell their bodies are now normal.

“Immortality, Inc.” was the first novel written by Robert Sheckley after publishing short fiction for a few years. Through the eyes of the protagonist Thomas Blaine the writer makes us discover the strange future of the beginning of the 22nd century, when science is solving the mysteries of the afterlife, so much that there are companies that provide reincarnation services. All of this has caused a new conflict with religions who feel robbed of their monopoly.

Thomas Blaine got reincarnated in 2110 by mistake because the process is complex and doesn’t always work properly. The protagonist discovers that the society of the future has changed a lot but not necessarily for the better. In the ’50s social science fiction was an important subgenre and Robert Sheckley, with his propensity for satire and his sparkling ideas, gave his contribution also with “Immortality, Inc.”.

The interest sometimes obsessive and morbid towards death is the basis of this novel and, as in all the stories that are part of social science fiction, it distorts elements of the society of the era in which they were written. In “Immortality, Inc.” the afterlife has become in some ways more important than the world of the living and that attitude created various problems.

Thomas Blaine’s reincarnation was a mistake, in other cases the process is successful only in part and the patient becomes a zombie with a body that’s animated but decaying. The zombies are a category barely tolerated and are confined to a ghetto.

Thomas Blaine has to face various dangers of this future society in a novel that follows certain standards of the ’50s, meaning that the length is reduced compared to today’s novels and the pace is fast. There are also some stereotypes of the time, starting with the female characters who aren’t extactly strong. Actually the only really developed character is the protagonist, a quite common man of the 20th century who’s trying to survive in a future that for him is really weird.

Thomas Blaine’s story is divided into some parts, probably due to the division in some episodes of its publication in “Galaxy”. In each part there are various twists for the protagonist and especially the reader, in a story in which there’s a lot of action. In some cases, the plot twists are predictable but others are genuinely surprising.

“Immortality, Inc.” inspired the 1992 movie “Freejack” but only for a few basic concepts that are developed in very different ways, so much that the characters and most of the plots were created specifically for the movie. Despite its good cast, the movie’s quality is much lower than the novel.

I think “Immortality, Inc.” is in some ways dated but overall it’s still a very good novel and still very enjoyable so I recommend reading it.

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