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6 Things Wrong with Immortal Stories (Written by Mortals)

I used to think there was nothing left to be told about immortals. It is a boring subject, exhausted by the sci-fi and fantasy literature. I wouldn’t read an immortal story myself.

Until I took a second look at the ones we already have.

Re-watching the Highlander I realised what I did not see as a child (and before I studied scriptwriting): Great music, but there is not much there in terms of a story. I am supposed to be shocked by the fact that there are immortals. They show me one resurrections and I don’t recover for the full 90 minutes. In the meatime they fight away. Only one can be left.

When they try to explain, why immortals exist, the story gets unbearably awkward. (Anyone remembers the second and third part of that movie? No? That’s for a reason.)

Or take vampire stories. The only thing sexy about a bloodsucker is that it is immortal and has the power to turn you into one. There’s nothing more to this line.

After a quick meta-analysis of the immortality-meme I found 6 things that annoy me about our image of immortality.

1. These stories are racist

Not in the political correctness sense, just as a matter of fact. According to these stories immortals are another race. You must born into the immortal race or be married into it (e.g. bitten by a vampire). The mortal who wrote this story wants to prove that there’s nothing he or she could do to become immortal.

These stories completely discount the possibility that immortality may be attained by one’s own effort. It would be an inconvenient thing to hear, after all, and we don’t want to hear inconvenient stories. The idea that longevity may have something to do with our choices and actions, our lifestyle and thinking is upsetting. It puts the responsibility on us, so we dismiss it. Back to the good, old, deterministic race narrative.

Immortality is something that comes to you, you just have to wait, be cute and please the ones who can give it to you.

The soothing message that inaction and non-effort is righteous sells well.

2. Fictitious immortals think with mortal heads

Writers don’t account for the difference in thinking, perspective, context and mindset that longevity might bring.

They only add a cute historic nugget to chew on, name a famous person as immortal to give a cheap thrill to the audience. A cheap substitute to actual research.

Tesla is an immortal and he still lives. Here, I did it!

3. They get confused by the completely unrelated theme of indestructability

…and end up with demented scenes, where someone with an obnoxious injury is still alive and walking. Make-up artists show off, audiences cringe, and everyone is happy that they are happily mortal. All this nonsense to prove that physical indestructibility is a curse. Like that was the questions.

4. They are desperate to prove that the grape is sour

The most inane writing tool of all: a lame conflict. And what else could be an immortal’s conflict than the same, depressing cliché: Immortality is unbearable so the immortal either goes nuts or becomes violent. The logic goes like this: I would hate to be 100 years old, so 100-year-olds must be depressed, and 500-year-olds must be five times as depressed. But projecting mortal considerations (and especially those of ageing) into eternity is not a valid approach.

This is another iteration of the soothing meme: immortality sucks. So you don’t have to go home from the cinema feeling envious.

5. Would you trust someone who tells you that one can only live off others?

This is what I think every time I read a story where vampires need to kill to live such long lives. Is it just me or is it the Rorschach test of fantasy writers? If it’s good for you, it must be bad for someone else. In the zero-sum game of an unimaginitive fantasy writer immortals must be freeloaders. What else?

I can’t say I trust people who think this way – in any realm, not just fiction.

6. They think inside the box

And copy one another.

They take ageing and premature death as normal and longevity and the good death as abnormal. But there are a lot of more relevant questions to ask, such as:

  • What does mortality cause in humans? In society?
  • How do we adjust to the presence of unwanted death?
  • How would these things be different if ageing didn’t exists and death would be voluntary?
  • How would people spend their lives if these massive limitations weren’t in place?

This is the subject of the next post.

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