Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Immortality

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on Immortality.

Fear of death is one of the most primal forces at work in human culture. A driving sense of self-preservation lies behind much of what shapes life as we know it. Religions throughout history have thrived on the promise of eternal life. The governmental powers of the world spend trillions on weapons and armies, all to make sure the other guy bites it first.

It should come as no surprise then that writers have long been fascinated with the concept of immortality. Science fiction, fantasy, horror--all have explored the idea from many directions.

In fact, the path of immortality has been so well trod in fiction that a very wide spectrum of tropes have sprung from the idea, many of which are seemingly unrelated. For instance, you might never connect a "mutant" superhero who can heal any injury with a shambling, undead corpse that hungers for brains, but they're both just different takes on what an undying man might look like.

Of course, the zombie is not the only scary trope that revolves around a flavor of immortality. Vampires are one of the most well-known monsters in the history of the genre--and one of the most frightening (well, at times). The most iconic is, of course, Count Dracula.

Inspired by real-life tyrant Vlad ČšepeČ™, who also went by the patronymic name Dracula (son of the dragon), the blood-drinking antagonist of Bram Stoker's Dracula was depicted as an immortal being of immense evil. The novel and its numerous adaptations to stage and screen influenced entire generations of horror writers.

Just as horror tends to use the trope to inspire awe and unease, writers in other genres have adapted it to serve their own purposes. In fantasy works, immortality is often used to give a character or race a magical, otherworldly quality. For instance the elves in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (and many of the fantasy works it inspired) were said to be ageless. Science fiction stories usually explore the idea from a technological angle. Characters might transfer their consciousness into a new, impervious body (or a continuously refreshed supply of clones) or upload it onto a computer server for a deathless existence in cyberspace.

It's also used frequently as a macguffin, with the story's antagonist searching for some magical trinket or piece of technology that will grant him eternal life. Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series displays a greedy lust for immortality that drives him to create magical items called "horcruxes," which he can only create by taking a life.

I've yet to write any stories from the immortality angle, but writing this entry has caused a few ideas to begin buzzing around in my head. Maybe I'll soon join the legion of writers who've challenged death in their work, perhaps in hope of attaining a little slice of immortality for ourselves.

Recommended Reading:
Fat Farm by Orson Scott Card
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow 
by Kurt Vonnegut

Recommended Viewing:
Shadow of the Vampire
In Time

Recommended Gaming:
Planescape: Torment
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Fallout: New Vegas


  1. Oh why did all the Highlander films need to go off the road, only to make a decent Endgame... only to make that made-for-tv-movie....

    Impressive, Most Impressive... to the challenge "I" is for Interesting!
    Jeremy [Retro-Zombie]
    A to Z Co-Host
    My New Book:
    Retro-Zombie: Art and Words

  2. It's a tragic tale, isn't it? Highlander 2 was so bad. It's like they went in daring themselves to ruin the awesomeness of the first one! Tragic, tragic.

  3. Have you read THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova? It tells the tale of Vlad Tepes in a very new and interesting way - history mixed with a good dose of fantasy, but done in a way that makes you question which parts are fiction and which are true.

    1. I haven't, but that sounds awesome! I'll definitely add it to my "get off your butt and read this" list.

      Thanks for the recommendation!

    2. Hope you like it! :D It's the author's debut too - definitely something to aspire to.

  4. *giggles* Yeah, Vlad the Impaler is quite familiar to me. I was born 40 miles away from his famous castle in Bran. Though I don't much question what's real and what's not about the myth of Dracula The Vampire (around 70% is fiction, 30% is Romanian folklore, and none of it is real history), it's still a very fascinating approach to the idea of immortality. Cursed immortality more or less (it must come with a price, does it not?). ;)

    1. Nice! I'd love to visit it one day. I love historical sites like that, but especially those with some kind of extra cultural mystique like Bran Castle.

      Sometimes it's disappointing when you grow up and learn the truth behind the stories you heard and read as a child, but I'm fascinated with the way myths and folklore grow, change, and survive through the years. Vlad III seems to be one of those historical figures that measures up to the terrifying mystique of the Dracula legend, whether he could turn into a bat or not!

    2. He definitely didn't need to turn into a bat, people were scared shitless of him anyway. It's amazing what he accomplished at Bran, where the kept the Turkish army that faaaar outnumbered his from galloping into Transylvania. And he's done so in a way that will have people remember him centuries from now.

  5. Stopping by for A to Z...

    I prefer my vampires scary, or at the least, haunting and creepy. It's inevitable that vampires would eventually mainstream (high school, outing themselves into society, working in hospitals etc) but I need my fiction vampires to lose their cool and freak out in a blood fest to take them seriously. The TV show Being Human does a great job of this.

    1. I'm with you, Stephsco. I'm not a huge fan of what's been done to the vampire over the last decade! I miss the days when vamps were terrifying. I think there will eventually be a backlash from the sparkly vampires that are so prevalent now though, and we'll reclaim our monster myth.

  6. Hello, J.W.! Humans have always been fascinated with immortality and agelessness. It's no wonder that the subject is prevalent in books and movies from different generations!

    Hope you're having a great week and happy A to Z!

    1. We've always been fascinated with the idea of breaking our earthly bonds and triumphing over death! I don't think that will change anytime soon, though the next century will probably see us using different methods in the struggle to do so, both in fiction and reality.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. I've always felt immortality would be more of a curse than a blessing. Imagine outliving everyone you know, having to adapt to so many new ideas and technologies and trying to fit centuries worth of memories into your head. Not for me....

    1. It doesn't sound like a great deal of fun when you get right down to the heart of it, doesn't it? I love life, but you do have to wonder how long it would take to go nuts as an immortal!

      Thanks for the comment, Kate!


Thanks for reading!