|THE FIRST IMMORTAL by James L. Halperin|
Published 1998 by Del Ray
ISBN# 0-345-42182-5 (Paperback)
ISBN# 0-345-42092-6 (Hardcover)
Reviewed February 16, 2000
This is a novel of ideas, and James Halperin has a lot of them. In this his second novel, which is set in the same future history as his first -- The Truth Machine -- Halperin tells the story of a society that embraces cryonics: the science of freezing deceased people's bodies in the hopes of reviving them sometime in the future. He has clearly done his homework here; his present day science is rock solid, and his extrapolation of future trends seems solid as well.
He follows the story of Benjamin Franklin Smith, starting with childhood in the 1930s and through the horrors of World War II as a prisoner of war in Japan. He becomes a doctor after the war and later in life becomes interested in cryonics and the possibility of surviving beyond death as we know it today. He finally dies of a heart attack in 1988 (it's in the prologue -- I'm not giving anything away here...) and is frozen.
The book follows his children and grandchildren into the future, showing the changes throughout society as, among other things, cryonics is eventually embraced as a genuine chance at survival, and becomes the standard procedure after death. After a very strong start, this is the point at which Halperin's book starts showing its seams. Having followed the story of one man up to this point, the book loses its focus on the story, and begins throwing raw concepts at the reader's feet to be digested at a hectic pace. He throws everything but the futuristic kitchen sink at the reader in the form of societal changes and technological advances -- as his story loses steam he tries to hold interest by showing more and more amazing technology to the reader. Again, he has done his homework, and the advances are very realistic, but all together they do not make for a good story so much as a random catalog of possibilities.
The beginning of the book, set in the 20th century, is vivid and well-described. The reader is able to clearly see the scenes he creates, and to imagine the characters within them. Once he gets past the actual present day of 1998 (when the book was written), the book loses this strength of image, and Halperin depends more and more on increasingly broad societal strokes which are interesting from a sociological point of view, but not as the basis of a novel. He gives very little detail of life in the future beyond the neat little gizmos and gadgets which he throws at you with both arms, and you soon stop caring about the characters as they become less real, and turn into simple proxies for different areas of society.
This novel has a decent story, but lacks the detail in later parts to hold interest. Halperin is so busy describing the society that he forgets to show us the lives of the characters. While the beginning of the book drew the scenes in detail, the latter chapters are often little more than series' of dialogs between characters. Upon finishing the book, I have little image of life beyond the 20th century, even though it follows events through the year 2125. It is definitely interesting from a sociological standpoint, and I would recommend it to those who are looking for such a book; but as a novel and a story, I have difficulty recommending it too highly. The book is not bad, it is just not particularly impressive.