In Clarges, a city in the far future, humans have conquered death. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough room for billions of immortal people to live forever, so they’ve passed the fair-play act which divides society into 5 phyle which must be maintained at certain population ratios. Those who choose to participate in fair-play must register in Brood, the lowest phyle, and receive 82 years of life, after which an “assassin” visits and takes them away in a black hearse. By significantly contributing to society, citizens may move up through the phyle, adding several years of life with each step. A very select few will reach Amaranth and may have their bodies genetically modified (with 5 copies made, in case of accidents), making them youthful forever. This social climbing causes a lot of anxiety for the people of Clarges, so their mental hospital is full of people who’ve gone “catto” (alternating periods of catatonia and mania).
Gavin Waylock has been in hiding for seven years, but now he’s ready to return to the immortal society that shunned him. He’s back at the bottom and must use all of his wits to work his way up to the place he knows he deserves. Things would be a lot easier, though, if he hadn’t just met The Jacynth Martin, because she’s determined to keep him out of Amaranth.
One thing I love about Jack Vance is that he writes about things that fascinate me. As Gavin is trying to figure out how he can contribute something creative and meaningful to society, and thereby push himself ahead of everyone else, he tackles the field of psychology. I found it great fun to read Vance’s ideas about the future of my field.
To Live Forever was written in 1956, at a time when “insane asylums” in the United States were full. Vance must have thought this to be a hopeless situation because while his characters are zipping around in aircars and have plenty of other cool future technologies, one of their psychotherapists tells Gavin that their hospital is full, and psychology is the only science that isn’t progressing, because it’s impossible to see inside the human brain.
I’m not surprised that Vance didn’t foresee brain imaging techniques (though he actually uses a similar technology in this novel!), but it’s amusing that it was only a few years later that asylums in developed countries were nearly emptied after antipsychotic, antidepressant, and anti-anxiety drugs became common. It’s also amusing that, for fun, citizens of Clarges use different types of “stimmo” pills, some of which are basically antidepressant or anti-anxiety drugs. Hmmm… I wonder if they thought to try those on the cattos…
Though Mr. Vance’s vision didn’t seem to foresee much beyond Freud and Jung, at the same time one of his characters comes up with an idea to treat catatonic-mania that is stunningly brilliant and something very much like what is only now being tested as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder! Wow!
You don’t have to be a psychologist to love To Live Forever. This is a fun, fast-paced, and clever science fiction novel, but it isn’t at all “gadgetty,” so it will probably appeal even to those who think they don’t like scifi. It’s also, as is common for Jack Vance, part humorously scathing social commentary.