Drew Magary’s The End Specialist (known as The Postmortal in the US) is similar in certain ways to Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone. In both instances there is a Big Idea at the heart of the novel yet the reader sees the consequences of this big idea at something of a remove. In the case of By Light Alone, the novel is constructed in such a way that the reader sees what the viewpoint characters mostly refuse to see because they are so staggeringly self-absorbed, and is drawn deeper into the story, piecing together the asides and elliptical references to reveal the full horror of being a human who can photosynthesise. Although John Farrell, the viewpoint character in The End Specialist is also staggeringly self-absorbed, Magary’s novel does not covertly enter into dialogue with the reader in the way that Roberts’ does. The End Specialist entirely lacks that extra discursive dimension of By Light Alone and there is actually very little conversation with the reader.
In particular, while Roberts uses a third-person viewpoint, Magary uses a first-person narrative viewpoint and the reader is stuck with John Farrell all the way. As a companion Farrell is somewhat lacking in emotional intelligence and prone to uttering banalities about the world in the mistaken belief he is having high-minded thoughts, but because he’s a little cleverer than most of the people around him, no one calls him out on it and he is able to continue deluding himself that his thoughts and opinions are in some way significant. Now it may be that it was the author’s intention all along to show how foolish John is but I could find no way of, for example, entering into a mocking complicity with another character over John’s highmindedness any more than I could find a way of seeing the tragedy of the delusion. In which case I am forced to conclude that this is how John is meant to be and that I, as reader, am supposed to empathise with him.
It is, though, hard to empathise with a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer who makes a decision to undergo an anti-ageing gene therapy as casually as he might order a round of drinks. Am I supposed to be admiring of his chutzpah in going on the black market for such treatment just because it’s available, so why shouldn’t he have it, not to mention because he can, or am I expected to be critical of him. Given I can find no mechanism with which to express criticism, except through approving the terrorist actions of fundamentalist pro-organics, my sneaking suspicion is that I am supposed to approve because hey, what 29-year-old wouldn’t want to live forever? It was around that point I began to suspect also that The End Specialist was pitching at a very specific market – young male single professionals with a penchant for taking a little too much drink, chasing available skirt, falling hopelessly in love and so on. Some of the situations that Magary puts his character into perhaps seem hilarious to men of a certain age and disposition. I found it difficult to be amused by the scene in which Farrell, only barely legally, administers the fatal dose to a forty-year-old prostitute frozen at the age of eighteen as she reaches the point of orgasm and then suffers a heart attack while still inside her, but maybe it’s someone’s dream scenario. Either way, this is not a novel in which women for the most part figure as equals.
Even if Farrell himself matures, after a fashion, as he confronts the reality of an anti-ageing drug being widely available, his maturity expresses itself in such hard-headed decisions as moving over to dealing with divorce and cycle-marriage cases, and later into becoming an end specialist, which could most kindly be described as a version of Dignitas that makes house calls (though later this transforms itself into bounty hunting with extreme prejudice and, later still, enforced euthanasia). It is strange too how each new turn of events seems to come as a complete shock to Farrell, as though he couldn’t possibly have foreseen the pressure that immortality would exert on land, natural resources, economic resources. On the other hand, it is also noticeable that as he grows older he seems to relish the violence more and more. This seems to imply that he is becoming desensitised to the situation but he was hardly starting from a high base point. There is no indication that being ‘cured’ fixes one’s brain at the point at which one stops ageing physically but from Farrell’s continual astonishment one might begin to wonder.
The story is episodic, deliberately so, a series of snapshots of postmortal life; showing where Farrell is in his life. I can see an argument for this episodic approach, touching down from time to time to see how things have changed. This requires, though, a very clear focus on particular details in order to maximise the effect of each touchdown, but problems arise in trying to link the episodes. Such attempts as there are to thread a sustained narrative through this novel are at best somewhat ham-fisted. At the beginning of the novel Farrell witnessed the blowing-up of his doctor’s surgery on the day his best friend and room-mate went for the ‘cure’ and connects this with the astonishingly beautiful woman he had encountered a moment or two earlier, and indeed chased after, hoping to make contact with her. Suddenly, many year later he encounters her again, as one of his bounty-hunting targets. Although we are supposed to view Farrell as haunted by the death of Katie, inevitably when he finds Solera Beck, he falls for her all over again and, well, one can guess how this is likely to turn out. The other ongoing plot thread concerns the Church of Man, a new form of religion that emerges in the wake of the ‘cure’, to which Farrell’s son, David, belonged. Apparently, when it became known that David’s father was an end specialist, a profession the church deplores, an eye was kept on him. This has had its advantages in that on more than one occasion the church has functioned as a deus ex machina to rescue him from tricky situations but its presence in Farrell’s life rings hollow.
This review is in danger of turning into a litany of things wrong with the novel so I should redress the balance by commenting on the slickness of the writing and the way in which Magary ‘compiles’ the story from snippets of blog posts, things Farrell has culled from the web, his encounters with clients as an end specialist, all of which have rather conveniently been recorded by the iPad du jour. Given that Magary enjoys a considerable reputation as blogger and journalist it is perhaps no wonder what he shows such a command of these forms, although inevitably they intensify the sense of solipsism that seems to infuse this novel.
I am less convinced by his handling of content. Aside from his problems with character and motive, there is his ongoing struggle to present a future world which is believably falling apart. I am struck too by how superficial this world is, in that it is presented through very filmic images, as well as using stock characters. ‘Ordinary’ people simply don’t exist except as crowds or as bodies. Even when Farrell is called on to express compassion this is elicited by stock characters – the tart with a heart, the little old lady, the dying parent. It is perhaps not surprising that Farrell is not a man given to reflection. His is the role of action hero, a job he takes on with increasing relish even if he still lacks plausibility.
There is one question I have not yet addressed and that is the matter of whether or not The End Specialist is good science fiction. I don’t think it is. To be precise, it is unadventurous. Immortality has long been a subject of science fiction and I don’t think Magary is contributing anything new to the discussion. Indeed, I wonder whether he is particularly aware of immortality’s extensive back catalogue. And if he is, one wonders why he felt that The End Specialist was contributing anything original to the debate. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) included an episode in which Gulliver traveled to Luggnagg, where he met the struldbruggs, people who are immortal but who, rather than being forever young, continue to grow older and older. They suffer the infirmities of age and are considered legally dead at the age of eighty. If one considers Gulliver’s Travels to be proto-sf, and I think one should, then here we have a very early recognition of the fact that immortality carries with it a price. Science fiction writers since then have frequently dealt with the issue of immortality, as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, and equally frequently have urged that the prospect be treated with caution. Over-population, increasing pressure on land, water and other resources, the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the ways in which immortality might change the nature of relationships and the structure of society – all of these have been addressed by writers in various ways since Swift recognised that immortality might not be all it is cracked up to be. And three hundred years later, we’re still having pretty much the same discussion. One might have expected some progress; instead, I’m left with the sense of Magary having lit on immortality as this really cool thing to write a disaster novel about, yet one more instance of the failure of dialogue.