Thursday, December 18, 2008

Questions of Immortality

I've been reading a YA novel called SUCKS TO BE ME, subtitled "The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teenage Vampire (Maybe)." Mina's parents are both vampires, the traditional formerly-human, transformed type. (Vampires can't breed; they had her before their change.) The Vampire Council has recently learned of Mina's existence. Because ordinary human beings aren't supposed to know about vampires, Mina is faced with the decision of whether to become a vampire. Her parents and uncle (who's also a vampire; he transformed her father) take it for granted that she probably will accept the change. In preparation, she has to attend classes, which of course she has to keep secret from her friends in high school. It's an amusing book with lots of debunking of myths that, in Mina's world, aren't true. For one thing, the vampire lifestyle isn't nearly so glamorous as the popular media imagine. (Her father is an accountant, for Heaven's sake.)

I've read other books in which the protagonist is given that choice, but no others that approach the topic quite the way this novel does. As for my own vampires, they're members of another species. Most fictional vampires don't get a choice; they're either born that way, transformed against their will, or faced with vampirism as an alternative to certain death. But suppose a free choice existed. Which brings up the question: If you were offered the opportunity to become a vampire, would you accept? Assuming vampires aren't intrinsically cursed and evil, the core question here, of course, is whether you'd want to become immortal. The down side of an indefinitely extended lifespan includes growing apart from all the people you know and eventually being cast adrift in time, possibly afraid to make friends because, from the vantage point of centuries, they'll die too soon. On the other hand, ordinary mortals keep and love pets even though cats and dogs live much shorter lives than we do. Does that mean an immortal would relate to other people the way most of us relate to pets, though, not as equals?

Corporeal immortality has never appealed to me. For me, the fascination of watching history unfold over centuries wouldn't make up for the isolation. Fast healing and immunity to disease and age, though, that's another matter. Those benefits would be tempting. Other considerations depend on what version of vampire lore you accept. Inability to go out during the day would be a major disadvantage; however, that restriction doesn't apply to all folklore vampires or any of the classic nineteenth-century fictional vampires. If the only problem were a slight weakness or sensitivity to sunlight, I could live with that. I'm something of a night person, anyway. Most versions of the mythos agree that vampires can't eat solid food. I'd miss that part of ordinary life very much (and I love garlic). Reputed benefits include superhuman strength and speed, the ability to mesmerize people into obeying your will (a power that could also be regarded as a dangerous temptation), and irresistible sexual allure. Transformation into animals would be cool, if that's part of your accepted vampire lore. A crucial problem could involve obtaining blood without hurting people. Many vampires in fiction can manage on animal blood or bottled discards from blood banks, but would those sources of nourishment be completely satisfying? If blood-drinking has a sexual component, finding a compatible lover could solve the problem, but then the vampire would have to face eventual loss of his or her human lover, even if the lover changes rather than dying; transformation is sometimes assumed to make an erotic relationship impossible, as in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain series.

I'm thinking of these issues partly because I'm scheduled to chair a panel on vampires and other immortals at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in March. "Highlander" immortals face many of the same issues vampires do, though without the dietary limitations and other vulnerabilities. Peter Pan lives forever at the cost of never growing up (which the author presents, at first, as a boon, but by the end of the book we see hints to the contrary). Some fictional vampires are portrayed as psychologically frozen in time, unable to grow past what they were in life or transcend the limitations of the era in which they were born. Claudia, Anne Rice's child vampire, who can't even cut her hair without having it grow back by the next night, illustrates this premise in an especially chilling way. That kind of immortality, in my opinion, would be a curse rather than a blessing.


  1. We're giving away immortality? Sign me up!

    (I could totally do without the rest of the package, though. The whole blood-drinking thing doesn't appeal.)

  2. "Does that mean an immortal would relate to other people the way most of us relate to pets, though, not as equals?"

    I don't think so. IMO, the concept of a pet is not tied to lifespan but to intelligence. I can't think of any titles right now, but there are stories about animals with human-level intellegence who are partners/friends with humans rather than pets.