Immortals

From Twitter, this thread:

I immediately thought of many of the characters in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, who are 2500 years old, but from their behavior you might as well knock off the zeros because they act more like they’re 25. What is even the point of living thousands of years if those years don’t touch you? I realize there are lots of vampires like that in paranormals, but the Black Jewels is definitely the series that leaps to mind for me.

I should add, I quite liked this series. Many things about it appealed to me. It’s just that I would have liked it better if she had let the characters all be the ages they acted. There was no enormously compelling plot point that turned on so many characters being thousands of years old, so why make them thousands of years old? Especially why do that and then ignore the psychological effects of immortality?

I wonder what Tenai would have been like if her obsessive hatred for Encormio had been limited by a normal human lifespan. In fact, I wonder what Encormio would have been like if he’d died at eighty instead of going on and on and on? He was older than the Martyr, if you remember — which means over 2000 years old. He certainly did not act like any normal person. We don’t even have to have met him in person to know that.

Side question: Should I ask the artist to capitalize the “N” in “Now”? I didn’t notice it hadn’t been capitalized and now I’m not sure. There are various words in the other titles that might have been capitalized, but weren’t. Maybe it’s fine like this.

Anyway: other immortals in SFF. There are hordes, of course, and while some of them act like normal twenty-something people, some don’t. From the Twitter thread:

Our connection to other people (in any sense, not just romantic) defines us. Immortals have seen countless people come and go. They’ve forgotten more people from the first 200 years of life than they’ll meet in the next 100 years of life. How does that affect perspective? … When writing a 1000 year old, a good thinking point is to imagine that every mortal in the world will be born, age and die in 1 year. They’ll flit into and out of your life like pet mice. How much value is it possible to place on them? Where does their value to you lie?

Exactly. Taranah, the king’s aunt, told Daniel that Encormio thought of ordinary people the way that people think of dogs, and she didn’t mean nice dog owners either. Mice is probably a better comparison.

Remember my other immortal character? We did meet her directly:

People and dynasties and countries come and go, says the Kieba, or something very much like that. It is a mistake to grow too fond. Remember that line? By the time we meet her, Kieba isn’t very human at all. For a couple different reasons, granted, but one was certainly her odd sort of quasi-immortality.

Let me see, other immortals — Oh, right, here is one of my favorites — or two of my favorites:

Doro and Anyanwu, very different people handling immortality in very different ways. Of course Doro has to kill people in order to maintain himself, but also he’s just a lot older than Anyanwu. A LOT older. Humans are very much like mice to Doro. Anyanwu just maintains herself at any age she wishes, so she hasn’t been pushed into callousness the way Doro was. I loved this book, but it didn’t resolve anything. Anyanwu comes to accept a relationship with Doro in which she is relatively powerless; we see how that looks from the outside in a later book. Not just anybody could make me enjoy and admire a book where the central relationship is so pathological. Butler pulled that off all the time.

If you’ve got a favorite SFF novel featuring an immortal protagonist or immortal secondary character, drop the title in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Immortals”

  1. As a teacher I found the level of education of the Black Jewels characters very weird. I mean these people go to school for centuries and they don’t seem to have more book learning than the non-long lived characters. In the latest book there’s even a regular life-spanned teacher in a school catering for the kids of the long-lived people. Some abstract reasoning needs a certain maturity, but still after all this time don’t they have accumulated knowledge? They were in school long before the teacher was born…

  2. Maria, everything about their ages feels weird and false, but I hadn’t thought of this specific weird falsity. I have to say, I just pretend that they’re all the ages they seem to be, no matter how often someone comments about being 2500 years old.

  3. As you get older, you see more of the broad sweeps of things, and get accustomed to letting things go (since you have no choice!). That does weaken attachments, I imagine. However, in terms of skills, consider how fast the knowledge-base changes in the modern world. Here, the setting matters a lot. If there is rapid technological change, an immortal may be in the situation of “knowing” a lot that just isn’t true – their knowledge base is outdated. However, their skill set for what they do on a day-to-day basis will be extraordinary. Think of a warrior/soldier/martial artist. The old hands are the keys to a unit’s effectiveness. Their physical abilities atrophy but they can make up for it with knowledge. Now imagine that their physical skills always remain at their peak, and they just keep getting more and more practice.

    The morale factor cannot be overstated as well. If you know you can’t be killed, that’s just a completely different mindset. On the other hand, if you know you won’t die of old age but you CAN be killed, that is also a completely different mindset.

    Anyway, we can only extrapolate from life changes we can actually observe. Interesting to see which parts different authors choose to emphasize!

  4. Elvish immortality is thematically central to Middle-Earth, if less so to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And Tolkien has other long-lived characters, too: Treebeard feels older than any of the elves or wizards even if that’s not strictly true.

    Legolas in Fangorn has an offhand line that the forest is “So old that I almost feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children.”

  5. I can think of two series that have immortal characters. They both are Elven in nature. The first is Wen Spencer‘s Tinker series. I don’t know that the ageless nature of the elves is reflected in their characters. I really like this series but I don’t like how the author resolved the disparity between aging human and Elven characters. It had a bit of deus ex machina feel, and also really removed agency from the main characters in a way that never felt sufficiently addressed.

    The other books are MC Hogarth’s, which contain several interconnected series set in the same world. The “elves” in this series Our a line of humans who have been genetically modified to have extremely extended life spans. The series does a pretty decent job of addressing some of the issues involved in forming connections between two people who have different expectations of lifespan. I don’t think the psyche of the long lived race necessarily reflects the impact of great longevity. The author focuses more on how a culture responds to enhanced mental abilities in its members.

    (And please excuse any typos and weird word substitutions. I’m typing on my phone, which I rarely do, and Siri is NOT always helpful!)

  6. I also thought of Elfhome (Wen Spencer), and the Archangel series by Nalini Singh. For both, they have some characters who become dismissive of humans, and others who make a point to still connect with them. In the angels series, they make a whole thing of how, as some of them get too old, they’ll become so tired/something that they decide to do a sort of hibernation thing and then come back to the world later.

    For Spencer’s elves, they stagnate culturally. Humans reentering their society adds a catalyst for change.

    Isn’t the next Elfhome book coming out soon? I’m curious to see if/how the author sticks the landing in wrapping all this up. As the wait for these last books got longer, I realized she’d never actually finished a series.

  7. One of my more recent reads was the Prospero’s Children series, which is a mashup of The Tempest with Dante’s Inferno. A major plot point hinges on the fact that the immortal main character, Miranda, has a totally believable unreliable memory – in fact, her whole immortal family has this problem to some extent. They’ve seen so many people come and go that they can’t keep them all straight. I appreciated that L. Jagi Lamplighter thought through the implications of immortality in a mortal world for humans as well as Fair Folk, who, in her interpretation, seem to deal with immortality in quite a different manner.

    As per Maria’s comment, Prospero’s Children is also thick with literary references given by the immortals from Medieval and Renaissance texts, because they were voracious readers for centuries.

    Allen’s comment reminds me of a manga – In/Spectre, I think it was called? – where the protagonist (not the viewpoint character) is immortal in such a way that he literally can’t be killed. He fights ineptly, with no technique whatsoever, because he just doesn’t care enough to get better at *not dying* – or he wants to die, but doesn’t want to kill himself; it’s a little unclear. So that could go both ways.

    Cultivation novels are also obsessed with immortality, and they all go about it differently, but quite often the protagonist will gain some sort of enlightenment that detaches them from the mortal realm.

    As for your side question, I habitually capitalize every word in a title except for conjunctions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to follow convention. It’s fine either way. I think it makes it more clear that it’s a poem fragment without capitalization.

  8. That definition of immortality is odd, I only ever see it used either to indicate “can’t die” or indicate “won’t die naturally / of old age”. Living much longer than the average human (life expectancy in Japan is about 84-85, so it’s just almost 12 times that) isn’t immortality. I can see referring to someone like that as “immortal-like” or “practically immortal”, but they’re not immortal, just very long lived.

    As for how it will affect the people (human or otherwise) doing it, it can really go in whatever way an author will want it, depending on the chosen nature of immortality.

    One differentiation which is often mentioned is how memory works over that span, if you have good memory of all those years it could add to the extreme “only long term things matters, and all differences and attitudes and things are fleeting and meaningless” mindset, but if older memories kept being forgotten (naturally or selectively) then the length matters a lot less.

    Even with full memories, it can go either way. Are immortals more accepting and “flexible” in their attitudes because they’ve seen more, or are they a lot more close minded and weary of changes because they had to suffer through more of them and feel more alienated from the world around them? You can make a case for both extremes, and so everything in the middle.

    I mean, heck, compare 25 years old with 80 years old. That’s over 3 times the life experience. Are very old people generally more “These things don’t matter so much, be patient, things will change again” or more “all of these things aren’t what they were like when I was young and so they’re bad and wrong”? You can easily find lots of examples of both.

    And the not caring about those with shorter lives? I don’t think that’s an automatic given as well. With the dog example mentioned, lifespan of about 1/7 from humans these days, is the overall attitude of people really that there’s no point in emotional attachments to them since they have such short lives, or that it doesn’t matter at all if they suffer or die since they die quickly anyway? A heck of a lot of people will disagree.
    Mice in homes can live to 2 years easily, that’s ~40 times difference. To compare, your immortals will have to expect to live to 3400 years, not 1000. Even then, is life expectancy *really* the reason people don’t care too much in general about mice? Queen Termites can live 50 years, possibly more in good conditions, this isn’t that much less than current human life expectancy in the poorest countries. So, would most people you know value the life of a dog or cat a lot less than that of a queen termite? I really doubt it…

    Also, is something that can live longer more important because it can live longer, or less important because the short and fleeting life make it rarer and more precious? It can go either way based on context. And context varies with settings and culture.
    More people are interested in watching Cicadas fly and mate (“interacting” with them) than watching Moths do the same, not because Cicadas live longer where they can’t see them, but because Moths are there all the time and Cicadas are rare and you can easily miss then and not catch them again.
    If you can rescue one person from a burning building, do you take the healthy 60 years old, or the sickly baby who will almost certainly die in 2-3 years? Is it an obvious answer, that everyone will agree with and easily make the same?

    All of these attitudes would be based on individual personality, and culture, and specific experiences, not so much length of life. You can have your immortals do whatever (even more so if they’re not human so you don’t even have that vague baseline to deal with), and with good justification on how this is because, or unrelated to (if you want), their immortality.

  9. Yaron, the 1000 years seems like a fair guesstimate for the lifespan of an immortal, if by immortal you mean cannot/will not die of old age or illness, but can be killed by being crushed under a falling building or torn apart by an exploding bomb or incinerated by a volcanic outburst or drowned by dropping in the ocean with “cement overshoes” etcetera.
    I’ve read an article (can’t find it now) where based on actuarial statistics, looking at the many ways people die and their relative frequency, the mathematician calculated that on average such an immortal being would have a lifespan of about 800 years before something unsurvivable happened to them. As an average, that doesn’t mean that such an immortal couldn’t reach 8000, just that other immortals might also die at 8 or 80 years old. Getting crushed by a train because your daycare transport lost its braking capacity approaching a level railway crossing, just as a train is coming, would be as deadly to such an immortal toddler as a human kid. It was a freak accident, but it happened (6 years ago I think, or maybe longer?); and such things do happen even to people who are careful – including those immortals who aren’t gods and cannot re-materialise at will.

    I remember one example of such an immortal individual in an older story, where both the memory issues and trained skill played a part. That was The forever hero by L.E.Modesitt jr.; t has some problematic motifs but was thought-provoking too (from what I vaguely remember, from decades ago).
    This person had some unique genetics that gave them an extremely good immune system and eliminated the effects of aging. The story starts with them looking like a young teen but with skills already honed beyond what is usual for a child, brought in to civilization as an orphan. It is hinted he may well be older than he looks, having had slower physical growth because of less food, but once eating well he makes up the setback instead of being handicapped or smaller for life as malnutrition in early youth does IRL. At the end of the book (in the epilogue?) he’s a centuries old man, still looking in his prime and having his trained fast fighting reflexes, but he has run out of memory space in his brain and hibernates for long periods between short wakeful spells. He can hardly remember anything recent, like the people he meets when awake – short term memory still works as that gets constantly cleared out, but ‘downloading’ things to long-term memory storage hardly works anymore. The important memories of the past are still there, but can be hard to access without any triggers to unlock those mental pathways, as the world has changed so much. He gets kept in reserve, in some kind of stasis, as a sort of stud to re-inject those very efficient genes of his into the populace when their effect is getting too diluted, and people become too susceptible to illness again.

  10. Hanneke, good point on the actual average life expectancy of immortals not really being forever. If you have a group of people who could in theory live forever, and a group who in theory could live 2000 before dying of age-related causes, it may indeed by impossible to differentiate them based on how long they “actually” live.
    But, I don’t think that is relevant for a *definition* of immortality. The first group is of immortals, the second group isn’t, they’re maybe “practically” immortal, which is not the same thing even if it is the equivalent for many purposes. Immortals (of this type) *can* die, but the very-long-lived ones *will* die. Changing the world around the immortals without changing them could increase their actual life indefinitely, doing the same to the practically-immortals will hit a “natural” wall.

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