The First Immortal
James L. Halperin
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James L. Halperin
Del Rey (Ballantine)
January 1998
352 pages
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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James L. Halperin garnered much attention for his first speculative fiction novel, The Truth Machine. While the concept for his follow-up book, The First Immortal, is sound, even intriguing, the story's execution leaves much to be desired. He examines the infant field of cryonics -- freezing biological organisms toward the expected hope that science will find a way to restore them to an undamaged life. Halperin theorizes one possible future in which that hope is realized, and meets and refutes likely arguments against such procedures.

Curled Up With a Good BookBenjamin Franklin Smith is a successful gastroenterologist, a veteran of World War II with a ramrod backbone. Happily married and the father of four, he dotes on his daughters and wife but cannot overcome an irrational resentment toward his eldest child, his son Gary. Ben Smith's life is a satisfying and comfortable one, marred only by his continuing estrangement with his son. After his wife Marge's death by pancreatic cancer and following a heart attack of his own, Ben becomes intrigued by the undemonstrated chance at living forever, or at least beyond his own natural allotment of years. A World War II buddy of Ben's who is now a renowned medical ethicist plants a seed of interest in his old friend when he mentions cryonics and the slim hope biostasis offers for a longer life.

After exploring and weighing the merits and soundness of some cryonics companies, Ben has his will redrawn. He will leave appreciable chunks of his respectably-sized estate to his children and grandchildren. The rest will go into a trust fund that will foot his cryonics bill as well as appreciating and growing to provide him with a source of income when and if he is ever revived. Several years later, Ben has what would be his penultimate heart attack. He persuades a longtime family friend, a physician who owes much to Ben, to hasten the dying process so that Ben might be frozen before irreversible brain damage occurs. His friend complies, and Ben is put in biostasis.

Ben's children are aghast at his choice, and a bitter fight to negate Ben's wishes ensues. Eldest son Gary is executor of Ben's estate, and the pitched family battle pits siblings against one another. If Gary cannot prevail against his sister and greedy lawyer brother-in-law, Ben's body may be unfrozen for autopsy and forever lost to the hope of cryonics. After heated debate and legal manipulations, Ben remains in biostasis, but the family he's left behind is shattered.

So much for half the book. The rest concerns cryonics' march forward to respectability, eventual affordability, and finally the vindication of successful revival. Along the way, potential legislative and moral roadblocks are circumvented by some wily talking and righteous indignation that points a damning finger at increasingly irrelevant religions, oddly enough focussing on Evangelical Lutherans. Terrorist acts protesting cryonics' early availability only to the wealthy nearly take out the protagonist, but Ben Smith is saved by the terrorists' own mucked-up rationalizations.

As scientific discovery and achievement bounds exponentially along, it will be Ben's own orphaned great-grandson who will play an integral role in the techniques that allow Ben to not only be brought back to life, but to be once again in his prime. Convoluted family trees and inverted relationships play out against a backdrop of cloning, disease eradication and an overhaul of human nature. Halperin makes a few too many self-references to the "truth machines" that help enable this rosy future, and the novel dissolves into a weird ad campaign for "cryonics for a perfect world." At story's end, Halperin appends a personal plea for acceptance of cryonics and a how-to for readers to get started on their own personal journey toward immortality. In the end, The First Immortal's central concept, fascinating as it is, might not prove enough to justify the narrative's weaknesses to many readers.

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