Jack Vance's To Live Forever

Sat Jan 7, 2012

I believe that the following scenario is comparatively rare in science fiction: humanity has developed viable interstellar travel and has discovered habitable planets but has not colonized any of them because of a static social structure. The social stasis of Jack Vance’s To Live Forever has been produced by a combination of artificial intelligence central planning and population control. A relatively small geographic region of a future Earth has sealed itself off from barbarous tribes and has separated its population into strict castes: brood, wedge, third (arrant), verge, and amaranth. Each caste provides a slight extension of life-span, which is constantly adjusted by a computer to maintain the desired ratio. The quantity in each “phlye,” as they are called, is strictly controlled. So whenever someone achieves the next status, which is awarded by the Actuarian’s estimation of their contributions to commonweal, a certain amount of those in the lower castes are visited by assassins. The upward progress is referred to as “striving,” and the rate of increase as “slope.” Once members of the community (which is called Clarges) achieve amaranth, they become immortal. Scientists had discovered how to preserve human life forever, and this social structure evolved as the only way to prevent violent revolution from below, as before only the very wealthy and privileged had access to the life-extending technology.

If this is sounding like an anti-planning, anti-socialist document of its times (mid 1950s), it certainly is. But Vance, even in an early novel such as this, which I suspect may have been edited beyond his preferences (the Vance Integral Edition, which I very sadly do not own, calls it Clarges. It may also have significant textual variants.), engages in considerable anthropological speculation and social satire. The Wodehousian dialogue flourishes seen in The Dying Earth books are almost wholly absent from To Live Forever, and the interactions of the Amaranth Society with each other and those from lower phyle provided ample opportunity. The hero of the novel is in the Vancian rebel/rogue mode. Gavin Waylock had achieved Amaranth as a publisher. He was known as the Grayven Warlock, and he committed the worst crime of all: he took the life of a fellow Amaranth. Once citizens of Clarges have achieved Amaranth, they protect their immortality from the vagaries of chance by sequestering clones throughout the city. Each clone takes time to grow and to become invested with the personality and memories of the host. So those who take life of any type are referred to as Monsters, since the taking of life is now a far greater crime (even with clones) than it would have been for mortal humans.

The qualities that allowed Warlock to make Amaranth also allow him to escape the assassins, and he now inhabits the liminal era of the edge of the city known as Carnevalle. This perpetual carnival provides release and an elimination of social distinctions, as the psychological pressures associated with striving overwhelm a substantial part of the population. Warlock has escaped the further attentions of the assassins by impersonating one of his clones. Since the clone would not have been fully empathized, it would not share the crimes of Warlock, so he has taken the similar name Gavin Waylock and plots ways to recapture his former status. A recent Amaranth, the Jacynth Martin, who achieved her immortality through anthropological fieldwork and academic distinction, is enjoying Carnevalle, when she meets Waylock and eventually guesses his identity. Waylock is forced to have her killed to prevent discovery of his secret; and the remainder of the plot involves her clone’s attempt to bring him to justice pitted against Waylock’s own striving to survive and regain his former status.

The culmination of Warlock’s elaborate plot for revenge is that a revolution is triggered, and the phyle system and the Actuarian are all destroyed. Warlock knows that he has no future at Clarges or on the planet at all, so he invites the masses to follow him to the stars. It is easy enough to see that the individualism which led Warlock to murder fellow human beings in order to gain his objectives or satisfy his pride is the same instinct which causes humans to be perpetually unhappy (the scenes describing Waylock’s work at the palliatories where depressives are treated contain some interesting remarks about Vance’s understanding of psychoanalysis, which are typically respectful given its cultural prestige at the time) in a system where their achievements are bounded at mere immortality. Vance often takes a very distant and detached view of human endeavor, and he certainly does not expect much in the way of ethical sympathy for Waylock/Warlock. The John Clute-authored entry on Vance in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia describes To Live Forever as dystopian, which I am not entirely sure I agree with. (Clute also notes that prevalence of revenge plots in Vance’s work, which might simply be a lazy way of touring the worlds he creates without having to engage in overly long exposition; anger blinds, after all.)