Book Review: The Immortals, James E. Gunn (1962)

THMMRTLSNS1962(Mitchell Hooks’ cover for the 1962 edition)

4.25/5 (collated rating: Good)

James E. Gunn’s The Immortals (1962) is less about the lives and mental state of the eponymous humans “blessed” with immortality (a fascinating topic in itself) and more about the ramifications of their existence on the rest of society not “blessed” with such genetic structures.  Their presence exacerbates the problems of an already dystopically tinged world where medical care is increasingly the domain of the ultra wealthy.  With the knowledge that a random genetic mutation has created a bloodline whose members are immortal, society is all too eager to root them out and (literally) bleed them dry.  Living longer — achieved by whatever means — becomes the single-minded desire of all.  Most of humanity is oblivious to the festering (and carcinogenic) urban landscape created by exorbitant medical care contracts, nefarious black marketeers, organ hunters, and the sheer loss of brainpower — which could be directed towards other endeavors — of all the brightest who are funneled into the institution that is The Hospital.

The work’s relentless pessimism — Gunn’s fears (which are often depressingly prescient) writhe about on every page — combined with the dichotomous pairing of the sterile hospital setting with the diseased expanses of the city creates a particularly searing experience.  Occasionally Gunn’s conflicted characters spell out the obvious “meaning behind things” at length but unlike the inferior The Burning (1972) this tendency is kept on a shorter leash.

The Immortals (1962) is a fix-up novel containing four previously published novelettes (two are reworked from their previous incarnations): ‘New Blood’ (1955), ‘Donor’ (1961), ‘Medic’ (variant title: ‘Not So Great an Enemy’) (1957), ‘Immortal’ (variant title: ‘The Immortals’) (1958).  I have not read the original magazine publications of the novelettes so I’m unsure how much was kept the same or modified.  Due to the fact that the novelettes cover a vast amount of time and a changing cast of characters I will rate each individually.  However, each novelette is linked by the character of Dr. Russell Pearce although he has an often minor role.

Along with The Joy Makers (1961) (and to a lesser degree The Burning (1972) the 1958 collection Station in Space), The Immortals is highly recommended for fans of 50s/60s science fiction dystopias.

Be aware that the newest edition (2004) was “updated” by the author with an additional story, ‘Elixir’ (2004).  I read the original 1962 edition.  Not sure how I feel about authors touching up their novels after 50 + years…

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (some spoilers)

Part I ‘New Blood’ (27 pages) 4/5 (Good): A young man, Michael Cartwright, walks into a clinic to give blood for $25 — his blood is destined for endless transfusions of the incredibly wealthy waiting to die.  Unbeknownst to the staff his blood carries a genetic mutation with startling implications, immortality.  When his blood is transfused into a particularly nefarious near death businessman named Weaver, it causes him to regress in age and “miraculously” heal.  He desires above all else to hunt Cartwright down especially when he discovers the blood’s effects are only temporary.  Dr. Russell Pearce, the doctor who oversaw the operation, sees the dangers if Weaver and men like him get there hands on Michael: “You’d kill him as certainly as you’re a member of the human race.  You’d bleed him to death, or you’d kill him just because you couldn’t stand having something something immortal around” (23).  Michael Cartwright and his descendants become hunted men….

Part II ‘Donor’ (29 pages) 4/5 (Good):  Many years after the events of Part I, The National Research Institute (i.e. the hospital) has gained extraordinary power and political clout.  Its purpose, at least to the general public that lives in its shadows, is shrouded in mystery.  Thousands enter its precincts ever day donating blood.  A select few know of the presence of Cartwright and his descendants in hiding and the Institute screens for them and anyone else who might have the mutation.  One of the employees of the institute, Sibert, thinks he’s found one of Carwright’s descendants and attempts to blackmail the institute by threatening to expose his knowledge to the public.

Part III ‘Medic’ (59 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good):  By far the best part of the novel….  In ‘Medic’ the nature of the dystopic world is revealed in which the average person struggle to scrounge the funds for medical contracts.  If they fail to pay their bodies are repossessed by the hospital.  Many live illegally without medical contracts and buy into the false promises of black market medicine pushers.  The cities have devolved into a “sea of carcinogens” (59).  The medics who descend from the hospital into the urban morass plug their noses with filters, drive armored ambulances with automated defense systems, and are constantly on the lookout for pushers whom they have arrested. The main character is an idealistic medic named Flowers who slowly comes to realize the world the medical establishment, and its relentless search for immortality, has created.   He decides to be a different sort of doctor after a visit with Dr. Russell Pearce who is miraculously still alive. The urban landscapes often feels straight out of the novels of William Gibson, for example Neuromancer (1984) and Virtual Light (1993), some twenty plus years later.

Part IV ‘Immortal’ (48 pages) 4/5 (Good):

“Coming toward them was a motorized wheelchair.  In it was something lumpy and monstrous, a nightmarish menace — until Harry recognized it for what it was: a basket case, a quadruple amputee complicated by a heart condition.  An artificial heard-and-lung machine rode on the back of the wheelchair like a second head.  Behind galloped a gangling scarecrow creature with hair that flowed out behind” (125)

The last part is a more action oriented segment than the previous ones.  It appears that some of the Carwrights have been captured and bled to provide immortality for a select few.  The cities likewise have decayed even further.  The “ragged and dirty and diseased” (109) inhabitants are so desperate for cash that they “would do anything: trade identity cards, scuff up their inner arms so that the previous needle hole would not show, sweat that the scars were from antibiotic shots…” just to give more blood — for which they receive five dollars in cash — than they are allowed to.  Then they turn around and buy a vast variety of illegal back market remedies for their innumerable ailments. These are the people who cannot afford medical contracts… Harry Elliott, a young doctor, in the hope of being granted immortality has devoted his life to geriatrics like thousands before him.  He hopes that he will make a breakthrough on the synthesis of the elixir vitae so that he too will be granted immortality.  After the theft of a shipment of Cartwright blood, Harry is send on a mission with a young woman and an old man to give word to the immortal Governor Weaver (think emperor) of Kansas who lives in a palatial residence far from the city…  Harry must brave the organ hunters who paralyze their victims and send them to the hospitals and other perils…  Often devolving into Mad Max-esque violence, Gunn’s conclusion is all too abrupt.


(Uncredited cover for the 1968 edition)


(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

THMMRTLSFX1975(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1975 edition)

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Immortals, James E. Gunn (1962)

  1. Prescient to the point of pain! The horror of the for-profit medical industry is well and truly established now, despite Gunn blowing the horn and flashing the lights at us in warning.

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