A Fond Farewell to Dying by Syd Logsdon
Pocket Books, 1981
Price I paid: none
MAN HAS UNLEASHED THE ULTIMATE WEAPON
Millions have died in the holocaust. The Polar ice caps have melted. Salt water covers the crater where the Vatican once stood. And now, dazed survivors gather on mountaintop islands and cry to the heavens of the end.
Out of this nightmare chaos, biologist David Singer flees to India, to the last civilization left on Earth, and to the arms of the exotic almond-eyed beauty, Shashi. And there he pursues his one burning obsession: to transfer his mind into a cloned replica of himself…to leave his own body in order to find immortality.
But Shashi’s ancient Hindu wisdom has warned her. She knows that David’s secret experiments are doomed, that his spirit will be set loose to wander forever in a hopeless search for his body. Unless she can stop him, she will lose the man she loves to an oblivion far more terrifying than death itself…
Okay, so I have to come clean on two things regarding this review. The first is that the copy of the book I read isn’t mine. It belongs to the Jack Williamson Science Fiction Library at Eastern New Mexico University. No, I didn’t get a chance to visit said library, although doing so is on my bucket list. I can’t imagine how many times I’d go squee while walking though those stacks. I nabbed this book via my own library’s Interlibrary Loan Department. I know I could have ordered a used copy pretty cheap off of Amazon or something, but hey, the library’s free and we should all support our local library system. Plus I work at the library so it was just a matter of walking across the building and going “Hey guys I’ve got a request.”
I only bring that up because, unlike all of my reviews so far, I didn’t scan my own copy and instead nabbed a scan of the cover from isfdb.org, since the one I read is covered with stickers that say SPECIAL COLLECTIONS and so forth. So there’s that.
The other thing I want to mention relates to the fact that this isn’t my first review of a Syd Logsdon book. Back in June 2014 I reviewed another of his science fiction works (in fact his first), Jandrax. I remember not especially liking it, but I did think it had some good bits.
Well, back in August Syd Logsdon found my review and sent me an email about it. It blew my mind.
I won’t copy/paste the whole thing here because I didn’t ask for his permission to do so, so you’ll have to take my word for it that he was complimentary. He corrected me on a few of the things I misinterpreted, missed, or got outright wrong (there were likely plenty of those he didn’t mention, too). On the whole, though, he was very nice, saying that he appreciated that I at least read the book, unlike many reviewers who couldn’t get past the cover.
So what I’m saying is that Syd Logsdon is a really cool dude.
And I bring all that up because, knowing that the author is a good guy and that he might also read this review, I know that my review of this one might be skewed a bit. I want to say that I won’t be anything less that completely honest, but I also know a little bit about human nature and our various biases, so there you go. All I can say is that I haven’t consciously decided to be extra-nice.
Man, this book was so good.
Okay, so the back of the book paints a picture about a guy who is willing to sacrifice his soul in a Faustian plea for immortality but his Hindu girlfriend knows that doing so will cost him more than regular old death would. That’s a pretty good plot for a book.
Except that’s not what this book is. ARE YOU SURPRISED?
So David Singer, our protagonist, grew up in the shattered ruins of America. There was a nuclear war right around the turn of the millennium and it wrecked the world something fierce. For one, there was a lot of flooding in a lot of places. The Appalachian mountains are now an island chain, and David grew up on one of the Ozark Islands. He was raised in a highly religious household, but not long before his father died David had a sort of anti-conversion. He began questioning the existence of a God that would allow the world to go so far down the crapper. He also hated the crummy life he was confined to in that part of the world, so after his dad passed away he left and eventually became a biologist.
See, rejecting religion also convinced him that death is it. There’s no heaven, no reincarnation, no nothing. Or, well, plenty of nothing, I guess. Either way, Dave decided that beating death is his life’s goal, and so he set out to do so.
He did that by traveling to India. India’s one of the last places on Earth that isn’t completely ruined, and is now almost all the civilization we have left. Other places are mentioned: the Catholic Church is now centered in South America, Europe is a vast uninhabitable wasteland, America is a backwater, and the Arab nations have coalesced into a pan-Arabic nation called Medina. India and Medina don’t get along and their conflict takes up a lot of the background of the book.
Still, India’s the place to be. Dave takes a more Indian name, Ram David Singh, and gets to work. In the meantime he meets Shashi, another scientist who is focusing on combating food shortages, and they fall in love.
One thing I liked is that Dave and Shashi’s relationship isn’t in any way storybook, and it’s rarely happy. They disagree on some fundamental points, namely the direction of Dave’s research.
Dave has found a way to store a person’s memories in a computer (specifically on magnetic tape, which is just wonderfully dated. Imagine how much better he would have done if he’d had a 1TB SSD) and to replay them into a cloned body, thus allowing a person to start their life over with memories intact. The question does arise over whether this new body with old memories is still the original person, an issue similar to the Ship of Theseus or the Swampman problems.
Dave is pretty sure that continuity of memory is the only valid thing to consider in this experiment. Shashi, on the other hand, fears for Dave’s atman, a Hindu concept that is usually translated as “soul” but that doesn’t quite nail the idea. It’s the bit of you that reincarnates and doesn’t have any memory of previous lives. It’s a being’s innermost self, the core of its existence.
A thing I liked a lot about this book is how the author obviously did a lot of research into Hinduism and treated it with respect, even if the main character’s reaction to Shashi’s concerns is somewhere between dismissal and mockery.
While the back of the book makes it seem that Shashi’s fears and “ancient Hindu wisdom” (does that phrase seem somewhat offensive to anybody else?) will come into play, they don’t all that much. They’re really more of an issue as a point of contention between characters that also bring to the forefront the idea that there are some very real ethical and philosophical concerns with Dave’s project.
They try the procedure on a dolphin. It works pretty well.
Later, someone comes seeking Dave’s help. He’s Nirghaz Husain, grandson of India’s premier Jogendranath Kantikar. Nirghaz is in bad shape. He lost his legs—heck, most of his lower body—in an airstrike against Medina some years ago. He was working as an ambassador down there when things started to get out of hand. His grandfather ordered an airstrike, figuring that Nirghaz would be okay. It turned out to be a bad call and a major political blunder.
Knowing that the Dave’s project deals with clones, he wants to know if a clone body could be grown and then its legs grafted onto him. The team looks into it and decides that no, such a thing isn’t possible. For one, a clone body would grow too slowly and it would be twenty years or so before the transplant would even be viable, and for two, Nirghaz’s wounds were so bad that even though cloning science would render the whole thing possible, surgery just isn’t up to snuff.
So they decide to try out THE PROCEDURE. Nirghaz volunteers to be the first human to undergo it. Also, it turns out that there’s a way of speeding up clone growth.
In the meantime, Dave is also recording his own memories into the computer. This works narratively in a nice way: we get flashbacks to his life before coming to India and learn about his rejection of Christianity and so forth. There’s a great bit when Dave relives a sermon in church, specifically the one where he first began to doubt. The brand of Christianity he was raised in believes that the current millennium is the one prophesied in the book of Revelation, the one that follows Armageddon and is all full of trials and tribulations. What’s great about this sermon is that the preacher starts talking about some guy he met that was all “If Revelation says this and that then why isn’t it happening.” What really gets the preacher mad is that this dude had the temerity to take the Bible literally.
I looooooove that.
Also in the meantime, Shashi decides that she wants to have Dave’s baby. Unfortunately, like a majority of women in the post-apocalyptic world, she’s infertile. Her ovaries just don’t work, but everything else does, so she and Dave take a sample of Dave’s DNA and implant a clone. This becomes very important later, and makes things interesting after she and Dave finally break up.
And one step further in the meantime, things between India and Medina are getting bad. Both nations launch space stations into orbit that will let them target the other for nuclear strikes. When Medina refuses to disarm, India blows up their station. The political backlash leads to the assassination of Premier Kantikar and a coup.
Nirghaz survives the procedure and is successfully transferred into his clone body. Not long after that, though, Kantikar’s political enemies take over the lab. Dave is killed. Shashi is convinced that she feels Dave’s atman transfer from him into the clone in her womb.
We then jump twenty or so years into the future.
Dave wakes up in a clone body. Not the one that Shashi was growing inside of herself, but instead one that was created for this purpose. A group of people, led by an old friend of Dave’s from America named Jim Brigham, have continued his research. Dave wakes up and has to learn a lot about what’s happened in the past twenty or so years.
Notable is the fact that Dave wasn’t able to transfer all of his memories onto tape. The last few weeks before his death aren’t available, so the new Dave doesn’t know anything about his breakup with Shashi or his own murder. This leads to more speculation, both on the part of the characters and the reader, over whether this new Dave is actually the same person as old Dave.
His clone son, named Chandra by Shashi and Nirghaz, is now a grown man. Shashi is still convinced that Chandra carries his father’s atman and that the new Dave is nothing more than an intelligent zombie. This leads to tension. When Dave and Chandra meet, some weird things start happening. Chandra recounts that he has dreams that include his father’s memories, things he couldn’t possibly have known about because Shashi and Nirghaz kept Dave’s “paternity” a secret from him until this point.
Oh, before I forget, it’s a neat thing that Dave’s new clone body was cloned from Chandra. He’s inhabiting a clone of a clone.
Meanwhile, Dave comes to terms with the fact that he’s a fifteen-year-old again. Namely, he has to deal with hormones again. It drives him crazy. I know I’d certainly hate to have to deal with that crap again, all locking myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes because I saw a peach or something. Ugh, if that’s the cost of immortality, count me out.
It turns out that telepathy is real and Dave and Chandra are able to telepathically communicate with each other on some level. This seems to be in support of the idea that something crossed over when Dave Prime died. At one point Chandra goes to meditate and is overwhelmed with the memory of his father’s death. It causes him to pass out. Nobody else can figure out what’s going on.
Dave figures it has something to do with the memories Chandra seems to be storing and comes up with an idea to transfer Chandra’s thoughts into his own mind, forming a sort of mind-bridge. The process works and Dave is not only able to regain his own memories of the weeks before his death, but also to break Chandra free from whatever it was that made that jump on that fateful day.
Chandra says that Dave’s atman is finally free, but Dave, who still won’t listen to that kind of crap, figures it must be something else. Actually his explanation makes some sense, something to the effect of “We have no idea what just happened, so let’s not throw old religious terms on it like we do know.”
And that’s the end of the book.
While I liked the rest of the novel, I felt a bit let down by that ending. I guess I was still expecting there to be some kind of struggle for Dave’s soul or some major philosophical revelation. Other than Shashi, no one seems concerned about the metaphysical implications of Dave’s procedure and take it for granted that a clone with the memories of the original person is a continuation of the original person, something that I just can’t run with. I wanted to see the book explore that idea in some further detail, and that didn’t much happen.
Still, it was a good story with some good science behind it. I especially liked how cloning was realistically presented instead of some kind of magic double that appears after you sprinkle some DNA in a tank. The process of waking up in a clone body is presented as pretty painful since the new body isn’t at all used to basic things like gravity. The whole thing was pretty believable.
I expected a bit more interaction between science and religion. Both things were there and religion definitely had its role to play, namely in Shashi’s objections to the procedure and Dave’s abandonment of religion leading him to develop it in the first place. Still, a lot of that potential seemed wasted when it turned out that Dave was a latent psychic, and thus so was his clone, and that was probably why some kind of something transferred over to the fetus when Dave died. I guess that means that in this book there is some kind of something that is the essential part of a person, but that whole bit felt a little tacked on for the last few pages and tied in with telepathy in a way that I didn’t really dig.
But despite those complaints, there was a lot of good in this book. I had a great time learning about how the post-apocalyptic world played out, which is usually what makes or breaks that kind of book for me. There was some good attention to detail, and the fact that India—usually presented as a desperately poor backwater—is the world’s only superpower is a really great twist on things. As usual, I found myself hunting out the little clues as to how the rest of the world is doing and how it got that way, and there was plenty for me to sniff out in this book.
Also, the characters were great. Dave isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idealist doing his research for the good of the human race. He’s got a very personal interest in his own research. He’s terrified of dying. He fully admits that he’s working from selfish motivations, and after the project seems to work, he bows out, saying that his life’s work is now done. Other characters, a lot of whom I didn’t mention in the review, are also developed well. Shashi comes across as a bit shrewish, and borders on fanaticism sometimes, but she’s also got some really relatable concerns that, while not phrased in exactly the same way I would have done so, are the kinds of things that I would worry about in her situation.
Syd Logsdon has a new book, Cyan, coming out next January. I know I’ll be looking for it when it hits the e-shelves. In the meantime, his blog makes for an interesting read. He’s serializing some of his old short stories on there and talks about the life he’s led as a writer, something that I think anybody with an interest in the writing process should take a look at. Plus he’s just a cool guy.