Since the last presidential election, the novels 1984 by George Orwell and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale have been selling like hotcakes because people are worried their fictional dystopian futures could soon be non-fiction. Which is good news — though, also, when you think about it, bad news — for sci-fi writer Stanley Bing, whose new novel, Immortal Life (hardcover, Kindle) also posits a future that may not be so futuristic.
Photo Credit: Cliff Lipson
I always like to start with a plot recap. So, what is Immortal Life about?
Immortal Life is about how digital technology may very soon be able to provide eternal life to those who can afford it.
Arthur Vogel has everything: power, a loving spouse, all the money in the world. But at 127 years of age, he has reached the limits of what life extension tech can provide, even twenty or so years from now. So with the help of Bob, his resident genius scientist, he hatches a plan, one based on technology now being worked on in the real Silicon Valley by real moguls concerned about their upcoming mortality. He will upload the entire contents of his mind into the Cloud, and then download it into a perfect, brand new body: young, powerful, and built by technology that is almost within reach today. There is only one problem. That new body has a fully-functional mind itself. His name is Gene. And he wants to live.
Where did you get the idea for Immortal Life, and how different is the book’s story from that original concept?
I began to read Ray Kurzweil’s site, and look at where some of the science is headed, and who was funding it, and how crazy a lot of it sounds right now, but also what the world would look like if they were successful. I also looked at where we are right this very minute, and started thinking about where they would deposit us in the next 25 or 30 years. All of it came together in a world that was capable of producing eternal consciousness through digital tech, and what kind of life people might be living at that time. The book is pretty close to my original concept of it, except that when I was writing it the story of Gene and Livia and Arthur and Sallie and Bob, the scientist, and all the artificial creatures I came to love sort of picked me up and carried me along a lot faster than I thought it might.
Immortal Life is a science fiction novel — at least for now — but is there a subgenre of sci-fi, or mix of them, that you feel best fits this novel?
Yeah, I guess it’s what Margaret Atwood likes to call Speculative Fiction. It’s in the same genre as her The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It’s a vision of the future that we might come to recognize easily if we’re paying attention to the present. Like, it doesn’t have to be science fiction for somebody to believe that one day we’ll all have hardware interfacing with the wetware in our heads. You just have to see people bopping down the street with little white Bluetooth pods sticking out of their ears.
Right. Now, on the cover it says, “(A Soon To Be A True Story).” Do you actually think this could happen? Or, to put it another way, are you actually worried this could happen?
Could happen? It is happening. Right now. We’re being marketed the idea of self-driving cars, for instance, not as a wacky notion that will make Elon Musk rich, or will be our future Uber if we want it to be. It’s being posited to us as an inevitability. That’s because 1) people think that just because we can do something we should do it, like nuclear power, for instance and 2) technology companies will make a lot of money if they succeed in making self-driving cars universal, which they will have to be if they’re going to work. So I assume that big capital will succeed, that we will have self-driving vehicles whether we really want them or not. I also assume that they will be inherently unsafe above a certain speed and that, therefore, the future will be teeming with very slow-moving vehicles filled with passive people consulting the digital messaging pouring continually into their electronically-equipped heads.
Immortal Life is not your first novel; you previously wrote Lloyd: What Happened and You Look Nice Today. Are there any writers or specific books that had a big influence on either how you wrote Immortal Life or what you wrote about, but are not an influence on your writing style as a whole?
I think everybody you’ve read, if you’re a writer, has an influence on you. I read a lot of science fiction — and a lot of just plain science — when I was a kid. I loved Curt Siodmak’s Donovan’s Brain, for instance, and I think you can see some influence in Immortal Life there. It’s about the power of a big mogul’s disembodied brain taking over the mind of the scientist who is keeping that organ alive. I always loved George Orwell, because you always know where he’s coming from — what he loves, what he hates — but he also writes with a kind of grim humor that keeps you laughing periodically, if darkly.
Any of the names I come up with here are going to be the ones you know — Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison and Pohl Anderson — because I’m not really a deep diver in the sci-fi waters, and I’m more fond of stuff that stays here on Earth than I am when things start going into outer space.
I also love Lewis Carroll, whose Alice In Wonderland makes the incredible seem possible if you look at things from a kind of oblique angle and nimbly straddles the lines between nonsense, humor and horror. You will notice that at least two of these writers wrote under pen names. As do I.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games? Are there any of those that had a big influence on Immortal Life?
Well, I think anybody who writes about the future would be lying if they didn’t tip their hats to Blade Runner. When I watched the movie again recently — as I do every couple of years — I realized how much of it had seeped into my subconscious and influenced me, down to the mucilaginous eyeball that the little scientist is making in his den in Act One.
I’d also have to say that the helter-skelter breakneck speed of the chase in Immortal Life feels, at times, like a first-person shooter to me. And I’m also deeply aware of the political developments in our nation right now, which brings to my mind some of the work of the German playwright Bert Brecht, who wrote Threepenny Opera, a really hard-edged musical that compares business to a crime syndicate.
A lot of sci-fi novels I’ve read this year have been part of a larger series. Is that also true for Immortal Life, or is it a stand-alone novel?
Right now I guess it’s stand-alone. But I could see catching up with Gene, Liv, Arthur and Sallie in a few years. It all depends on whether I have something new to say about the present, which is what books about the future are really all about. I am very interested in the occasional observations by former Facebook executives and others about the corrosive effects that digital life is having on us. Just a few years ago, everybody sharing everything was seen as an automatically great thing. Now people aren’t so sure. I think as people begin evaluating the true quality of our lives right now a bit more, there may be opportunities for fiction to point out some basic truths that the morning aggregators do not.
So has there been any interest in adapting Immortal Life into a movie, TV show, or video game?
I’d like to see it as a ten-part series on a popular streaming service. Like Stranger Things. I think the story lends itself to that. There’s been some interest from a number of people, but it’s too early to talk about it. Unless you have the money?
Sorry, I left it in my other pants. But if Immortal Life was to going to be adapted into a TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I’d like Chris Pratt [Guardians Of The Galaxy] to play Gene. He’s funny but also tender and emotional when he needs to be. Also Channing Tatum [Magic Mike], because he really has it all as an actor and a physical presence. He’s honest and sincere and funny and has a tremendous amount of intelligence behind what appears to be a somewhat opaque exterior. When I was writing Livia, I had a picture of Michelle Dockery [Good Behavior] on my desktop. Right now, she’s in Godless on Netflix, and she’s pretty splendid. That would take it in one direction. If you cast Ellen Page [Inception] as Livia, that would take it in another completely, but she’s got that edgy thing going on and I always like her in everything. Bryan Cranston [Argo] would be massive as Bob. He’s great in everything. And for Arthur you’d have to dream of casting Jeff Bridges [Kingsman: The Golden Circle], who can everything and anything with grace and power and intelligence and humor. For Sallie? Diane Keaton [Annie Hall], maybe? And Master Tim would have to be Steve Martin [L.A. Story]. That would be both hilarious and true.
Finally, if someone enjoys Immortal Life, what “(A Soon To Be A True Story)” sci-fi novel would you suggest they read next?
I always go back to the classics. The Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, for instance. That was the first time I ever encountered a thinking machine, and in some ways I don’t think anybody has transcended it. You’ve also got to love [Arthur C. Clarke’s] 2001, right? Isn’t it Stephen Hawking who’s convinced that in a few years we’re all going to be in the clutches of Hal?