A few years hence, an accidental scientific discovery has led to a treatment which will halt the process of ageing; barring disease or accident, immortality may be yours – provided you can afford the fee, of course. Divorce lawyer John Farrell has the ‘cure’ (as it’s known) in 2019, weeks before it is legalised in theUSA. We then follow his life at various intervals over the course of the following sixty years, during which Farrell ultimately changes career to ‘end specialisation’, facilitating (for a fee) the deaths of those who wish to end their lives, in the manner of their own choosing.
The End Specialist (aka The Postmortal) provides an interesting point of comparison with its fellow Clarke Award nominee The Testament of Jessie Lamb, in that both examine futures with game-changing medical developments, but do so firmly from the vantage-point of one individual. The key difference, I think, is that The Testament shows the outside world from within Jessie Lamb’s frame of reference – which makes for an incomplete examination, but one that nevertheless works as an aesthetic whole; whereas The End Specialist tries to show the outside world from beyond John Farrell’s frame of reference – hence the protagonist includes news reports and link round-ups in the ‘blog entries’ that make up the text of this novel – and, in doing so, reaches beyond itself.
Much of the positive commentary I’ve seen on Drew Magary’s novel – both in reviews and the Not the Clarke Panel at Eastercon – seems to emphasise the extent to which Magary delineates the consequences of the situation he sets up. There are certainly aspects of The End Specialist which ring true, such as the sense of ennui felt by Farrell when he notes that his photo doesn’t change, and wonders if maybe he hasn’t either (‘The time span is invisible. It’s as if I haven’t lived at all,’ p. 84); and I can buy, for example, the idea that some people might be pettily cruel enough to blind or scar immortals out of spite. But much of Magary’s depiction of his wider fictional world (whether within or outside theUS) feels superficial to me, because it is dependent on John Farrell’s interest; and, as a character, Farrell really has only a passing interest in the world beyond his immediate circumstances.
Even when it’s concerned with Farrell’s circumstances, though, The End Specialist falls short. As Dan Hartland notes, Farrell is a fairly anonymous presence; nothing really seems to touch or change him, no matter what he might say in his narration (that’s another way, incidentally, in which the depiction of the world feels flat; no matter how sour life has apparently becomes, the fictional society feels much the same, because the tone of Farrell’s narration doesn’t change). The depiction of the secondary characters is similarly wanting, particularly that of the female characters; it’s true that most of the minor characters, male and female alike, exist to be adjuncts to Farrell, but I gain more sense of his father and adult son as rounded individuals than I do the key women in Farrell’s life. I rolled my eyes particularly at the essentialism of a scene in which Farrell leaves his pregnant partner Sonia rather than get married, because immortality has caused him to realise (as the other men he knows have similarly concluded in their own lives) that he can’t make a lifelong commitment to her – whereas Sonia maintains a desire to fulfil traditional gender roles (and Farrell has no doubts about his ability to commit to his son for however long their lives may be).
On the level of prose, I’m still struggling to see The End Specialist as a worthwhile read. The scene I mentioned earlier, where Farrell is reflecting on his unchanging appearance, stands out to me for its writing; as did one in which an end specialism client describes his wish to become one with the sea. But the rest feels unremarkable, even when the novel takes on the shape of a thriller in its second half – and a thriller can’t do its job if it doesn’t have gripping prose.
Frankly, I’m baffled as to why this book is on the Clarke shortlist. However I look at The End Specialist, I see a novel which is mediocre at best – and sometimes considerably poorer. What I can’t see is any way in which it could be considered one of the six best science fiction novels of the year.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.
16th April 2012 at 2:28 pm
I hadn’t heard anything about this book until your review. The premise sounds fantastic so I’m sorry to hear that it doesn’t live up to expectations.
16th April 2012 at 10:14 pm
Well, I didn’t have particularly high expectations to begin with… 🙂
…but you’re right that it could have been so much better. I discovered from the review I linked to that there’s a Kurt Vonnegut story on the same theme – and it’s easily superior to this book.