Sunday, August 15, 2021

Alien Immortality: Kéthani by Eric Brown


I'm a sucker for stories about benevolent aliens (Clarke's Childhood's End is one of my favorites, and I also enjoyed one of Brown's other novels, The Serene Invasion). Kéthani also includes some interesting thoughts on death and the possibility of immortality. There are a few things that didn't work for me, but overall I really enjoyed this one.

I've read some of Brown's other work, and he strikes me as a readable, philosophically interesting SF writer--not quite Le Guin levels of genius, but maybe somewhere more in Robert J. Sawyer territory. 

Kéthani starts with a great premise: mysterious aliens arrive on Earth bestowing the gift of literal immortality. As long as you get an alien implant, when you die, your body is taken to the alien homeworld where you are resurrected and given a choice: return to Earth or go among the stars to work with the aliens.

I enjoy the way that Brown tells the story in a series of different narratives, focusing on different members of a group of friends who hang out every Tuesday night at a pub in rural England. The stories are linked by a series of interludes with the same narrator and capped by a prologue and coda at either side. This keeps the book moving without getting bogged down too much in any one character. 

It also gives Brown a chance to explore different aspects of the aliens' gift of immortality. There are hints about the big picture (wars and murders are way down worldwide), but the focus is more intimately on the effects on the lives of ordinary people. We get glimpses of how people of different religions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) reacted to the coming of the aliens and their gift, as well as how different attitudes about the alien gift affect families and marriages.

We never learn too much about the Kéthani, but I think that works. You need a bit of mystery, and it's heavily hinted that humans are simply not ready to completely understand. This sort of cosmic ineffable sublime is one of my favorite things in SF (why I love Clarke so much, as I imagine does Brown). As one character puts it, "think of everything that's out there that we can't even begin to dream about." Cool, Big Ideas stuff!

Philosophically I think the novel does a good job exploring the ways that fear of death shapes humanity, and some things that might happen if we were to remove that fear.

So what did I not like? The writing can occasionally fall into tired tropes: for instance, we learn a lot about the female characters' bodies in the narration but little about the male characters' (Brown is perhaps a bit of a typical male writer here...). In one story a high school teacher dates one of his students, which is really skeevy (eventually his fellow teachers find it skeevy, too, but still, I was like, "WTF, Brown?" Gross.)

And maybe this sort of optimism was reasonable when Brown wrote this (published 2008, some parts written earlier), but his prediction that only a small minority of ultra-religious people or cranks would refuse the alien immortality feels a bit quaint here in 2021, at least here in the US where half my country refuses to get a lifesaving vaccine they can get for free. 

His treatment of religion is also a bit clunky at first with dime-a-dozen religious zealots, but comes out a bit more complex later with a fascinating priest character and a Buddhist who somewhat confusingly claims that Buddhism denies objective truth but then also believes in rebirth, but she does get some stuff right about impermanence, I guess.

My deeper philosophical response, though, is that I feel like Brown could have explored more secular rejections of immortality. He seems to assume any sane person would want to be immortal, but I'm not so sure. After all, it may be the fact that our lives end that give them any meaning at all. By analogy, consider how a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Is a meaningful human life like that?

Maybe there's something natural and right about dying (as in views sometimes called bioconservatism). Is the alien immortality at the end of the day just another pining for permanence that's neither healthy nor meaningful for human beings? Following a deeper strand of Buddhist philosophy (one that the Buddhist character almost gets to!), is this sort of fixation on our own continuation itself the root of a lot of suffering? Aside from more mundane issues of boredom and malaise, would you really want to live forever?

Sure, I'd like to take a turn around the stars with the Kéthani for longer than I am likely to live here on Earth, but not forever. And given the fact that the universe itself will not last forever, who are we really fooling, anyway? Is the fact that we are a part of the universe coming to contemplate itself for a speck of time and then merging back into that universe, which itself is ultimately impermanent, a strange melancholy that fades into a pacific beauty?

I'm glad that Brown prompted me to these thoughts, all in an intriguing narrative about benevolent aliens. I recommend that others looking for a fun philosophical journey consider reading this, too (but maybe skip the story about the teacher dating his student... yeesh.)

See my Goodreads review.

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