Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monuments of Unageing Intellect: A Ridiculously Close Look

I had an interesting experience when I read Monuments of Unageing Intellect by Howard Hendrix. As I began reading, I had an intense feeling of familiarity, as if I'd read the story before. By the time I'd gotten halfway through I recognized the similarity - and in fact, when I spoke with Dr. Hendrix himself, he confirmed that his story is deliberately intended to update and give homage to an older story, The Dying Man by Damon Knight (first entitled Dio, which Hendrix read three decades ago in the Groff Conklin anthology 5 Unearthly Visions).

What does an author do, I wondered, to make us feel the similarity between two stories like this without actually imitating the text directly? And how does one bring a classic story into a new age?

When I spoke with Hendrix at the Nebula Awards last year, he told me he hadn't looked at Knight's story as he wrote this one. I can see how that would be a good idea - avoiding the gravitational pull of the original story is probably a very good idea. On the other hand, there had to be many strong similarities in order for this to be a re-envisioning of the story, rather than a revamping of the premise. So I thought I'd show a collection of points, and demonstrate how each similarity simultaneously evokes and makes a distinct departure from the Knight story.

The premise at the heart of each tale is the same: amidst a society of immortal humans, one person starts dying. Each story has three important characters that drive the tale, those being the dying one, the involved observer (who is the primary point of view character), and the one who can explain what's going on. In fact, I could argue that these are the characters required by a science fictional tale of this nature, for the following reasons:

1. The dying one is the reason for the story
2. The one who can explain helps readers with the basis of the world and its details*
3. The involved observer experiences significant emotional impact from the impending death, and at the same time will outlive the dying one. This makes the observer a natural choice for the primary point of view character, in part because he or she will have a chance to reflect on the event in retrospect, but also because the point of view of an immortal human being is the most "different" from what we are familiar with in our own lives.
*This is a question of information management that I've discussed before; it functions quite effectively in these stories.

Hendrix chooses to create a deliberate difference between his story and Knight's in this area by reversing the characters' genders. Knight's dying person is a man, Dio; his friend is Claire, and the helpful explainer is a man named Benarra. Hendrix's dying character is named Moira, her friend Hisao, and their helper Wilena. The change of gender makes it much easier to keep the two stories distinct.

More similarities lie in scene-setting, imagery and the use of language. Both stories begin with a scene involving sports, the ocean, and flight. In Knight's story, Dio watches a game of ball on the beach, then gets drawn into a flying wresting match. The scene ends with the following image:

"Far out, the comber lifts its head menacingly high; it comes onward, white-crowned, hard as bottle-glass below, rising, faster, and as it roars with a shuddering of earth into the cavern, the Immortals are dashed high on the white torrent, screaming their joy."

In Hendrix's story, the scene opens with a game of ball played over the ocean on flying surfboards, which ends like this:

"She hurled the ball back into bounds, where it was greeted with the laughter of young gods and goddesses, golden Olympians at play, flashing and moving in waves with the ball and the game."

What I find fascinating here is that the mere presence of ocean/ball/game/immortal people in Hendrix's story was so powerfully able to evoke Knight's, to the point where by the end of the first scene I was certain the two stories were linked. Even more interesting for me is the parallel between the word "dashed" and the word "flashing" - a phonological link that gives a common flavor to both pieces.

The parallels do continue. Both Dio and Moira are artists in a sense, and both create sculptures during their stories. There is a continual contrast between the changing and unchanging, and its emotional effect - Hendrix does this well by giving Hisao a strong reaction to the "Persistent Personae", sculptures created by Moira. In both stories, it's inexplicable why one person would suddenly become mortal, and the image of an animal's death (a rat for Knight, a dolphin for Hendrix) plays an important role.

However, once the initial link between the stories is established, the reader can be freed up to pay more attention to the differences that then appear.

In Knight's story, the world he creates is rather dreamlike - an impression contributed to by his use of present tense narration throughout. This impression is furthered by a division he draws between two classes of people: the Players and the Planners. The Players are the most thoroughly immersed in the immortal experience, having no care for the passage of days; they don't keep journals, and don't notice, for example, if the people they meet on a daily basis are people they might have met before three hundred years earlier. The Planners are responsible for keeping track of things, and thus for keeping society running. Dio, even before he becomes mortal, is a Planner - but we only experience his point of view right at the very beginning of the story. Claire, who loves him, is a Player - and her identity establishes a basis for her naïve understanding of his situation and of the world around them, which colors her emotional experience and allows her relationship with Bennara to be so informative (to her, and to the reader!).

Through all this, Knight creates very little sense of how his immortal world came to be, saying only that people no longer die because they never reach full physical maturity (neoteny). When Claire asks how people became immortal, we get the following exchange with Bennara:

"You're saying it happened. But how?"
"It didn't happen. We did it, we created ourselves."

[they look at images of disease agents]
"What happened to them?" she asks in a voice that does not quite tremble.

"Nothing. The planners left them alone, but changed us. Most of the records have been lost in two thousand years, and of course we have no real science of biology as they knew it."

By contrast, though he keeps the explanation of neoteny as prolonging life, Dr. Hendrix brings to his tale a keen sense of the technological - a sensibility quite appropriate to modern readers' understanding of science. The flight in his tale is not inherent in neo-human abilities, but comes from technology like the hovering surfboards. In his vision, there was a person behind the "Intervention," Cherise LeMoyne, who brought about the change by releasing nanotechnology called "moteswarms." Wilena describes the swarms as follows:

"'LeMoyne's diagnosis had come too late. She died, but not before giving the motes their ability to swarm-communicate. She connected the 'bots, even gave them links and search capabilities into the human infosphere - apparently hoping everything we humans had ever learned might serve as the motes' classroom, their school, their teacher, their database. She also gave them their most important commands, at least after their Hippocratic "Do not harm" substrate.'
Into the air above her desk Wilena holoed up the twin directives, where they hovered in golden numbers and letters.

By giving us these elements, Dr. Hendrix allows his story to move beyond the emotional impact of mortality into the question of what the moteswarms have actually achieved, and whether their presence has helped or hurt humanity on the larger scale (in the areas of psychology and learning). The idea that humans have experienced both physical and psychological neoteny as a result of the work of the moteswarms allows him to arrive, from a totally different direction, at the sort of Player/Planner distinction that Knight takes as a premise. In Hendrix's case, all the immortal humans are characterized by psychological immaturity on a certain level, which leads to hyper-specialization - and only Moira is different, or Deeper.

"The rest all swim in shallow seas....Only Moira moves in deep waters."

The two stories end in very different places, thematically. Knight's story ends with a change in Claire, who has in a sense left Eden behind because she has gained an awareness of death - and sees that while distant, it may still be waiting for her. Dr. Hendrix's story ends with a different kind of change in Hisao, who realizes he will never experience the intensity of life in his endless years that Moira experienced in her few. There's a distinct portrayal of the moteswarms as having escaped human control, and of their influence as not necessarily one that was best for all humanity.

I'd like to thank Dr. Hendrix for his story, and for inspiring me to this post by writing his own monument - a "monument to unageing premise."

I hope you all find this discussion interesting, and have a chance to enjoy Damon Knight's "The Dying Man" and Dr. Howard Hendrix's "Monuments of Unageing Intellect" for yourselves.


  1. I will have to look for those stories. They sound fascinating.

    On a tangent note, I nominated you for the Sugar Doll Award on my blog for these wonderfully insightful posts you share. I look forward to reading them whenever I log on.

  2. Jaleh, thank you so much! I'm so glad that you enjoy the blog.