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THE LAST MORTAL MAN
2006

Book cover art by Chris McGrath.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S BLOG

One of the more cogent arguments I've heard against radical life extension — though in truth it really isn't so much an argument against the technology as it is the application and politics of it — is that it would benefit only the wealthiest few, leading, potentially, to a dismal new form of classism in which the privileged, immortal (or at least very long-lived) elite lorded it over the rest of us. And then there's the nauseating notion that the likes of Paris Hilton might get to live to be 400 while the world's great thinkers, artists and humanitarians have to make do with the customary three score and ten.

While there's a slippery slope element to the argument that makes it more a neo-Luddite jeremiad than a legitimate critique, it's undeniable that the rich would be the first to benefit from the best life extension advancements. After all, a face lift isn't cheap, so why would anyone think having your entire genetic and cellular structure refit to resist aging and death would be?

In her fifth novel, Syne Mitchell takes the elitism fears of transhumanism's critics to the nth degree. But what she's come up with isn't so much a cautionary tale rich with thought-provoking humanist themes as a turbocharged action yarn, full of fight scenes and explosions and the spectacle of cities crumbling into dust that draw deeply from the Matrix/anime/Jerry Bruckheimer gene pool. It's not that it isn't fun, but it does give the term "over the top" a new lease on life. Mitchell populates the story almost solely with archetypes: the ruthless tycoon; the sexy, ice-queen female bodyguard; the prodigal son; and last but not least, the mad scientist who says things like "You understand nothing!" It's inane beyond words, but it's also fast-paced and punchy, told with a real storytelling flair that employs a nearly inexhaustible supply of cliffhangers, topped off with a smidgen of real hard-SF speculation to shore up its geek cred. But like the source material from which it seems to draw inspiration, it eventually overplays its hand, and then some.

Alexa DuBois enters into the employ of mega-ultra-giga-zillionaire Lucius Sterling after she foils an attempt on his life, in which she was originally a co-conspirator. Sterling, with the aid of his pet genius Fontesca, has developed and marketed nanobiology, which replaces all of the cells in a human body with its own artificial cells, engineered never to age or die. Naturally he charges the earth for the service, and sets himself up in the deific position of literally singlehandedly deciding who among the human race gets to live forever — become one of the Deathless — or die. Surprisingly, this earns him lots of enemies.

Over the next couple of centuries, nanobiology not only comes to replace natural biology, but is used in every single area of human endeavor. Entire cities are more easily grown than built from raw materials. But for all Sterling's seemingly limitless power, he is desperate to groom heirs to his empire, and he comes unglued when one of his sons, Jack, develops a childhood allergy to nanobiology that all Fontesca's genius cannot cure. (People must grow to adulthood naturally before they become candidates for nanobiological cell replacement.) As he grows to adulthood, Jack escapes his father's artificial island stronghold and takes up in one of the last remaining pockets of natural Earth, the wilds of Montana, where his allergies will not kill him.

The inevitable crisis finally comes when someone — a personal enemy of Sterling's, or a terrorist group? — develops a molecular disassembler that dissolves nanobiology like ice cream on a hot day. Thousands die, cities crumble into powder. It comes down to Alexa and Jack working together — despite his allergy even to her — to find where the disassembler came from, and take down its creators, before there's literally nothing left.

This is a humdinger of an idea, and Syne Mitchell, it must be said, knows her way around an action scene. As in the most bombastic of anime, we're treated to fight scenes between superhuman, modified warriors that result in the collateral demolition of wherever the fight is taking place (a Tibetan monastery, a 900-story skyscraper). There are cliffhangers galore. And in Jack and Alexa, Mitchell truly has come up with sympathetic heroes, or antiheroes as the case may be. I liked them even when they weren't particularly likable. I especially enjoyed the scenes where Alexa and Jack, traveling together through infected areas of the landscape, have to trade the use of the single protective suit they possess — Jack to protect himself from surviving nanobiology, and Alexa from the disassembler.

The gripe I have with The Last Mortal Man isn't that it's ever, you know, bad, but that it simply doesn't know when to quit. It's like a Michael Bay movie, piling excess upon excess. Towards the end of the novel is where the real eye-rolling begins. Alexa has so many "Oh no, she's dead! — Oh wait, no she's not!" moments that you lose count. And Mitchell chooses her symbols with sledgehammer subtlety. In Montana, Jack has taken up with a group of Mennonites, one of whom is a girl with a crush on Jack, whose perfectly pure innocence comes to represent the world that has been lost in the post-Deathless era. (She also has a psychotically abusive father for moments of easy emotional manipulation.) And good lord, it's one thing to tug my heartstrings with the image of a dead child, but when you have said late moppet clutching a dandelion, that takes button-mashing to the level of assault and battery!

If it's pure action, action, action you're after, there's much to satisfy in The Last Mortal Man, if you're not particularly bothered by a story that lays it on thick at every opportunity. But for people who find this book to their tastes, there's some bad news: Roc has reportedly already cancelled the rest of the series.