“Most terrible about the dead was the way in which they did not, could not, could never, could never even hope to change.” Joanna Russ, from “Poor Man, Beggar Man.”
“It’s no use reminding yourself daily that you are mortal: it will be brought home to you soon enough” – Albert Camus
I have a significant fear of dying. Not of death, mind you; at that point it’s all over and there is nothing left to feel (so I believe, anyway). No, what terrifies me, what suddenly sends a shudder and a moan through my body at unpredictable moments, is the thought of the moment of cessation, of that last instance of experiencing the world before experience ends. What makes it so affecting is its inevitability, its finality. It is the most real thing that happens to us, because it is the one thing that will happen to all us, that we all know awaits us.
When my American grandfather died in 1976, I was away on a field trip with my 5th-grade class. When I returned from it, shaken by bullying and thrilled by a large collection of sea and crab shells I had acquired, my parents delivered the news of his death to me. I barely knew the man, so I was not terribly upset by the news, until my father told me a story at the funeral. He claimed that when he and my mother were asleep the night my grandfather died, something had entered their room and sat at the edge of their bed. They could not see it, but my father swears that it was my grandfather saying goodbye, that he “blessed” them. My father was an amateur ghost hunter in those days and he claimed that the same sense that helped him sniff out pesky spirits had attuned him to his father’s passing and called to his ghost to visit them. Weirdly, he then stated that the “blessing” did not apply to me because I had chosen to be away at that important moment.
This is one, of many, experiences that have charged death with so much apprehension and fear for me.
This story in particular sent me running for solace; it was around this time that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books, Doc Savage, and The Shadow. I had devoured westerns and historical novels until this point but suddenly they all reminded me of death. Everyone in them was dead; they had expired in the distant past (note: at the time this applied to fictional characters as well as non-fictional ones whose stories I read like Tecumseh and Geronimo). There was no chance that they could be alive, that they could represent life to me, because they were anchored in expired time. I wanted possibilities for the world, the chance that things like death might not be so unchangeable.
The irony, of course, was that John Carter was from the American Civil War period and that the others were from the first half of the 20th century. But what made them different was that their worlds were not the past of my world. Carter tumbled onto the Martian sands and found a planet of adventure while Clark Savage, Jr. and Lamont Cranston changed the past I knew. The fractured continuity of the past, made it, for a short time, not inevitable. That idea of the past being changeable, of the future not being set, became very important to me in the next few years.
I started reading fantastic literature for that most stereotypical reason: escape. Comic books and TV shows provided entertainment but they could not instill the sensation of displacement, of being briefly removed from my mortal form, that fantastika could. I needed to be forced to use my imagination, to create the images in my own mind and animate them myself. I needed to take charge of my own thinking, to feel a sense of world that was unlike the one I lived in, but not one superimposed on me. I had to generate my escape directly, occupying my mind with the task of weaving a world from the words on the page. This did not remove my sense of mortality, but instead utilized it.
Of course, we don’t really escape through the fantastic. At best the world around us, and what lies at the end of it, fades for a short time. All of these attempts at temporary withdrawal assuaged my fears and worries for a short time, but left little in the aftermath. So I read and re-read voraciously, looking for stimulation and comfort. After a few years that was taken from me (literally; my father tossed out my library) when we joined a particularly fervent fundamentalist congregation in Florida. And here I found ideas about mortality that I tried to embrace, that I felt I had to embrace because of parental pressure and fear of divine punishment. But my mortality still burdened me, worried at the edges of my thoughts and feelings. Even the promise of eternal life felt rather hollow because it depended on my faith, on my mortal capacities. I tried to approach it like I did my books, escaping now into stories of saints and sinners, of devotion and service. But even at the height of my commitment, when I preached and babbled glossolalic rhythms and admonished crowds to follow the teachings I shared with them, the fear was still there, the certainty of death. After my family was ejected from the church, I truly felt that there was no escape.
So when a high school teacher took me in and shared his enormous library of SF and fantasy with me, I wasn’t sure I wanted the favor. I could not get away from the fact of my own ending approaching inexorably. But I was starved for something new so I shoved aside my hesitation and began reading feverishly. I started with Heinlein juveniles, Leigh Brackett and Jack Vance, and began to find different things than Barsoom and the heroic 1930s had offered to me. Heinlein’s capable teens gave me some hope that I could survive high school while other writer gave me the chance to take long journeys to places I had not yet imagined. Instead of trying to get away from the world, I set it aside, placed it just out of my sight, and delved into these new ones. There was some solace, but there was also satisfaction, curiosity, and sometimes insight.
When my teacher gave me Podkayne of Mars I was unprepared for the ending, and it unnerved me. But I went back and re-read it, sat with the ending, wondered what it would be like if that had happened to me. It shook me but it also taught me that if all I ever did was try to forget death’s unavoidability, that I would just sit around lost in books forever. I did not magically start living life to the fullest, but I did try to be more present in the world around me. I also moved on to other books like Disch’s On Wings of Song, Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Russ’ The Female Man, Butler’s Patternmaster and Wild Seed, Delany’s Triton and Nova, Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts…books about life and death and the endless possibilities in both. Through them I tried to…not make sense out of mortality, but see it differently, burn through fear in my heart. There was no escape, but it was possible to move through life without being consumed by its eventual ending. Like Daniel at the end of Disch’s novel, the trick was to live and not be annihilated by death, but to understand that it was coming and to live life embracing that certainty.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Farthest Shore that “Life rises out of death, death out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn.” While I appreciated the poetry and the fluid purpose of that idea when I first read it, it did not comfort me. For me, personally, life was not a cycle; it was a straight line to an unknowable demise. Life spites death; this was the lesson many of the fantastic books I read taught me. Mortality was a constant refutation of death. This was brought home to me most deeply by George Alec Effinger’s “Wolves of Memory”. As Sandor Courane slowly dies in exile, losing his mind and his very self in the process, he continues to spite Death, literally past the point of reason. Death takes everything away, but that doesn’t mean that you should not collect experiences, hopes, or wonders. Reading that book cemented in me the desire to accept my fear, to know that it would never leave me, but to live anyway, to embrace my mortality and the intensity that it instilled in me.
This is one of the most important reasons I read fantastic literature; not to find some vestige of comfort or distraction, but to be reminded that the world is full of possibility, of terrible and marvelous things. I want to be reminded that my mortality is not a burden, but an opportunity. I want to have my imagination filled to bursting and my eyes scorched by horrors and torn open by epiphanies. I want to gorge myself on stories that spit merrily and purposefully into the face of “reality” and do not flinch in their exploration of life and death. I want to see and feel the hope of change, its failings and glories and intricacies, until my imagination is exhausted and ruptured and all I feel is me breathing, being, exulting in the unreal that makes death insignificant because there is so much in life to explore.