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Traitor To The Living

Traitor to the Living - Philip José Farmer Is it just me, or does anybody else here think Philip Jose Farmer has a pathologic obsession with death? Not only did he write the Riverworld series, about all the dead souls of humanity resurrected and cohabitating on the banks of a giant river, but in 1973 he wrote this book, Traitor to the Living, about a computer that can talk to the dead. In all, Farmer spent at least a decade thinking about and writing about death- a depressing prospect for him, but a winning formula for readers, because I liked Riverworld, and I like Traitor to the Living even better! Yeah, I liked this book a lot. It surprised me in that great, fun way that books- particularly science-fiction books- sometimes do. It started off slow, and had some problems early on, so I was not impressed at first. In fact, I was seriously considering quitting by around page 75. But I stuck it out, and was richly rewarded for doing so. (TWSS) The story took two or three unexpected turns, and concluded in a way that left me wanting more. (TWSS) So to re-create my reading experience here, let's start off with my complaints first. This book does have some timeline issues. Written in 1973, it is set in the "near future". The main character is a veteran of the Korean War (1950-53), so born about 1930. In the story, he's getting towards the end of his career, so I'll say early/mid-60's, roughly, which puts the story in the early/mid-1990's. I would say the social and technological changes Farmer anticipated twenty years into his future were a bit extravagant, including (but not limited to): the disappearance of modesty, as society became clothing-optional; the disappearance of taboos against incest (the main character is fucking his first cousin); somewhat extreme shifts in fashion, for those who choose to wear clothes (e.g. hoop skirts); the complete replacement of the American weights and measurements with the metric system; Jetsons-type conveyor belts on every side walk; and of course the major plot element: technological advances which allow the living to communicate with the dead. This alone left me uncertain whether this was really science fiction I was reading, or fantasy. I'll accept almost any plot device, if the author handles it well. At first, I was inclined to say Farmer wasn't handling it well. If such a device (a computer called "MEDIUM") were ever constructed, it would be the greatest philosophical revelation in our species' history. I'd expect people to be freaking out about all the religious implications. Wouldn't there be social upheaval, as some- maybe all- of the world's major religions were disproven? There are occasional references in this story to religious groups protesting MEDIUM, but nothing on the scale I think would really happen. Also, it seems like MEDIUM would be used to discover the secrets held by the dead. For example: questions of historical accuracy, clarifications lost to history, etc. Instead of going into all of that, the first half of the book preoccupies itself with a fairly mundane whodunnit murder mystery, and it seemed fairly obvious that the MEDIUM machine would be used to ask the murder victim who killed him. Ho-hum, right? But it starts to get interesting, once Farmer fleshes out some more details about MEDIUM and the afterlife. In Farmer's universe, we all have souls, which are actually a sort of a unique electromagnetic signature which cannot be created or destroyed, but is a timeless elemental feature of the universe, like an atom. In life, the soul resides in our brains, and directs the electrical impulses which are our thoughts. When we die, the soul vibrates at a different frequency, and passes out of this universe to exist in another one (perceived as an afterlife) which exists in the same place and time, but at a different vibrational frequency. There are probably a lot of holes in that, but it works for the premise of a sci-fi book. Anyhow, this guy Western, who invented MEDIUM realizes that the machine not only can locate and facilitate communication with dead souls, but can actually bring them back to our universe, and put them in bodies. The original soul in a body then has to swich places with the dead, since two souls can't inhabit one body. Most of mankind is willing to pay top dollar for the chance to speak with the dead, so Western is rapidly becoming one of the richest men on Earth. Meanwhile, many of the dead are willing to do anything for a chance to live on Earth again, so when certain customers show up to use his machine, they don't just get a conversation with the hereafter, they actually get sent to the great beyond and their body given to a dead soul who pledges alliegence to Western. It's a bit of a Invasion of the Bodysnatchers scenerio, because the person looks the same as before, but is really somebody else. Western's idea is to place loyal dead in key political and economic positions so he can become so rich and powerful, he will eventually be the undisputed ruler not only of the living Earth, but also- through agents in the afterlife, ruler of the dead as well (if you're going to be evil, might as well think big, huh?) The complication comes when one of the dead (I won't say who, but he's famous) isn't as loyal to Western as they promised, and hatch a plan to kill him and take over his body, so they can become the all-powerful ruler in his body. Suddenly the story goes from a very flaccid Sam Spade-type detective story to a completely unpredictable web of intrigue, where you can never be sure anybody besides the narrator is who they say they are. To Farmer's great credit, the plot developments make perfect internal sense with the premises presented, and resolves in a very satisfying way without any deus ex-machinae (and if ever a story could get a pass on evoking deus ex-machinae, wouldn't it be one in which a computer is used to communicate with dead souls?) Honestly, I only purchased this book (used) because the cover art intrigued me, and the blurb on the back made it sound half-way interesting. I wouldn't even describe myself as a fan of Farmer's other works, but this story really impressed me, so much in fact that I kept thinking to myself "This really feels more like a Philip K. Dick book.", which coming from me, is high praise indeed.