Book Review: Immortal by Nick M. Lloyd

Immortal

Immortal is the third novel by British SF author Nick M. Lloyd, following the excellent and successful Emergence, and his follow-up Disconnected. With his first two novels he crafted a niche of tackling big science themes with a British twist, and Immortal is no different. To be sure, it’s a strange beast.

Even a book that fails to deliver in every department can possess an intriguing premise at its heart, and Immortal actually serves up several intriguing premises, yet ends without developing any of them entirely satisfactorily. This SF novel is set in an alternative present-day and is ostensibly a straightforward alien first contact story (which may or may not develop into an equally straightforward alien invasion story), but also takes it upon itself to investigate the moral wherefores the collection, processing and exploitation of citizens’ private data, and the equally ethically grey area of the pursuit of immortality through medical breakthroughs (and other, more nefarious means), the answer to which is hinted at via the book’s clever cover design, drawing the word Immortal into the defiant statement “I’m Mortal”.

The strange paradox of Immortal is that while it doesn’t seem to fulfil the potential for exploration that these themes provide, it also seems slightly overlong and doesn’t hit its stride until too far into the book, which means the majority of dramatic heft is lost before it’s gained. Ironically, the best part of the book is the final third, which is exciting, well-written, weird and really starts to unveil some of the weird possibilities behind some of the aforementioned themes, and exposing the characters to real danger and forcing them to act.

The crux of the story is that Earth receives messages from an alien race calling themselves the Ankor, warning of a catastrophic event that is to befall the Earth, and to submit critical intelligence to them in order for them to save the planet. It’s unclear in the book’s early stages whether the Ankor are a benign force or hostile (a question which is unequivocally answered later), an ambiguity which works well at first. For example, they possess a veneer of threat exhibited through their advanced capability, which is demonstrated through one striking sequence where their constellation of spacecraft are finally unveiled in mathematically significant patterns; but they are also painted as saviours as they drip-feed information to humanity about the nature of the coming apocalypse.

Set against this is Elon Musk-esque businessman Francis MacKenzie, who claims to have found the modern equivalent to the Elixir of Life, a series of medical breakthroughs that promise immortality (free at the point of use!). This is funded by selling the data of private citizens to the Government, a skulduggerous operation that may or may not be hedged through MacKenzie dealing directly with the Ankor themselves.

Two of MacZenzie’s staffers, Samantha and Tim, provide the book’s (slightly grey, which I like) moral compass and allow us to view events from an (almost) everyman’s perspective. Sam, who is disabled and wheelchair-bound after an accident, is set up to have a vested interest in MacKenzie’s Immortality solution. Sam and Tim’s relationship, that of unrequited love, seems always tantalisingly on the cusp of developing into something romantic, but which is scuppered by the presence of Charlie, Sam’s ex and also Tim’s superior at work. Bummer.

The basic ingredients are here for a smart, effective thriller with a genuinely good twist. The problems with it are that the first two thirds of the book are consumed with too much nuts-and-bolts description of the technical goings-on that enable communication with the Ankor, the assemblage of Earth’s response and the surveys through which MacKenzie’s firm gathers data from the general population in order to develop his own product. Now, this is clearly a matter of taste; hard SF nuts will probably very much enjoy Lloyd’s digging into the guts of the technical capabilities required for the comms aspects of the novel, but for me they were too numerous and detracted from any sense of pace and urgency being built up.

The second problem I had was with the characters. Given this is a first contact story, with a healthy dose of civil unrest thrown in given the potential catastrophe on the horizon, the main characters seem to be unfeasibly phlegmatic about proceedings. Sam and Tim are more concerned with what’s going on in their hearts and heads rather than the outside world, and maintain an air of professional calm that doesn’t quite ring true. Which is a shame, as the scenes where Sam and Tim are the main players are actually the best written, the most heartfelt and, oddly, given the above, authentic. This is because I bought into the love triangle completely, which was written with real soul. I can’t help feel that if Lloyd had focussed more on the emotional depth and arc of these main characters, and given them some real high-stakes drama to dig into (on top of their romantic travails) the book would be more accessible, more dramatic, and nippier.

So it’s a book of two halves; or at least three thirds, with the first two thirds sagging in pace a tad, but with an excellent finish. If you’re a hard SF fan, bump it up to a four-star review, because there is much to be excited about here. Even if not, it’s a solid read with some interesting themes being tackled. Whatever you say about Lloyd, he doesn’t take the easy route, and seems happy to take the plunge into complex and difficult ideas, which is to be commended when so much of SF is safe and conventional. 

Published by dgjones81

Away from the page, I work for the UK Space Agency on a European programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories. My first novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published hither and yon. I’m a member of the Society of Authors and a supporter of SFFChronicles. I was born in Forest Gate, east London, and now live in Essex with my wife and two daughters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: