Writes Ramez Naam hard scifi

Rundschau: space opera in twelve acts

Jens Lubbadeh: "Immortal"

Brochure with flaps, 447 pages, € 15.50, Heyne 2016

Successful cover picture! It's really amazing what an iconic effect Marlene Dietrich has when the combination of cheekbones + steely curls creates an unmistakable image. Despite the cover honors, the great diva has to accept the shame that she plays a role in "Immortal" ... but ultimately only that of a MacGuffin.

The mixed reality

The debut novel by the German science journalist Jens Lubbadeh depicts a world set in 2044 in which technologies for the generation of augmented realities are one Blended Reality have created. Everyone enters - as required by law NeurImplant in the head, which merges digitally sent image and sound files with perceptions from the real environment into a whole. That is why the dead live among us, whether relatives who have passed away or historical celebrities: Because for a pretty penny, anyone can be digitally reconstructed and "immortalized" from data - from biometric recordings to film and audio documents.

As a result, a kind of all-star world has emerged: At the top of the two superpowers are John F. Kennedy and Deng Xiaoping, the hit parades are alternately dominated by the Beatles and Michael Jackson (each with brand new songs, of course). And Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs are also back in business. At the same time - at least on this point Lubbadeh has thought through his scenario well - this has led to a certain stagnation. Nothing fundamentally new happens anymore, instead they deliver Eternal only variations of it.

Clear conditions

The mixing of realities could result in an extremely tricky introduction, as it is loved by hardcore SF fans and how it prevents mainstream readers from becoming SF fans: So one in which we have to make every effort to get ourselves into one Orienting the world of complex and contradicting impressions - think of Matthew de Abaitua, for example, in whose works the digital and physical world also merge.

But Lubbadeh is more of an anti-Abaitua: short sentences, clear relationships, that's his formula. We may not know how the story will end - but we can always be sure where we are right now. In his tendency to over-explain and prefer to play it safe, Lubbadeh can easily spoil his own punchline: If, for example, it is described how eternal and real people react differently to surveys, then one would have the similarity to the Voight-Kampff test from "Blade Runner" (or Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?") also noticed, without this being explicitly stated afterwards.

It becomes criminal

Such interviews are the daily bread of the main character Benjamin Kari. He works for the company Fidelity, which certifies the "authenticity" of Eternals - that is to say: their faithfulness to the original - and exposes cheap pirated copies. One day, however, Benjamin unexpectedly finds himself pushed into the role of a detective: The (it always means "the") eternal Marlene Dietrichs has disappeared. Was Dietrich kidnapped? Has she dropped herself off? Did she even die again in the afterlife? To find out, Benjamin travels from his native Los Angeles to Germany, first to Hamburg and then to Berlin.

From the plot, "Immortal" is a political thriller, and as such the novel works very well. Benjamin moves from clue to clue with the determined reporter Eva Lombard, while testimonies about strange behaviors of Dietrich pile up ... and the witnesses subsequently pass their lives with a striking number of people. There are also enough suspects: like them Thanatic (an organization that is against immortalization) or the really incalculable whistleblower Reuben Mars, who shocks the world with his insider information on the immortalization process. When the "case" is to be withdrawn from Benjamin, he continues to investigate on his own - and at some point it begins to emerge that he is dealing with something bigger here.

This is an exciting story and is being told - another positive! - in the second half grimmer than you would have thought at first. In addition, the matter has a very personal side for Benjamin: His wife was also immortalized after her accidental death. Since the eternal ones are blocked from all memories of their death and Benjamin was involved in the accident, they or their eternal ones no longer recognize him. Benjamin was edited out of the life of his great love without further ado: potential for great human drama that could have been used even more.


But that brings us to the less successful parts of the book, and they all have to do with worldbuilding. Eternals are prevalent, and their loved ones know that the subject of death is a blind spot to them. So it shouldn't hit the world like a bolt from the blue that digital personalities can be manipulated. In general, the question arises why someone should save for "immortality" for years if after his death he is basically nothing more than a better program and a service for his survivors; According to Lubbadeh, the Eternals do not have their own personality. And if the digital Dietrich can be seen briefly as a luminous phenomenon in the real world, then there is no code change that would make that possible - that's just magic.

In contrast to their colleagues in the crime industry, SF authors are also required to create a plausible world out of the ground. Lubbadeh does not succeed in two other important points, and both have to do with the number 1: There is only such a thing one Group that holds the novel's central technology in its hands. That would be a typical scenario for SF films (see for example "Surrogates", "The Island" or "The 6th Day"), which are usually a bit simpler than SF novels. Because something like that cries out for a solution at the end of the story at the push of a button. But there is no such central button in our world - so why should there be one in an even more complex future world?

Thinking a little further

Second, perhaps more importantly: Similar to Bruce McCabes, for example "Infallible" With his high-tech sex dolls, in Lubbadeh's Blended Reality, too, we are dealing with high-tech, apparently only one Purpose is: to create images of people. Otherwise it hovers in a true vacuum of application. Just think about what else it could be used for: traffic signs and street signs. Advertising. All kinds of information that are displayed on real objects. The costs alone that could be saved if you no longer had to produce solid carrier media make it extremely unlikely that blended reality will not be used anywhere else in Lubbadeh's world. Who knows, maybe you could even do without street lighting - it would make a cool picture if birds and insects roam unmolested by light pollution over dark cities that are bright for their residents because they can use their implants like night vision devices.

... and that is probably only a fraction of what a Ramez Naam ("Nexus") would have occurred to the topic. In order to create a similarly credible SF world, Lubbadeh would just have to think more consistently with his ideas. After all: some of them are really good, and the crime thriller is right anyway. All in all, it is a book worth reading with room for improvement - maybe Lubbadeh will use the potential in further volumes from the world of the Eternals.