"This is why I read science fiction."—Daryl Gregory
In Longer, Michael Blumlein explores dauntingly epic topics—love, the expanse of the human lifespan, mortality—with a beautifully sharp story that glows with grace and good humor even as it forces us to confront deep, universal fears.
Gunjita and Cav are in orbit.
R&D scientists for pharmaceutical giant Gleem Galactic, they are wealthy enough to participate in rejuvenation: rebooting themselves from old age to jump their bodies back to their twenties. You get two chances. There can never be a third.
After Gunjita has juved for the second and final time and Cav has not, questions of life, death, morality, and test their relationship. Up among the stars, the research possibilities are infinite and first contact is possible, but their marriage may not survive the challenge.
Praise for Longer
"Michael Blumlein has written a novella that is full of hard science and strange, beautiful images, and also asks the biggest of questions—about mortality, aging, the persistence and changeability of love, and the search for meaning in our lives. I read it in two sittings, and it brought me to tears. . . . Don't miss this."—Daryl Gregory
"No one can evoke both life's beauties and its sorrows with the brilliance of Michael Blumlein. In meticulous and resonant prose, Blumlein examines a marriage with a long, loving history and a questionable future. Wise and beautiful, provocative and deeply, deeply satisfying."—Karen Joy Fowler
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Michael Blumlein is the author of several novels and story collections, including the award-winning The Brains of Rats. He has twice been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and twice for the Bram Stoker. His story "Fidelity: A Primer" was short-listed for the Tiptree. He has written for both stage and film, including the award-winning independent film Decodings (included in the Biennial Exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and winner of the Special Jury Award of the SF International Film Festival). His novel X,Y was made into a feature-length movie. Until his recent retirement Dr. Blumlein taught and practiced medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
Your vision is not limited by what your eyes can see, but what your mind can imagine.1
One life was enough. Two were more than enough.
It was time to end it.
It would end itself. The last mystery.
No. Not the last. But a great one. A great mystery, unspooled.
Birth was the first, also great.
Rebirth, not so much, and jarring. Overrated.
The stars were bright in the heavens, no atmosphere to dim them. So many of them, and so many more unseen. So many worlds. So many questions. So many answers.
Yes to all possibilities. Infinity promised this.
But space was cold. Eternity, also.
He'd need a better coat.
He needed one now, because he was shivering.
* * *
He stood in the cupola, gazing at the Milky Way, observing in himself the balance between what he saw and what he felt, between the sensation of cold and his perception of the sensation, and in the latter the balance between awe and terror, which shifted as all things shifted, and which he had experienced his whole life when gazing at the stars and the infinity of space. Currently, terror held the upper hand: how else to explain the chill?
He called on awe to put in an appearance. Humbly, dispassionately, he requested an audience. Sometimes it listened.
Now was one of those times. He knew immediately, because instantly he felt better. Warmer. More hopeful and optimistic.
Gunjita was in the lab mod, pipetting. She hadn't done this in years. Hadn't needed to: postdocs and underlings did it for her. Later, as her once agile fingers became gnarled and crippled with age, she couldn't have done it if she'd wanted to. She could barely hold a spoon. Now her fingers were fine. And there were no underlings. She was alone, but not lonely. Work, as always, was a faithful companion.
Thumbing the plunger was familiar, repetitive, and soothing — press release, press release. It felt good in and of itself, all the better because it freed her to think. She had juved at the age of eighty-two, which, all things being equal, was the current recommendation. Since all things were never equal, some people chose to do it at seventy, or sixty, or even ninety. But statistically speaking, eighty-two was optimal, representing the best balance between benefit and risk.
Broadly, statistics were helpful, but they lacked pinpointability. A single individual could easily fall outside the range of prediction. Following standard practice, a person might wait too long, or alternatively, juve too soon. Something more precise, impossible to ignore or misinterpret, would be useful.
An idea had been brewing in her mind, and when she was done with the pipette, she went looking for Cav, to run it by him. She found him where she expected she would, staring into space, which had been his main occupation of late, even before news that an extraplanetary probe was on its way. He was a wool-gatherer by nature, and she took a moment to observe him unannounced.
He was a handsome man, and to handsomeness age had added dignity, but it had bent his once fine, long frame, etched his face, slowed his step and also his brain. She wondered how long he was going to wait before juving. The longer he did, the greater the benefit, but also the greater the risk. She observed herself — thoughtful, deliberate, a person who set the bar high and left no stone unturned — pleased that she hadn't waited.
"You know that thing mice and rabbits do before they're sacrificed?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
"The way they go all calm and limp?"
"Mice? Do we have mice?"
"No. Not here. I'm just thinking about what happens."
"The word, I believe, is resignation."
"They know what's coming. They have a premonition."
"They teach us a valuable lesson. Terror can be tamed. The question: which is better? Which is braver? Resistance or surrender?"
He turned from the window, facing her. "The stars are beautiful tonight. Have you ever seen such beauty?"
"I've been working," she said.
"When others do it."
"I should help."
"I've been remiss."
"Do you need me?"
"I'm fine," she said, having made her point. "I'm enjoying myself."
He smiled, happy to hear it. "I'm a lucky man. I feel rich, Gunjita. Blessed in nearly every way. Does our probe have a name?"
"Eurydice. You don't remember?"
"Who named it?"
"I have no idea."
"I would have named it Orpheus. We should be able to see it soon. I wonder what it's bringing us."
The images the probe had sent back were hazy and of low resolution, showing an indistinct object lighter in color than the asteroid on which it had been found. Efforts to lift or otherwise dislodge it from the asteroid had failed, but in the process the asteroid had cracked, presumably along a fault line or cleavage plane, and a fragment had come loose. As luck would have it, the object, if it truly was an object and not a detection artifact, was on this fragment, which the probe had dutifully snapped up.
"A mineral of some kind, most likely. A discontinuity in the rock."
Cav nodded. "Someone's being careful."
"We should be careful, too. You were talking about premonitions. I'm having one now."
He had his share of health problems, age-related stuff: heart, joints, pisser. As far as she knew, nothing serious, but she didn't know much, because he didn't talk about it much. Wasn't a complainer. She didn't think he was talking about it now.
"Not anything bad, I hope."
"No. Not at all. The opposite."
It was the probe then, as she suspected. "You've got stars in your eyes. The kind of premonition I'm thinking about isn't some dream come true. It's the kind that happens before a catastrophe. Like before a heart attack. Or a stroke. There's a warning signal."
"It's brief. No more than a second or two. After that the damage is done. May or may not be reversible. What if the signal could be stretched out? Instead of seconds, make it last an hour, or a day, or even longer. A month, say. Give people time to do something about it. Take action."
"Juve, for example."
"A month of being in a continual state of alarm? Waiting for the ax to fall?"
"Highly motivating, no?"
"And it won't fall. That's the beauty."
"Look. There it is."
Far away, a pinpoint of light had separated itself from the infinity of pinpoints around it by virtue of its motion. Slowly but steadily, it scribed its way toward them.
"How will you stretch out the warning signal?" he asked. "What is the signal?"
"It's not any one thing. Catastrophe isn't a single event, it's a cascade. There're multiple signals. Most are below our level of awareness. The trick will be to increase our awareness without triggering the cascade. Activate just the right pathways. Block the others."
"Make us more conscious."
"I suppose. In a sense."
"Do you dare?"
"Our bodies sing," she said, quoting him. "Thousands of songs inaudible to us."
"For good reason," he said. "We'd be paralyzed if we heard them all. We'd go deaf. Or mad."
He was already hearing too many. Shoulder, back, knees, heart. The songs of age, from the symphony of life.
"The ones we hear are usually the ones we'd rather not," he observed.
"That's the point," she replied.
There wasn't a line on her face. She stood tall and erect, which even in micrograv he was unable to do. She was supple, bright-eyed, energetic. Being with her was like being with a supercharged particle. Simply watching her could be exhausting.
"You're not hearing any, I assume," he said.
"Songs? No. Not a one."
He nodded. Youth was silent that way. In other ways not so much.
"I can imagine what this song of yours will be like," he said.
"Can you? What?"
"Something extremely annoying and impossible to ignore."
"It better be."
"A new line of research for you. A new adventure."
"Not wholly new. But why not?"
* * *
The probe was only the second of its kind. Deep-space mining was in its infancy. Kinks were still being ironed out. So far Eurydice had performed without a hitch. Her lengthy approach was nearly at an end.
Currently, she was in the process of matching her orbit to theirs, close enough that they could see her distinctive dragonfly shape. Her thrusters were pointed away from them, her cone forward. Beneath the cone, held by two robotic arms, like a bee holding pollen, was a large black rock.
Carbon? thought Cav.
All at once there was a glint of light. Then nothing. Then another.
He felt a pounding in his chest. "Is it signaling us?"
"No. The thing on the asteroid."
"It's a reflection, Cav. From the sun. When the probe tilts to the side."
He felt chastened, but not much. "Ice, you think?"
"I don't know. Probably."
She left the viewing port and pulled up the program that controlled the station's external camera array. A few minutes later she had Eurydice on-screen. She repositioned and magnified the image. The asteroid chunk was wide in the middle and tapered at both ends, dolphin-shaped but angular, especially in its lower half, with sharply defined ridges and ledges, likely where it had broken off. Its upper half was more rounded and rippled, as though it had been subjected to weathering of some sort. It looked like a jumbled line of rolling hills. Tucked in the basin between two of them was a lighter-colored shape.
She magnified this.
"Hello," said Cav, who'd been watching.
It looked like a jellyfish with stumpy arms, each of them a different shape and size, irregularly spaced around its circumference. It was dull yellow in color with a hint of green, like week-old celery. It was roughly two hands across, about a finger's thickness. Its surface appeared smooth, fixed, and hard.
"Ameboid," said Cav.
"It's not an ameba."
"I'm not saying it is. I'm saying the appearance. The shape."
"Maybe it was liquid once. Molten. Hardened into that."
He knew a bit of geology. Just enough to be dangerous.
"Starfish attach to rocks like that," he said, thinking aloud.
Something clinging to something, that's what had popped into his head. Obviously, they weren't looking at a starfish.
"Is it attached?" she asked.
"It wouldn't come off."
"Precisely. It's wedded to the rock. Part and parcel. It is a rock."
"But so different." He searched for an explanation. "Could there have been a collision? Say the asteroid was hit by something. This is the impact point. The force of the collision, the heat of it, created what we're seeing."
Her knowledge of geology was about on a par with his. Her knowledge of astronomy, somewhat more advanced. Their expertise lay elsewhere, broadly speaking in the field of human biology, the field of living things. Since living things depended on nonliving things to exist, and since nonliving things obeyed the laws and conditions of physics, it helped to have a broad education, a wide base of knowledge, and an inquisitive spirit.
"Collisions hardly ever happen. And when they do, they're catastrophic. The asteroid would have been annihilated."
"A small collision. With a tiny particle."
"Tiny is right."
"An impact metamorphosis?" She turned the idea over in her mind. In biology the concept certainly applied. Sperm and egg the obvious example, and thousands more. "Is there such a thing?"
"Why shouldn't there be?"
This was Cav in a nutshell. Firing salvos, broadsides against dogma and gospel, reality be damned. Flaunting his ignorance, wearing it like a medal of honor. Impertinent. Irreverent. What she loved about him, and what at other times infuriated her. He called it thinking big.
"It's a big universe," he said, right on cue.
They studied it further.
"You know what it looks like?" she said.
It did have a sheen. And a lumpiness. And a kind of ordered chaos, like a glob, or splat, of something.
"You're right," he said. "That's exactly how it looks. Wonder how it smells. If it smells."
"Everything smells," she reminded him, quoting herself.
"To us," he clarified.
"Like puke, I'm afraid." Referencing the power of language, which was the power of suggestion, in this case by a single four-letter word. A mortal blow, or at least a complication, to someone priding herself on objectivity. This was always the risk of thinking. Worse with speaking the thought aloud.
"I've contaminated myself. Have I contaminated you, too?"
"Not a bit." He felt the opposite, as though a gate, or a door, had been opened. "Puke implies a mouth. A mouth implies a living thing."
"I was free-associating," she said quickly.
"Yes. Good. We should."
"It's not living, Cav. How could it be living?"
"Exactly. That's the question. How?"
She could see what was coming. The man just loved getting his head in the clouds, the higher the better. Up where the air was thin, and reality was a long way off. Where you could spin whatever story you liked.
It was a luxury to think like that. Not one she'd had, or allowed herself, growing up. She was a practical, orderly thinker, already highly regarded and successful when she and Cav met. He had shown her it was possible to think differently without being: one, completely boring; two, completely self-absorbed; and three, completely useless. He was perceptive. He saw things other people didn't. He wasn't always right, but he was always, or almost always, interesting.
Besides, this thing, whatever it was, was out of the ordinary. Soon they'd have it on board and know much more. For now she'd lose nothing by letting him speculate. She'd even join the party, within limits.
"Rivers have mouths," she said.
"Different kind of mouth. Not what I was thinking."
"Canyons do, too. And glaciers."
He gave her a look. "Do they puke? If so, I'm not aware of it."
"Volcanoes do." Steering him steadily toward reason. In this case, back to lava.
He didn't reply.
He was staring at the image. Captivated.
They'd been married fifty years. She'd always been a patient person. She didn't mind waiting. Good things often came to those who did.
Only now she felt a little differently. She was different. She only had this one last life. Just one. Sixty-plus years.
"Knock knock," she said. "Outer space to outer space. The entity known as G is waiting."
She grew impatient. Slowly, Cav changed before her eyes from the man she knew and loved into someone standing in her way. She wanted to grab him, shake him, slap some sense into his head. It would do him good. Do both of them a favor.
"Time's up," she announced.
He nodded absentmindedly.
"I'm getting a feeling here," she said.
"From you. You do think it's living."
"Is, or was."
An astounding assertion.
She grabbed him by the neck, and shook.
"Hey!" he squawked.
"I take it you disagree."
She shook him again.
"Control yourself," he squealed.
"Talk sense. And answer when I ask you a question."
He peeled her hands off. "That's fair. I have one for you. What's going on? You don't seem yourself. Have I done something wrong? Offensive?"
Reasonable questions. The answers were yes and yes.
She was in the grip of something, no doubt about it. She felt like a runaway train. Dashaud Mikelson, of all people, came to mind. She hadn't thought of him in years. Hadn't wanted to.
"You're hormonal," said Cav. "Is that it?"
He was probably right. It was a common aftereffect of juving. All the major hormones raged. A temporary condition, though on occasion the first manifestation of a lasting personality change.
As a rule, post-juving changes were slight: a little more this, a little less that. Gender, in particular, was prone to shift and recalibrate, as all things essentially fluid to begin with did. Usually the shift was subtle, and always enlightening.
But a slap upside the head?
"Consider it a hypothesis," said Cav, extending the olive branch.
She wasn't in the mood for olives quite yet. "I'm sorry, but no. Living doesn't deserve the rank of hypothesis. Something else maybe. Lower in the pecking order. Let's see. Help me out here."
He knew what she was driving at. "Wishful thinking?"
She snapped her fingers. "Bingo."
"It's more than that."
"We've been through this before," she reminded him.
By "we" she meant Earth. By "this" she meant, of course, the Hoax.
"Life does exist elsewhere," he said.
"I don't disagree."
"We won't necessarily know it when we see it."
This was the canon. One of two party lines, the less terracentric, more inclusive. Impossible to disprove.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Longer"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Blumlein.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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