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Chaos Trifecta #10: Immortality

chaos trifecta
Written By Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the holder of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (aijiang.ca).

There is, I think, in most people, a very human fear of mortality—the way we often tend to be unsettled by the things that remind us of death, that trigger our memories, the memories the living hold about the dead, particularly when the dead are themselves or those they love most.

I returned to China to visit my relatives and to also meet my spouse’s family after not being back to my birth country for eight years. A lot has changed since then—the technology, the architecture, the people, but at its core, it still feels very much how I remembered it when I was a child. Except for the fact that now there is a second culture that I can compare it to. But what I found most jarring is how much time has passed and the ways my relatives have both changed and remained the same while I was away. Of course, I can’t expect them to have never changed, but my memory of them is stalled from the moment I left China the last time I visited.

Before my return, my grandfather had been rushed to the hospital because of poor health. From this health fright, what I realized is the difference between hearing about something terrible that has occurred and seeing it in person. (It has also reminded me how desensitized humans have come to terror and how frightening that fact truly is.) I walked into the new apartment (a very old building with a very questionable elevator) that my grandparents shared and broke down into tears when I saw my grandfather.

When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to extend his lifespan, saying things like “stop smoking or else I’ll disown you,” which seems like something perhaps someone older might say to someone younger and not the other way around. Back then, I saw him as immortal but perhaps knew deep down he wasn’t. And the realization itself is even more terrifying than inevitable death.

Below are three books that touch on the topic of immortality—the way we immortalize others, cling onto them, and the way we try to immortalize ourselves.

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    Mammoths at the Gate by Nghi Vo

    This is the fourth standalone novella in The Singing Hills Cycle series by Nghi Vo, and like the other books, there is always a focus on stories. In Mammoths at the Gate, the stories center around a mentor who has passed—Cheric Thien. This is a story focusing on the memories of a person and how those who have passed should be remembered, what about their lives should be passed down, and how these tales told by others can shape and reshape a person after their passing. There is an unwillingness by the characters to believe stories told about those they love and admire that contradict their own memories, and how honor in one culture may be infamy and misunderstanding in another.

    Often times, our own memories might be distorted, and the pictures we paint of the dead might become who we ourselves desire them to be rather than who they truly are—we can be mistaken, our memories can change, fill in the gaps that were missing with fictions that seem like reality. And even though the neixin in this series have memory like iron, the stories they carry are influenced by those who they hear it from, and not only what they themselves have experienced. But what is most interesting of all about this novella is the way it shows us that in our mourning, we might even become those who we mourn. Sometimes, we immortalize the dead in ourselves.

    Withered by A.G.A Wilmot

    As mentioned in my blurb for Withered, this is a book that explores the timelessness of grief and its toxicity, and the way it suffocates the living who experience it. Wilmot illuminates the impact of art on memory and identity and paints, using elegant prose, a ghost town—Black Stone—where characters discover what it means to be alive, how to conquer death and escape the clutches of time—always, at a price. The idea of Black Stone shows readers how the spaces we inhabit might consume us, the demons we create for ourselves and hold onto.

    There is a house with a dark past, a family striving to stay afloat. It is witty; it is slow burn. Black Stone is a place where the dead follow you home. What is more, in this town, Wilmot explores the power of death but more so, the power and hope of wanting to be alive or remain among the living. There are themes of mental illness, queerness, body image and horrors. It is a town where the roots seek immortality, even at the expense of all those surrounding it.

    The Body Harvest by Michael J. Seidlinger

    This book is an absolute fever dream, and not just because I read it while I was actually sick, which was quite ironic to say the least. The Body Harvest features characters who have the need to feel alive through feeling their mortality, identifying it, and pushing it to its very limits; of being on the verge of death but not dying, of using illness as a way to overcome the difficulties of life. The characters attempt physical overcoming to combat emotional challenges to the point of toxicity. But isn’t that very like humans? To become obsessed, to pitch over cliffs in downward spirals, to become stuck in toxic relationships and have pain continuously feed on more pain?  

    The characters are imperfect, broken, manic, but incredibly sympathetic even in their terrible thoughts and allowing the darkness to overrun rationality. But if given the opportunity, if there are no consequences, how many would succumb to their darkest desires? If we are immortal, would morality still stand? Without disease, both of the mind and the body, at our cores, would we still be virtuous or allow rampant to suppressed demons and feelings of grudge and vengeance towards those who have wronged us?