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Immortality Inc. (Synopsis)
by Robert Sheckley
Synopsis by Paul Barry

The edition I read was a 1978 Ace Book - paperback

The book was first published in a shorter form as "Immortality, Delivered" in 1958.

The story was copyrighted as "Immortality, Inc." in 1959. The story was serialized in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine, October '58 to February '59, under the title "Time Killers." There is a movie, "Freejack" that is loosely based on this story.

The story opens with Thomas Blaine driving down a New Jersey highway. He is returning to New York, where he works with a yacht-designing firm, after a week long vacation at his Chesapeake Bay cabin. Blaine suddenly loses control of his car and swerves into an on-coming vehicle. The story reads, "…At that moment he knew he was dying. An instant later he knew that he was quickly, commonly, messily, painlessly dead."

Blaine wakes up in a hospital bed, as the next chapter begins. He is in a room surrounded by medical personnel. They are commenting on his reactions to waking up, realizing he is still alive. Blaine also meets Marie Thorne. He views her as attractive but coldly professional. She too is interested in his responses. She tells him that his body has died but that they have saved his mind and given him a new body. She speaks of editing the tapes of his responses for Mr. Riley.

Marie Thorne comes back the next day. Blaine is rested and inquisitive. She has papers for him to sign. She wants him to release the Rex Corporation from any responsibility for saving his life. "…We saved you. But it's against the law to save lives without the consent of the potential victim's written consent. There wasn't opportunity for the Rex Corporation lawyers to obtain your consent beforehand. So we'd like to protect ourselves now." Blaine learns that the Rex Corporation is as well known as Ford Motors in his time. Blaine hears of Rex Power Systems, "… Which are used to power spaceships, reincarnation machines, hereafter drivers, and the like. It was an application of the Rex Power systems that snatched you from your car at the moment after death and brought you to the future." He learns that he is in the year 2110. It is apparent that he is to be the subject of a huge advertising campaign, touting Rex's success at bringing a man from the past.

In the next chapter, Blaine learns that Mr. Riley, the head of Rex decided against the advertising campaign. Mr. Riley is an old man soon to undergo the process of mechanically aided reincarnation. He is concerned that publicity about the man from the past might create trouble with the government that might interfere with his reincarnation.

Blaine is told that he is free to go.

Thomas Blaine heads out of the hospital in a new body in a new time. He wanders the city, amazed by all he sees. He finds a long line of citizens at a "Suicide Booth." He meets Carl Orc. Carl Orc persuades him to go on a night on the town. He goes to a club where rapidly growing plants are the entertainment (p. 40-41). He is introduced to the

process of transplant, in which he can take on the form of any other human (reminded of this idea in Mindswap.) Blaine is tricked, drugged and kidnapped. He wakes up in a small locked room. He is a prisoner, along with Ray Melhill. Melhill tells him of the black market in bodies. They are to be sent over into the afterlife, so that their bodies can be used. Melhill explains that life after death is understood in that time as a scientific fact. Blaine gets a briefing from Melhill (p51-54) on how life after death became a scientific fact. A Dr. Vanning and James Archer Flynn argued the point for years. Then Vanning suicided and came back to communicate with Flynn. There was a period known as the Crazy Forties (2040's) during which people knew no fear or limits. They were depraved and reckless. In 2050 the Vanning Institute announce findings that there was an afterlife, but not for everyone. Only about one in a million made it to the afterlife, according to the Vanning people.

Melhill goes on to say, "We got this high-tension energy web. When the body dies, that web should be able to go on existing, like a butterfly coming out of the cocoon. Death is simply the process that hatches the mind from the body. But it doesn't work that way because of the death trauma. Some scientists think that the death trauma is nature's ejecting mechanism, to get the mind free of the body. But it works too hard and louses up everything. Dying is a tremendous psychic shock, and most of the time the energy web gets disrupted, ripped all to hell. It can't pull itself together, it dissipates, and you're completely dead."(p55)

Melhill goes on to say, "…A lot of people did some heavy thinking, and that ended the Crazy Years. The Vanning Institute went on working. They studied Yoga and stuff like that, but on a scientific basis. Some of those Eastern religions had the right idea. You know. Strengthen the mind. That's what the Institute wanted: a way to strengthen the energy web so it would survive the death process."

Melhill tells Blaine that around this time the Vanning Institute changed its name to Hereafter, Inc. He tells Blaine that the mind strengthening process is expensive. It is a complex electrochemical treatment. Blaine says, "So only the rich go to heaven." Blaine asks about Yoga and Zen. Melhill says that there are about dozen government approved home courses. But, it takes 20 years to become an adept. He indicates that such a plan is not for the ordinary guy, so without the machines, "You're dead."

Soon after their talk in the cell Melhill and Blaine are separated. Carl Orc comes and takes Blaine out of the cell. He is drugged. He comes too. Realizes he is still in the same body. Marie Thorne and Rex have bought him back from Orc. Blaine is taken to Mr. Riley. Riley says that taking Blaine from the past was a mistake. He offers to buy Blaine hereafter insurance. He asks Blaine to suicide. Blaine refuses, and is dismissed.

Blaine attends Riley's reincarnation ceremony. It is described as being a combination of an execution and a wedding ceremony. It is both religious and scientific. Father James from the "Church of the Afterlife" is present. Blaine learns of the debate of the 2040's: "…Some groups adopted the view that the newly revealed scientific hereafter was obviously not heaven, salvation, nirvana or paradise: because the soul was not involved."

"Mind, they held, is not synonymous with soul, nor is the soul contained in or a part of the mind. Granted, science had found a means of extending the existence of one portion of the mind-body entity. That was fine, but it didn't affect the soul at all, and certainly did not mean immortality or heaven or anything like that. The soul could not be affected by scientific manipulation. And the soul's disposition after the eventual and inevitable death of the mind in its scientific hereafter would be in accordance with traditional moral, ethical and religious practices."(p76)

Riley's reincarnation is a failure. Something interferes with the process. Riley is sent into oblivion. The host body's former resident, William Fitzsimmons was sent along to the afterlife. After a while the body is inhabited by an entity. It has been dead for too long so it is referred to as a, "Zombie." The Zombie declares that it knows Thomas Blaine. It walks off on its own.

Part Two of the story opens with the medical and religious people involved in the failed reincarnation attempt agreeing that no one is at fault. Blaine and Marie Thorne leave. He spends the night with her. They make love. He is off the next morning, job hunting. He realizes how unsuited his skills are for 2110. He is sent to a man who is also supposed to be from his time. He quickly realized that the man is a fraud. The man brushes him off quickly.

Blaine returns to his hotel room. He has a message to visit the 23rd Street Spiritual Switchboard. "Engraved above the door was the statement: 'Dedicated to Free Communication Between Those on Earth and Those Beyond.' Blaine entered the building and studied the directory. It gave floor and room numbers for Messages Incoming, Messages Outgoing, Translations, Abjurations, Exorcisms, Offerings, Pleas and Exhortations." Blaine's message is incoming, from Melhill.

As part of their conversation Blaine asks what dying was like. Melhill replies, "It was like exploding. I could feel myself scattering all over the place, growing big as the galaxy, bursting into fragments, and the fragments bursting into smaller fragments, and all of them were me." Melhill tells him, "I'm not in the hereafter yet, Tom. I'm in the Threshold. It's a preparatory stage, a sort of bridge between Earth and the hereafter. It's hard to describe. A sort of greyness, with Earth on one side and the hereafter on the other."

Melhill's message is to warn him about a ghost. Blaine thinks he means the Zombie. Melhill clarifies that there is another ghost. He is not clear about what kind. He tips Tom off to a job possibility before he fades away.

Tom Blaine goes to see Ed Franchel. Franchel hires "hunters for a "game." Franchel hires Blaine as a rifle and bayonet fighter. Blaine goes to meet Charles Hull and the other hunters. A lawyer, Jensen explains the legal issues around the hunt, "Yes, Mr. Hull, gentlemen, as to the present legality of the hunt: In accordance with the revised statutes to the Suicide Act of 2102, any man protected by Hereafter insurance has the right to select any death for himself, at any time and place, and by any means, as long as those means do not constitute cruel and unnatural abuse. The reason for this fundamental 'right to die' is obvious: The courts do not recognize physical death as death per se, is said death does not involve the destruction of the mind. Providing the mind survives, the death of the body is of no more moment, legally, than the sloughing of a fingernail."

Hull then dismisses Jensen. He tells the hunters another rule, which is illegal. He tells them that he plans to try to kill them too.

Blaine leaves with the plan of returning the following Sunday for the hunt. He sees Franchel for his gear. He goes to a bar. While he is drinking, the Zombie visits him. The Zombie calls himself Smith. He says that Blaine is important to him, but he hasn't figured out why yet. He plans to keep Blaine safe until he does. Blaine gets angry and punches Smith. He damages Smith's face.

Blaine goes to the hunt. It is at Hull's estate in the Adirondack Mountains. Hull kills a couple of hunters. He almost kills Blaine. Another hunter, Sammy Jones, an axeman, kills Hull.

At the end of Part Two and the beginning of Part Three, Blaine is attacked in his hotel room by a poltergeist. Blaine is rescued by Smith, the Zombie. The poltergeist follows them to the street. Blaine can hear its maniacal laughing. Smith takes Blaine underground to the Zombie colony. There are 1,500 Zombies living underground in New York.

Blaine and Smith are permitted through the Zombie Colony. They go to Riley's Palace of Death. It is somewhat like a mummy's tomb. It has many valuables. Smith is convinced that the poltergeist is Riley. Smith begins to destroy Riley's belongings in the crypt. Riley speaks up. Riley confirms that he is hunting Blaine. Riley calls Blaine a murderer and accuses him of interfering with Riley's reincarnation attempt with his, "evil murdering mind." Riley tells Blaine that he will be betrayed and will die by his own hand.

Blaine goes back to see Marie Thorne. She advises him to go as far from New York as he can. He does not. He gets a job with a yacht building firm. He rises to the approximate position he held in the 1950's. He is on the street one day, when a woman seems to be staring at him. They speak; she recognizes the body as that of her husbands Frank Kranch. They spend some time together, and make love. It is not good for either of them. They part at the end of chapter 23.

A few days later Blaine gets another call on the switchboard from Ray Melhill. Melhill warns him about Marie Thorne. He tells Blaine not to trust her. Blaine has two visitors to his apartment. One is an old woman from the, "Old Church." She warns him that the hereafter being offered by Hereafter, Inc. is evil. Later a Mr. Farrell visits. He makes a long speech to Blaine (pp 195-198) addressing the issue of the afterlife. He concludes by saying that he tries, himself, to keep an open mind. Farrell offers him a grant for Hereafter insurance. He accepts, and goes through the procedure. Marie Thorne calls him and warns him that Farrell will call. He tells her it is too late. She tells him that Rex Corp. owned the company that offered the grant.

She says, "Tom, it's the Permitted Murder section of the Suicide Act. They're going to invoke it…I'm talking about the section of the Suicide Act that makes host-taking legal. Rex has guaranteed the survival of your mind after death, and you've accepted it. Now they can legally take your body for any purpose they desire. They own it. They can kill your body, Tom."

So the chase is on. He goes into the hallway. Sammy Jones is there. Sammy gives him one chance to run. As Part Three ends and Part Four begins Blaine again meets Smith, in the Zombie Colony. This time the Zombies won't let him pass. It is too risky for them to help him.

Ray Melhill contacts him one more time. Tells him a location to go to. He goes to see Carl Orc again. This time Carl Orc helps him. He uses a machine to move Tom's mind across country through a succession of bodies. Tom is on his way to the South Seas.

Blaine arrives in the Marquesas Islands. He is led to a hotel room. Marie Thorne is there. He begins a life with her there. The Zombie formerly known as Smith arrives. He has realized who Blaine is to him. He was Robinson. The driver of the vehicle that Blaine crashed into in 1958. Robinson was caught up in the power that brought Blaine to the future, but had no body host to go to. He lingered in the Threshold, until Riley's reincarnation attempt.

Blaine learns that Rex actually caused his accident. Marie had a role in it. He also recognized about himself that he wanted to kill the other driver. He had a flash of murderous impulse. He decides to give Robinson his body. They go together to a suicide booth. Blaine "moves on." He finds himself on the Threshold. Marie is also there. They move on together into the hereafter.

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