In science fiction and fantasy literature, we can beat death.
Though we hate/love it when our favorite characters get killed off, we’re equally satisfied when they come back, BUT only when the plot armor was worn so far under the skin, we didn’t see it coming.
We’re not talking he-said-she-said mix ups or the old, oh-they-fell-into-the-sea-but-in-the-next-chapter-they-wash-up trick. This is science fiction and fantasy, so we’re talking about the real ways authors shut down the Grim Reaper.
Here are the top five ways to beat death in SFF literature:
There are plenty of traditional horror novels with ghosts and ghouls, and for good reason. They give us the heebie jebbies and real-world events at least make us think they might be out there. But ghosts don’t have to be scary. They can also be comical like Mort in the online comic Gunnerkrigg Court, or the ghosts in Harry Potter (oh Nearly Headless Nick, we too wish you had had a clean death).
Funny or creepy (or even classic—think of the ghost in Hamlet), most ghost tales rely on a vague understanding that ghosts have unfinished business. It gives readers enough of a reason why the spirits are still around, but usually doesn’t propel plot on its own unless it’s the protagonist’s duty to help them resolve their unfinished business.
In Sir Nicholas’ case, “I was afraid of death. I chose to remain behind. I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to have…well, that is neither here nor there…in fact, I am neither here nor there…I know nothing of the secrets of death, Harry, for I chose my feeble imitation of life instead.”
Though it makes for plenty of fun book fodder, ghosting, ahem, becoming a ghost that is, is not our favorite way to beat death in SFF literature. It relies on a lot of unknowns and if there’s ghosts in a novel, it means there’s an afterlife, something we’re much more curious about.
2. Technological solutions to death
A lot of science fiction falls under this category. After all, science fiction writers are doing their best to build upon the world that we know and what we expect our future to look like. In these worlds, momento mori is still very much on everyone’s mind.
But the mind is the real key to beating death here. Two new books we reviewed recently play with this idea in big ways. It’s the bright screen of computers that keeps death at bay.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig explores the possibility of a pandemic in modern day America (think King’s The Stand). We loved this book in part because of its commitment to truth and reality (with an appropriate sized dose of reality bending). An AI character in the book, Black Swan, works with a former CDC official to try and save humanity before it blinks out of existence. There are many, many surprises and twists and turns and we’d hate to give away a single one. If this sounds up your alley, check out our video review.
We also read Fall, or Dodge in Hell when it came out in early 2019. Neil Stephenson captures the complexity of how to extend life through technology. When Dodge goes brain dead during a routine medical procedure, his family discovers his will stipulates that his brain be uploaded to….the digital afterlife! The only problem is that there is, as of yet, no way to do this and nowhere for Dodge’s consciousness to go to. His family gets to work and soon Dodge is in new territory. Because this is new too, we don’t want to give away any spoilers, but, incidentally, you can see me die here while reading the book.
3. Time travel
Ok, so they’re not really dead, it’s just that time is relative and dimensions are infinite, and a character can still exist somewhere. Even if they’re dead, they’re not all dead.
I guess I’m captivated by time travel romances, because Outlander and The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind first. In both books, love bridges death. It’s a very compelling and comfortable narrative—the person you love never really dies. I don’t regularly read romances, but I do really enjoy magical books with romantic elements and highly recommend these two.
While throwing a fast one at death, time travel also gives writers plenty of opportunities to give and withhold from their readers. True to death, sometimes you want something to happen so badly, but greater forces get in the way.
Like in scifi novels where technology beats death, novels about time travel also provide us with thought experiments. Do we believe time travel will ever be possible? Would you risk going back to a loved one?
Reincarnation is an old theory that first appeared at least 2,600 years ago. Most world religions talk about reincarnation in some form and this has clearly spilled over to literature. It’s a great theme for both mainstream and literary genres.
In HP book seven, modern day Jesus—I mean Harry Potter—dies and goes to an ethereal train station after Lord Voldemort uses avada kedavra on him. There, Harry talks with Dumbledore and—
Wait, can this really be considered a spoiler after all this time? Well, I’ll leave it there just in case and you can get yourself to the nearest library and read the Harry Potter series to see what JK Rowling imagined on the subject.
The Bone Clocks (there’s a creepy, too-close-to-home title if there ever was one) by David Mitchell relies on reincarnation heavily to tell its story. Mitchell builds a complicated system of reincarnation and has some beautiful concepts to explore. It takes a while to get to these good parts in the long, somewhat dragging book, but it’s worth it. He separates his characters into those that pass on after death, and those that continuously loop back into life on Earth. For many of us, this form of reincarnation is the dreamed-of eternal life, but the flip side is that those reincarnated never get to see what’s on the other side.
And you know, the grass is greener. Even Death says so.
5. The Second Life (or third or whatever)
I know I said I didn’t really read romances, but I did once read half a book called The Devil’s Lover. I was really hard up on books…and I thought the title was some kind of a metaphor…. I quickly realized the book was literally about the devil and his human lover.
The point is, there are a lot of books out there that rely on conventional notions of the afterlife. There’s a hell. There’s a heaven. And paranormal romance falls into this realm (or, I guess, these realms) because who doesn’t want to fall into with an angel or a demon, or both?
Death is a huge, confusing, mostly-uncomfortable subject for us bone clocks to tackle, but science fiction and fantasy make it a little more palatable—and interesting as hell to boot. If you’ve read an extraordinary SFF book recently that shaped how you think of death, tell us about it in the comments.