“And speech, and wind-swift thought, and all the moods that mold a state, hath he taught himself…yea, he hath resource for all, only against Death shall he call for aid in vain.”
— Sophocles, Antigone
Chapter One – SNOW
13 April 2105
Simon Snow exited the Marco Polo transport station under a slate-gray sky. Behind him the sprawling building looked like an enormous metal insect standing on its hind legs, preparing to pounce. Everyone around him was moving with purpose, hurrying on to Mestre-Venice. It would be warm there, and the sun would still be shining. There was no reason to linger.
Snow dropped his bag to the ground. He had probably packed more than was necessary. He was used to having his wife pack for him.
On all sides were people very much like him—middle-aged, healthy, well-dressed, the same people he passed every day on the streets of New York. Some were Eternals, others Terminals or, like him, in limbo, hoping to convert, waiting for final approval.
They were all tourists; he was not.
Snow extruded his PEP card from its carbon wristband. The waver-thin silicon surface of the card unfolded and molded itself to his palm, reflecting back the leaden skies. The guy who invented the PEP should have gotten a Nobel prize, thought Snow. Everyone on the planet depended on some sort of device to survive, and this particular one had the advantage that it couldn’t be lost. The PEP card weighed nothing and was, more or less, an extension of the physical self. With a flick of Snow’s wrist it opened up, and a wavering holo of himself formed in the moist air in front of him. Below the image cascaded gray, black, and white bands, the lines of his genetic map, essentially a very long bar code.
With a swipe of his finger, the virtual screen floated into the air. Black lines emerged and resolved into letters and numbers:
Monday April 13 2105 21:21
Marco Polo Transit Station
Status: On assignment
Vitals: In parameters
Cog: Person Place Time
NB: Aeterna phase two.
2105, five years into the new century. Snow knew this was going to be his century.
“Where do I go?” he asked, as if he were speaking to someone hidden in the fog beyond the station’s perimeter.
The device scanned the mega files of information stored about him and synched them with his present location and status. The result, based on the PErsonality Profile stored in his device—PEP for short—was announced by a bland female voice: “Descend to level three of the parking facility. The vehicle in bay twenty-three will take you to Mestre-Venice. Your room is on floor fifty of tower four of the Murano Hotel.”
Snow should have followed the instructions; he was acting as if he intended to, but that was just out of habit, for reassurance. He had other plans.
A little over a week ago, his boss, Henry Cohen, had commissioned him to prepare an in-depth videscript on Everett Ewig, the man responsible for the life-extending gene therapy called Aeterna. They were on an absurdly tight schedule. Snow suspected he hadn’t been Cohen’s first choice; someone must have crapped out at the last minute. Cohen expected him to script it and have the whole thing ready to post before Semper Day, the first of May, by now practically a global event. With only two weeks to go, that was a big ask. And on this Semper Day, in Mestre-Venice, the new shiny Venice, there was going to be a special seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the introduction of Aeterna. Henry Cohen expected Snow to set up in Mestre-Venice, work with the PR hacks from Semper, and get some official blips from the Great Man, like everybody else who was likely to be there, along with words of wisdom from Katherine Pope, long-time CEO of Semper, the parent pharmacon that produced and regulated Aeterna. A nightmare of an assignment—hence the fancy hotel room. But the instant Cohen described it, Snow had thought, this is it, a career-maker, a vizine Holy Grail, a billion view. He was the star videist at Qwikn, followed by millions around the globe, and if anyone could accomplish the impossible and manage to get an interview with Ewig—a real interview, not just PR pabulum—it would be him.
Except he didn’t know where to find Ewig.
His colleague Louis, the head of story research at Qwikn and the best data miner Snow had ever met, assured him that Ewig was somewhere in Old Venice, across the moribund, fetid lagoon from the new city. But where exactly in Old Venice? There was very little information on Ewig from the past twenty years, and virtually nothing from the past two years; the man had seemingly disappeared and successfully de-aggregated.
There was plenty of earlier clippage to look at, and Snow had studied it until his eyes grew bleary. Time had stopped for Everett Ewig, at least physically, somewhere in his late sixties. He had undergone the revolutionary gene therapy before 2030, when the treatment was still experimental. Quite possibly Everett Ewig was the first Eternal, an Adam in the Garden of Eden, and also the oldest person on the planet, like Methuselah, who had supposedly lived to be 969. Everything about Ewig was Biblical, larger than life. There was an image of the man from 2028, standing in the office of his lab at Rockefeller University in New York City. It was mind-bending to think that, from this very image, Snow would be able to recognize Ewig if he passed him on the street today, seventy-seven years later.
Ewig had always been a privacy freak, which explained why there was so little information available about his personal life. Most intriguing were the few tidbits about a girlfriend, long since deceased, with whom he had had a daughter in 2010, almost a whole century ago. Snow noted that Ewig had waited until he was fifty to have a child and wondered if it had been planned. The daughter was now an ageless beauty: tall, like her father, with long black hair and wide eyes. Her name was Vita Fisher. She had retired fairly recently from her job as an anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Snow had searched for her in the Semper data base and come up with nothing. Even Louis couldn’t find much useful on her. Some high-priced data scrubbing had occurred, that was for sure, but, nonetheless, she was clearly Eternal. In a picture from Ewig’s official retirement from Rockefeller University in 2100, she still looked like a twenty-something.
The oldest living person on the planet. That, in and of itself, was an astounding feat, but Ewig was also a brilliant scientist and had won a Nobel prize in medicine in 2080. It had been a controversial prize, and there had been many protests. Big deal, thought Snow. Every great idea had detractors. Snow wasn’t interested in any of that. He was dying to get inside Ewig’s head, to find out what it felt like to be the oldest living person on the planet, one out of ten billion.
Louis had assured him that Ewig could be tracked down. All it would take was a little patience and a little persistence, and Louis had both. But he wondered about Snow going to the old city: “A first-hand experience of an outlier—it should be quite an adventure, especially for someone as PEP-dependent as you are.”
Snow shot Louis a seriously hacked-off look.
“It’s a free zone,” Louis added. “Don’t count on your device to bail you out once you get there. My advice? Take cash. Lots of it. And a paper map. It’ll be an adventure.”
Snow was willing to put up with a lot of sarcasm from Louis because, aside from his wife, Louis was the only person who knew the other reason Snow needed to go to Old Venice.
Six months earlier, in the middle of October, his son, Adam, had dropped out of university and left a note for his parents saying that he was done with New New, it was nothing but a big trough for little piggies, and they shouldn’t bother to look for him. Snow’s wife, Eva, who was normally composed in the most stressful situations, had burst into tears when she read it. Then she’d looked at her husband with an expression that said it all: he was responsible for this.
That was another story Snow didn’t want to sort through.
With Louis’s help, he had followed Adam’s virtual trail to the Marco Polo Transit Station before losing him. After that, all attempts to contact him on his PEP, to track him through his chip or with high-grain form-recog satellite software—Qwikn connections were good for something—had been futile.
On top of it all, Adam had dragged someone else along with him; his best friend, Milo, was also missing. Milo’s parents were hysterical, and, of course, they blamed Snow. Snow was a public figure, he was used to being blamed for the most outrageous things, but this was different. Perhaps he was to blame; Adam was his son. Milo’s father was a well-connected lawyer who worked in the government, and he had used all his connections to find his son, but so far he hadn’t come up with a shred of information. The two boys were far more resourceful than Snow would have imagined.
Once he had gotten over his anger at his son and his wife—because he couldn’t help feeling that Eva had somehow given Adam permission to turn against him and everything he believed in—it hadn’t taken long for Snow to conclude that he would actually need to go to Venice to find him. He’d been pondering how he was going to make the trip, and then, by chance or by fate (although Snow wasn’t the type to believe in either), he had been given another compelling reason to go. His trip was paid for, and everything was arranged. Even better, no one would question why he wanted to enter a free zone.
It wasn’t quite raining where Snow was standing, but the air was so saturated with moisture that it made little difference. Whenever Snow had imagined Old Venice, it had been like this—in the rain, as if the submerged city could be found only through the distorting lens of water, as if it lacked substance. Snow could see where everyone else was headed: Mestre-Venice was a solid luminous band off to the west. But where was the old city? Somewhere across the water, invisible in the twilight.
Mestre-Venice, the re-creation of Venice on deindustrialized property on the mainland, was a magnet for wealthy tourists. Most of the spaces were reserved for Eternals, but, with enough money and connections, those who hadn’t managed to qualify for Aeterna could still visit. Snow was skeptical of experiential tourism, but a friend whose opinion he trusted had said it was stunning, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And getting approved for Aeterna was like winning the lottery—he might never get another chance to visit.
The new version of Venice came with a ready-made history and authentic artistic treasures. When the old city had been written off, in the sixties, globally funded heritage defenders had removed all the art that could be salvaged. Paintings and statues, altars and frescoes from collapsing walls and ceilings, buckling mosaic floors and cracked baroque façades, even vast sections of the cathedral of San Marco and various palazzi were all transported across the water. In the heart of the new city, the Piazza San Marco was replicated stone by stone, complete with a perfect copy of the domed basilica, the Campanile, the Doge’s Palace, and of course the overpriced cafés under the arcades. For those who weren’t interested in submersing themselves in a virtual reboot of history, the restaurants and clubs were supposed to be fabulous.
Old Venice had long since slid down the totem pole of cultural significance, but it was about to become the center of Snow’s world; he had to be prepared for it. The noble ruin had turned into a refuge for turbulents, habitatists, pretechnos, and eco-saviors—people who chose to live in a crumbling, unsanitary, and violent version of the past. And suicides. There were supposed to be all kinds of clubs there devoted to communal acts of suicide, catering mostly to disillusioned Eternals. Snow suspected these reports were wildly exaggerated, but he was eager to investigate. It would all be great background for his story about Everett Ewig.
He was cold, and it felt good to shiver. The sensation pulled him out of his thoughts and made him feel that he was somewhere else. He had traveled. There was a tug of excitement deep in his stomach.
The Qwikn agenda put him in Mestre for the night, but there was no reason to go there right away. He already knew what the hotel would be like: exactly the same as every first-class hotel he’d ever been to in Ketchikan, Irkutsk, Espoo, Ulan Bator—the new cities in the temperate zones. He’d never felt as if he’d left home. This was already different. His only real concern was connecting with Eva, back in New York; that could be difficult in Old Venice. He’d left without saying a proper good-bye, certainly without resolving any of the seemingly irresolvable issues between them. Already he needed to talk to her. But he’d gotten the feeling she didn’t want to hear him unless he could convince her that he was serious about finding their son.
Snow set off in the opposite direction from the parking facility. He didn’t pause until he reached the end of the station, under the overhang of one of its huge insect-like feelers; then he rounded the corner and continued along the walkway by the side of the building.
“Turn around, Simon,” came the familiar female voice. “You are headed in the wrong direction. Follow the way-finders to the parking facility and descend to level three.” The voice was insistent but not demanding; it never lost its temper. He’d been offered a whole range of variously gendered voices to choose from during PEP setup, and he’d chosen a calming female modality. Three steps later it repeated, “Turn around, Simon.” Its insistence exasperated Snow. He silenced the device and kept walking.
In another ten minutes, he had nearly circled around to the back of the station. In front of him was a paved path, lit from above by purplish lights. Ahead, away from the bright lights of the station, it was not yet night. A weightless mist settled over him. He reached up to touch his face, and it was wet.
“Leaving the climate-controlled zone of Marco Polo Transit Station,” announced the surveillance advisory. He stopped for a moment, startled, then headed down the path.
It was getting dark quickly, and outside the zone there were fewer lights to guide him. The mist turned to water on his skin, running in tiny rivulets down his face. How odd that felt—the wetness and the sensation that he was alone, unwatched, letting his mind roam.
The path turned sharply to the right and soon vanished in the darkness, but he already knew what it looked like and where it was going. It led down to the water, where the boats departed for Old Venice. How many times had he pulled up this exact scene on his display in the past few months, opening it as large as life in front of him, and imagining what it would feel like to step into it as he followed Adam’s last recorded movements? Vital signs only, no communication, no uploads, only a body moving in space, until the links went down altogether. This, Snow kept repeating to himself, is where he went, this precise path. This is where I’ll have to go if I want to find him.
It was like stepping off the edge of a cliff.
He picked his way cautiously over cracked cement, pushing aside plants heavy with water, shining the light from his PEP in front of him. In the bag slung over his arm was a pair of impermeables that he should be wearing. That would have to wait.
Then, sooner than he expected, the old shelter with cracked Plexiglas panels loomed before him, and beyond that an expanse of velvety black: the sea. The water lapped gently against the pilings of the dock, and from it rose a smell he wasn’t used to, of decaying matter. Snow peered out over the expanse and thought he could make out in the far, far distance a few points of light, like the first stars in the night sky.
This was where the data trace always terminated, where he lost his son. Snow imagined Adam’s expression, set and inflexible. He was going off the grid, into the free zone of Old Venice, where his PEP would be scrambled or even deaded. It was as alone as you could get in this world.
Back in early September, when Snow had found out that he was eligible to be evaluated for Aeterna, when Ewig and his healthmed miracle were pretty much all he could think about, his son had stopped talking to him. Even when they had been speaking, Adam didn’t exactly confide in him, but this was different. It was as if he already knew what Snow’s decision would be. And he was right on that score. Still, the need for Snow to explain his choice, to justify himself, had become an obsession. “Leave Adam alone,” his friends had counseled. “He’ll come around. He’s just going through a phase. In twenty years he’ll be getting ready for Aeterna himself.” But Snow couldn’t let it go.
Less than two months into the school year, Adam had canceled his e-roll at Columbia and erased his record. It had taken a lot for Snow to get Adam there in the first place, and then he had lasted exactly six weeks. The thought of it made Snow crazy. Nobody from the breathing world got admitted to a college like that without perseverance, money, and endless arm-twisting. Adam had thrown it all away, and Snow couldn’t help thinking that his son had done it to provoke him, which made him even angrier. The idea of his own son going through life with nothing more than a certificate from a “search academy”—where, if they were lucky, kids got a year of archive mining, data distribution, and PEP utilization—galled him. It felt like a crime.
And Adam was probably throwing away far more than that. If he did something stupid, he would ruin his chances of ever qualifying for Aeterna—which he claimed he didn’t care about—and he might also compromise the chances of his father, who did care about it, very much. Having a son drop out of university and deliberately cross into an outlier like Venice was the sort of questionable data that might derail Snow’s application. Maybe not, maybe he was just being paranoid, but why take the chance?
In December, with Adam gone for two months and his wife becoming increasingly withdrawn, Snow had decided to go ahead with phase one of his application. He refused to let his son manipulate him. His genome and physicals had scanned out: never sick a day in his life, and nothing latent, only that little incident with his appendix, a vestigial organ. But the second stage of the approval process, for which he was now preparing, considered every other aspect of a candidate’s life. Plenty of people had the money and requisite genome for Aeterna, but the treatment was way more exclusive than that. Snow had heard that the acceptance rate among genetic qualifiers was somewhere between three and five percent, perhaps even lower. The second phase was designed to assess your genome alongside personality and behavior—to identify your fitness for the future, to mark you as an asset. For the first time in his life, Snow was feeling deeply insecure.
And there was no one to confide in. Between one day and the next, his wife had turned against him. He recalled the morning when Eva had announced, “I don’t plan to live forever, and believe it or not, the thought of dying doesn’t paralyze me with fear. If you’re going ahead with Aeterna, you’ll have to do it without me.”
Snow felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. The whole point was for them to enter the program together. Eva was bright, already a fixture in the art world, one of Qwikn’s Fifty Under Fifty stars, and he had always felt that she was the one woman meant for him. There had never been anyone else. He was certain she was saying this now because of Adam. Adam had told her that it wasn’t only a bad idea, it was morally wrong. Snow kept reminding himself that his son was still a child: impulsive, emotional, easily swayed by unformed ideas, impossibly idealistic, and too smart for his own good. But Eva’s reversal baffled him. The person he had assumed would always be there, at his side, was choosing death over life for no good reason.
He had looked over at Eva, sitting on the edge of the sofa. The skin of her face was beginning to sag below her chin—“transforming,” as she put it. Soon her loveliness would be creased with lines and marked with odd-shaped spots, and her breasts, two perfect mounds of white flesh, the most alluring part of her body, would become slack. The thought depressed him, and it would surely be just as depressing for her if he went the same route. Was that really what she wanted, the end of desire? And what about ambition and creativity? Did she really want to face the moment when it was all over? They had planned their life so carefully, together and in sync. One child at twenty-five, then, by thirty, complete commitment to their careers. It had all worked perfectly so far.
Clearly, he had to find Adam before he moved on. He needed his family with him.
As he stood in the darkness by the water, the thought of their not being together ever again suddenly threw Snow into a panic. He stared at the cracked Plexiglas panels all around him. He should go back to the transport station, where it was warm and dry, and connect with Eva, tell her there was still time. Almost three years remained before the file on her eligibility closed, and no matter what she said, the door would stay open until then. The water had soaked into his shoes, and he stomped his feet to stay warm. But he didn’t move.
There had always been an awkwardness between him and his son; Adam’s deep suspicion of his father seemed hard-wired. Snow had shrugged his shoulders, backed off, and tried not to take it personally. The consequences of an unprogrammed fetus, unpredictable character traits, were Eva’s responsibility. That had been her choice. Snow had even thought about having a second child, a girl, with nothing left to chance this time. It wasn’t hard to get around the legal limit of Replace and Reduce. But if you wanted approval for Aeterna, you couldn’t fool around with things like that. And in the back of his mind, Snow had always known that extension was what he wanted.
VITA has occupied nearly a decade of my life. It grew out of a visit to Venice to celebrate the opening of a film version of my first novel, The Moth Diaries. There I felt not only the spell of the city, partly underwater from the aqua alta, but also a growing sense of three crises: global inequality, global corporate power, and the desperate desire of human beings to control every aspect of their destiny, including their mortality. Venice was a jewel of human pride, vanity, and power, now fallen. So I have projected a story into the future, in which three people come together in a ruined Venice to confront these dystopian forces.
They are all seeking the same person, and all ultimately become entwined with each other. Simon Snow, an ambitious digital journalist, seeks a live interview with the oldest living human being, the scientist Everett Ewig, who has developed a “treatment” for aging that effectively makes a select few live indefinitely. He has become a recluse in the ancient city. Snow’s son, Adam, has renounced his parents and come to Venice to lead subversion against the corporation that controls the treatment, and Snow is determined to find him. Finally, Vita, Ewig’s daughter, has come to Venice to confront her father for his responsibility in pressuring her—partly against her will—to become an Eternal.
The lives of these three characters intersect against the backdrop of a city abandoned in favor of a new, reconstructed version across the water, a bit like a Disney version of the ancient world. The old Venice is now a place for invisibles, drop-outs, radicals, and poor people, digitally blanked and privately policed—a flea market of Western civilization. One of its only attractions is suicide tourism, for those who have found that living without an end point is intolerable.
In such a world, how can love thrive? And yet it does, among all these characters. As much as this novel is about a dark political and medical future that could take shape, it is also about the meaning of family and the confrontation of individuals with time and death, themes that have shaped everything I’ve ever written.
Rachel Klein lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of several books, including the highly praised novel The Moth Diaries, translated into a dozen languages. It was released as a feature film by Mary Harron, the director of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, and premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Rachel has translated works by Cesare Pavese, Clarice Lispector, and Alejandra Pizarnik, among others. Her stories and translations have appeared in such journals as the Paris Review, the Literary Review, the Chicago Review, and Glimmer Train. She was short-listed for an O’Henry Award for the year’s best short stories and is a past recipient of the Charles Angoff Literary Award and several prestigious Hopwood Writing Awards for fiction and translation.
Embark, Issue 17, October 2022