This is a weird little book. It turned up somehow when I had the idea to write a story about punishment in a world where everyone knows there's no final divine judgement (as we do today, even if some still believe that they believe) and therefore goes around to invite reckoning after death. I was reading around here and there on- and off-line for some thoughts on the subject of how people handle life after death when I heard about The Immortalization Commission - The Strange Quest to Cheat Death, bought it and read it instead of finishing the text I was working on.
When I write 'weird' I am mostly referring to the seemingly diverse contents. The first part of The Immortalization Commission concerns spirituality in the late 1800's and early 1900's, seances and a movement to 'scientifically' prove the existence of life after death. Gray points out (if I remember things correctly, it was a while since I read the book) that this is a reaction to Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, which in a way removes the notion that the human is special, with that the god-given soul, and therefore the afterlife.
The second part of the book is a complete change of setting. From the well-off English dabbling in pseudo-science and spirituality to Russia after the Revolution, and the Soviet Union. This part is called God-builders and approaches the 'Quest to Cheat Death' from another angle, namely that of building an immortal state constructed like a great machine. A machine where people like components can be swapped out and changed for optimal performance. About the creation of a new type of human. Gray stays long at the horrors committed during the Stalin era, with disappearances, and assassination. Too long in my opinion, as it serves more as an argument to why he dislikes what the Soviet Union was than a discussion of the workings in trying to build this immortal state. The horrors made at least me lose the discussion. Though, again, they may not be possible to separate.
The third part, Sweet Immortality, concludes by addressing death and dying through science, post humanism, and futuristic speculation such as the Singularity theory. Judging from my often lengthy notes in the margins this is the part of the book that engaged me the most while reading it. The first part was fascinating and what I came for, the second a bit shocking though historically important, but the third something of a bonus, touching on many things I like to think about but did not expect to see there. This part concerned concepts that are more familiar to me and helped put the former chapters in context. The singularity, information, and conscious societies for instance. The funny things is that I guess the idea of death does play in here, and that is perhaps why I was looking for information about these things in the first place. It was valuable to have the connection backward in time from our modern-day to the pseudo-scientists desperately looking for spirits a hundred years ago.
I'm not sure I agree on everything Gray writes, and with three so different parts it is sometimes hard to see the theme, but taking the good with the bad it was an interesting book to read. I can sense that Gray is looking for something, or knows something deeper that he is trying to share. No, it didn't further my story - once I finished the Immortalization Commission I had other things to do so it is sitting on my hard drive, but I am still working on it for my own pleasure now and then - but the book presented me with pieces of history hand had me consider them with old thoughts in new ways which is always a welcome gift.