“Death Renaissance” is the latest novel by Iranian science fiction author Zoha Kazemi. She has written several novels and short stories in the genre and her current work is been nominated for the “Noise”, an annual award given to the best works of science fiction written in Persian
Death Renaissance is divided into three sections, each containing its own story arc. The first act takes place in an isolated compound inhabited primarily by children and teenagers, called “travelers” that live under a strict religious regime enforced by the monks. Periodically there is a religious ceremony where some of the children are selected to go through a passage, which signifies an elevation to the next phase of their lives. The children are called travelers because they have unusually long lifespans and spend only a comparatively brief period in the compound. Because of this they view the ritual as an honor and consider themselves fortunate to be called to walk through the passage.
Also, the strictness of the lifestyle and the monk’s unrelenting enforcement of it, makes the travelers even more eager to participate in the ceremony. This part of the story focuses on a young woman named Nahal who is anxiously awaiting the time when she will be called to participate. She is past the age when most travelers are called and has grown frustrated, so she and her friends devise a plan the smuggle her out of the compound through the passage. She is horrified to learn that on the other side is a morgue filled with the bodies of the children who have gone through previously.
Nahal hides in one of the vehicles that are used to transport the bodies of the children to a hospital where their organs will be used for transplants. She also discovers the world beyond the compound. Is this outside world less frightening than the harsh gray reality from which she escaped?
The initial impression from a reader might suggest that this is a cloned idea from the film “The Island” however, this is actually not the case. I felt, after reading a bit further, that this story is conceptually far more expansive. True, the children are kept in a compound just to be used as organ donors. But the reason, as it turns out, that they are in the compound in the first place is that they aren’t going to live a thousand years after all. In fact, all of them will die before the age of 20 which is at the heart of the stories’ plot.
In the future, there is an AI named Fani (after its inventor) which is a “mortal processor” that can predict with some certainty how long a person will live. Interestingly the name “Fani” means “mortal” in Persian. The invention of this processor has negatively impacted society, creating a dystopia where everyone knows when they are going to die. Because of this, it has created a sort of class system that governs everything from jobs and education to romantic relationships. Those who are determined will die before 20 are taken to these temples and raised under brutal conditions just to be used as organ donors, never knowing any other life.
Even worse, the life they don’t know is terrible in many ways because a class system has formed based upon the projected lifespan. Those with shorter lifespans are not permitted to have education or decent jobs or marry someone with a longer life expectancy.
Parts 2 and 3 are the story of a young couple a man who is expected to die at 40 and a woman who is going to live to be 90. They fall in love but their love is prohibited and they cannot legally get married. The woman, whose name is Stare has a sister whose life expectancy is only 30 is a member of an underground resistance movement whose goal it is to bring down the regime the current regime for utilizing the AI.
The author of this book, unlike many other authors in this sub-genre, successfully depicts a dystopian society by focusing more on the psychological and social essence of the story rather than scientific accuracy when it comes to quantum computing. This is definitely one of the stronger merits of this book.
The portrayal of the hierarchal society is very convincing. Kazemi’s prose does an excellent job of conveying the despair of the citizens that occupy it. And this concept of a society and a regime that use something as benign as the date of your death as a tool of oppression is masterful. Even more intelligent is the way that this society is portrayed, it is simple to see totalitarian governments of all types in the broader context. One might even think that this is the larger message of the book, a cautionary tale about the banal uses of power for totalitarian ends.
The geography of the book is intentionally vague. There is no mention of any city or place that would be recognizable in the real world. But this is just a further message from Kazemi that this place, and these events, could happen anywhere. There are some references to historical events in the country of birth of the author. So if one lives in or is from Iran they might be able to link the story to specific events in the recent past which is quite brave of the Kazemi. One might think this is what science fiction is about. Creating a believable story in which science plays the main role but is in service of something greater than itself. We have seen a lot of science fiction where authors use technology as a cautionary tale. As an example, “The Expanse” warns us about potential social ills arising from the exploration of the Solar system. It is both timely and realistic since these are activities already in motion.
“Death Renaissance” is a warning about how we organize societies and how any one of them might become oppressive through the use of the most benign elements of our lives. The novel does have some weak points. As mentioned previously, Kazemi does not focus on science and in this regard, it’s a bit vague. Later in the story, the objective of the resistance is to take down the regime by destroying the computer. It seems a little implausible that a totalitarian regime would be taken down by such a large and obvious blind spot. It is soft science fiction, but a bit more exposition with regards to the connection between the plan to destroy the computer and the fall of the regime would have been preferred. The ending is a little vague but I felt that the open-ended nature of it was a strength because it was bitter-sweet.
Announcement: Between the time th
is article was written and now, Zoha Kazemi has won the Nofeh prize for outstanding science fiction! Congratulations to her and our wishes for her continued success.