Stories where Character Lives Eternally
August 19, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for books/stories where the main character lives a vast amount of time. Can you help?

I recently watched and greatly enjoyed the film, “The Man from Earth”, written by Jerome Bixby. As I watched the film, I was reminded how much I enjoy the theme where the main character is an observer/participant throughout centuries of history.

I think this theme was what drew me to read many of Ann Rice’s vampire books, especially those that aren’t tied directly to the Lois and Lestat theme. I’m not looking for Doctor Who. Not that I don’t enjoy that franchise but it has never thrilled me in the same way.

Do you have any favorite books, short stories or movies that follow this theme that you think I might enjoy? Thanks!
posted by GregWithLime to Media & Arts (63 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein?
posted by codswallop at 10:41 PM on August 19, 2008

Oh! And Poul Anderson's The Boat of a Million Years.
posted by codswallop at 10:45 PM on August 19, 2008

Jitterbug Perfume.
posted by ZakDaddy at 10:54 PM on August 19, 2008

Melmoth the Wanderer fits the pattern, along with heaps of other myths, stories, etc. of the Wandering Jew archetype.
posted by Paragon at 10:55 PM on August 19, 2008

Orlando. I've only seen the movie, not read the (Virginia Woolf) book.
posted by O9scar at 10:59 PM on August 19, 2008

Not vast amount of time / observing the human race, but I'd like to mention Audrey Niffenegers The Time Travelers Wife. He doesn't travel centuries if I recall correctly, but travels (involuntarily) to events and periods around his life important to him (his parents, his children, his wife). So he observes his own life and those of his loved ones, from multiple time-viewpoints.
posted by gmm at 11:00 PM on August 19, 2008

Isaac Asimov's short story "The Bicentennial Man". Was also a movie.
posted by rglasmann at 11:20 PM on August 19, 2008

Pete Hamill's Forever is the tale of a man granted provisional immortality, as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:20 PM on August 19, 2008 [5 favorites]

I recall being fascinated by All Men Are Mortal.
posted by amelioration at 11:24 PM on August 19, 2008

Forever, by Pete Hamill
The City of the Immortals, by Jorge Luis Borges (short story included in a couple collections - bonus points if you catch the literary references at the end)
posted by LionIndex at 11:24 PM on August 19, 2008

Damn you, Punk.
posted by LionIndex at 11:25 PM on August 19, 2008

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called The Inner Light, in which Captain Picard experiences a whole, very long lifetime (in the space of only 25 minutes on board the Enterprise). It's rated to be among one of the best episodes of that series.

As an added bonus, my link to Wikipedia there also has links to similar stories, which should help you find similar stories on your search.
posted by Effigy2000 at 11:26 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's a character named "Nathan Brazil" in Jack Chalker's "Well of Souls" series who is unfathomably old. (I don't want to give any more details about that because they're spoilers.) He only shows up later in the series, however, and he isn't the protagonist.

Alfred Bester's book "The Computer Connection" is about a small group of people who don't age. The oldest member of their group is known as "Hic Haec Hoc" and he's a Neanderthal, likely several tens of thousands of years old. The protagonist is known as Guig and he is one of the immortals, albeit the newest member of "The Group". At the time of the book, he's about 250 years old.

But "Time Enough for Love" is really the book you want. (Or the first one, anyway.)
posted by Class Goat at 11:28 PM on August 19, 2008

Michael Moorcocks The Dancers at The End of Time

Joe Haldeman's The Forever War
posted by Admira at 11:28 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's also "The City and the Stars" by Clarke, but it's not quite what you're talking about. In the City, citizens aren't born, don't age, and don't die. They materialize in a computer-controlled chamber fully adult, live for a thousand years, then walk back into the chamber where they are converted into data and stored. At some point further along, the computer will create them again. The City has existed by that point for about a billion years, and most of its inhabitants have lived hundreds of lives, each about a thousand years long. At any given instant, only a percent or two of the City's inhabitants are awake; the vast majority are slumbering in the memory banks.

The protagonist is the first true child born to the city in millions of years; he's on his first life.
posted by Class Goat at 11:33 PM on August 19, 2008

Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield.
posted by tkolar at 11:44 PM on August 19, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series - they invent anti-aging treatments, and the first settlers of mars live through the entire settlement process over hundreds of years. Amongst many other subjects, it does examine the consequences of a very expensive fountain-of-youth treatment becoming available to humanity at large.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:51 PM on August 19, 2008

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson follows two souls as they are reincarnated across centuries, within an alternate history setting.
posted by XMLicious at 11:56 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Italo Calvino's Qfwfq cycle of short stories, collected in Cosmicomics and Tau Zero, the protagonist, Qfwfq, was around at the beginnings of the universe and his tale is told through to the present and into the future.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 12:08 AM on August 20, 2008

Greg Egan's Permutation City and Diaspora are about characters who are or become immortal. It is the most abstract narrative fiction I have ever read, though (rather than sci-fi Permutation City might better be called number-theory-fi)
posted by aubilenon at 12:19 AM on August 20, 2008

About half of Zelazny's protagonists are immortal. But surprisingly few of them really deal with history at all.
posted by squidlarkin at 12:24 AM on August 20, 2008

There's always Highlander. I am immortal, I have in me ancient blood of kings!
posted by ignignokt at 12:44 AM on August 20, 2008

Oh, also, The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. The main character, Morpheus, is sort of a god and lives through many historical eras, although the story is not told in chronological order.

There's another character within the story named Hob Gadling who is granted immortality by Morpheus and also lives through many eras. He first appears in the collection The Doll's House, and reappears throughout the series, with a final substantial story in the last collection, The Wake.
posted by ignignokt at 12:57 AM on August 20, 2008

You might like Marina Warner's novel The Leto Bundle. I agree it's a fascinating theme for a story when done well.
posted by amestoy at 1:57 AM on August 20, 2008

Autumn of the Patriarch
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I think the protagonist - a Caribbean dictator - lives for at least 200 years.
This is an absolute baroque masterpiece. You need to read it....twice.

I second Italo Calvino's Qfwfq cycle. Both of these are great choices for anyone remotely interested in magic realism.
posted by Claypole at 2:24 AM on August 20, 2008

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt deals with this theme, although it is not the protagonist that lives for centuries. It's a children's book, but it's a short read and raises some interesting questions about immortality and human nature.
posted by amicamentis at 3:06 AM on August 20, 2008

Katharine Kerr's Deverry Cycle.
posted by emilyw at 3:26 AM on August 20, 2008

Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" gives us the mysterious and sly old Count Aglie, who may be several hundred years old.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:59 AM on August 20, 2008

See also Borges's "The Immortal." Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" contains a minor character, Melaquides, who returns from death because he could not bear the solitude, IIRC.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:05 AM on August 20, 2008

Codswallop mentions "Time Enough for Love." Its protagonist, Lazarus Long, appears in a number of Heinlein's novels, so you can follow Long's adventures. But "Time" is probably the best of them as far as a character reflecting on his own long life.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:09 AM on August 20, 2008

God Emperor of Dune has this trope, though I don't know how intelligible it would be without reading the previous three books (and I'm not entirely convinced it's any good, truth be told).

The Ender series, by Orson Scott Card, has characters whose subjective lifespan is normal, but who live it throughout thousands of years of history because of frequent near-lightspeed travel. Card's early works Hot Sleep and The Worthing Saga also feature normal subjective lifespans stretched out to historical lengths, this time through the use of drug-induced hibernation. Not sure if either of those really meets your request though.
posted by eritain at 4:28 AM on August 20, 2008

Outnumbering the Dead by Frederick Pohl is about a world where virtually everyone is immortal, and what it's like for one man who is born with a birth defect that makes him a mortal.
posted by jbickers at 4:59 AM on August 20, 2008

Little Big Man. Thomas Berger wrote the novel, Arthur Penn directed Dustin Hoffman (and others) in the movie.
posted by DanSachs at 5:14 AM on August 20, 2008

Vernor Vinge, "Across Realtime", is based on a technology of "stasis bubbles" that freezes protagonists in time for a period of years; variously shorter or longer timespans.

In a similar kind of way, Philip Jose Farmer's "Dayworld" deals with society where people are frozen ("stoned") for 6 days out of 7 due to population pressure, and the resultant "daybreakers" who live multiple different lives so they don't ever have to be "stoned".

Also, thanks aubilenon for reminding me to pick up Permutation City again.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 5:33 AM on August 20, 2008

Class Goat, did you know that "Hic Haec Hoc" was the standard nomenclature for drunken hiccups used in the Asterix comics?

/totally not relevant
posted by 5MeoCMP at 5:44 AM on August 20, 2008

You might be interested in the TV show "New Amsterdam", which features an immortal New York policeman.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:00 AM on August 20, 2008

I'm currently loving Elizabeth Bear's Ink & Steel / Hell & Earth duology, wherein Kit Marley (aka Christopher Marlowe etc) is coming to terms with unexpected immortality; he's already appeared in Whiskey & Water, set in the modern day, having lived (sort of) all the time in between. It perhaps doesn't quite meet the requirements of your question, but if you can get hold of a copy it's very very good anyway!
posted by Lebannen at 6:15 AM on August 20, 2008

ignignokt, small quibble on Sandman: Death grants Hob immortality, Dream merely brokers the deal.

Snarkfilter: The Bible has quite a few of these immortal/long-lived characters, but that's probably not what you're looking for.
posted by explosion at 6:26 AM on August 20, 2008

'Waiting for the Iron Age' by Dave Langford. It's in the collection Different Kinds Of Darkness
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:30 AM on August 20, 2008

Superman. Seriously: he's lived a million years by the time of the graphic novel DC One Million, and the effect on him of being nigh unaging is shown in an Elseworlds graphic novel Superman & Batman: Generations II. Additionally, if it's the concept of living through different times that is the facet you're examining, various Elseworlds graphic novels have placed him in a multitude of different chronological settings, such as the Civil War, etc. Not the traditional answer you were looking for, I imagine, but still a valid one.
posted by WCityMike at 7:32 AM on August 20, 2008

As a break from the science fiction, try Timothy Findley's novel Pilgrim. Man lives hundreds of years, interacts with various historical figures, tries to kill himself frequently but can't. The story is told while he's being treated by Dr. Carl Jung.
posted by roombythelake at 7:38 AM on August 20, 2008

Greg Bear's "Eon" and sequels feature immortal post-humans who can elect to live corporeal lives in custom-designed bodies or non-corporeal lives in their city's computer network.
posted by Tubes at 7:46 AM on August 20, 2008

Clifford Simak's Way Station; and I agree with Amazon reviewers in that his SF ages well, unlike that of some other writers (althouigh this is entirely subjective of course).
posted by subajestad at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2008

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky and to a lesser extent A Fire Upon the Deep feature a character that lives a very long time. Gregory Benford's Galactic Center saga also has one.
posted by bigbigdog at 8:27 AM on August 20, 2008

Neal Stevenson's Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon all feature the character of Enoch Root.
posted by MsMolly at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, what a wonderful response. Thanks so much for taking the time to help me out with this. Effigy2000, the Star Trek TNG, episode you mention is my favorite all-time Star Trek episode from any of the series. A week never goes by that I don't think of that episode. What a beautiful concept.

O9scar, don't know how I have never seen Orlando. It's now in my NetFlix queue.

I will be heading to the used book store in town to search for some of these excellent suggestions.
posted by GregWithLime at 8:50 AM on August 20, 2008

Lord of Light is an essential, Hugo-winning SF novel in which a race of technogically advanced men augment themselves to become akin to gods to a planet's under-race. One of these so-called gods rebels and becomes a Buddha figure. Reincarnation and living a long time plays pretty heavily into the story though.
posted by prunes at 8:57 AM on August 20, 2008

Forgot to mention the Langford story above was original published in a volume of similar stories Tales Of The Wandering Jew
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:18 AM on August 20, 2008

Bomarzo, by Manuel Mujica Lainez.
The main character is a Renaissance Italian duke, and his horoscope predicts he will live forever. Incredibly rich novel, full of details of the time period, historical figures, etc. I found it fascinating, although perhaps slow to start. I still think about it. Plus, it's based on a real place in you can visit.
posted by matematichica at 10:07 AM on August 20, 2008

Octavia Butler's Patternist series (Wild Seed, Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, etc.) deals with two immortal beings. Hari Seldon of Asimov's Foundation series is immortal, or very nearly so.
posted by elle.jeezy at 11:43 AM on August 20, 2008

The best epic fantasy series I have ever read, "The Malazan Book of the Fallen" by Steven Erikson , features several characters who deal with living for hundreds of thousands of years; one race which commits itself to an eternal war and ends up outliving their Gods, another race which has lived for so long their main enemies are apathy and ennui.

I can't sell how great this series is, even though it is not yet complete. It is better than Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin all added together and pumped full of steroids. A bit dark and cynical, but that just adds to the attraction for me.

Obviously, being fantasy, the history they observe and describe isn't real....
posted by CurlyMan at 1:47 PM on August 20, 2008

All men are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.
I read it a while ago and it really impressed me back then.
posted by domi_p at 3:05 PM on August 20, 2008

Hari Seldon of Asimov's Foundation series is immortal, or very nearly so.
Actually, he's a hologram. AFAIK, the real Seldon had a normal lifespan, but was digitized in order to deliver his message to future generations.

Class Goat, did you know that "Hic Haec Hoc" was the standard nomenclature for drunken hiccups used in the Asterix comics?
/totally not relevant
posted by 5MeoCMP at 5:44 AM on August 20 [+] [!]
I've seen these words also in another context as some sort of incantation. What does it mean?

How could we forget Heinlein's other immortals, the Howard Families, who have intentionally intermarried so as to be genetically long-lived. The book I remember is "Methuselah's Children." Lazarus Long, mentioned upthread, may have been a descendant of the Howard Families.

Enjoy. You're in for some great reading.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:11 PM on August 20, 2008

Yes, Cosmicomics and T-Zero by Calvino might qualify. That is, if you are loose with your terms "character," "lives" and also "history." And "story." But yes, a great book.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 4:46 PM on August 20, 2008

Luckily, they qualify if you're very narrow with those terms, too.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 4:57 PM on August 20, 2008

The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect
posted by qvtqht at 6:06 PM on August 20, 2008

posted by mysterious1der at 6:47 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Wow! So many great ideas, I think I have my reading list for the next decade. :)

If you are still reading this thread and have reached this comment, help me and others highlight the best of the best here. If you could recommend two titles mentioned amongst all the comments here (that were not mentioned by you), which two would you recommend?
posted by GregWithLime at 8:18 PM on August 20, 2008

You might like the TVTropes page on immortality.
posted by Pronoiac at 4:13 PM on August 21, 2008

JimN2TAW: Latin Personal Pronouns
posted by niles at 5:50 PM on September 22, 2008

While I wouldn't be tacky enough to pimp my own book, since qvtqht did it for me I will add that you can read it for free, which might be a plus :-)
posted by localroger at 5:27 PM on April 24, 2009

Response by poster: I just finished watching the movie Orlando and it was a very interesting story. It definitely fits in well with the theme. Thanks for the recommendation.
posted by GregWithLime at 8:52 PM on June 25, 2009

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