Molecular Biologist Victor has been working on an anti-ageing drug, a substance that stimulates the repair mechanisms in DNA thus allowing cells to regenerate effectively over and over again. The name Victor suggests Frankenstein, and the monster Victor creates of himself does recall Mary Shelley’s gothic counterpart at times, as he retreats to his camper van on the edge of the cliff to guiltily take his drug out of sight of his wife, Lucy, who is growing more and more fearful of her husband’s secretive trials and finally begs him to stop.
The premise of Unbound is great; it is humankind’s quest for immortality. Clinical trials are apparently underway even now for an anti-ageing drug, which could be available to the public in a matter of years. The idea of reversing or halting the ageing process is everyone’s dream, but novelist Christopher Osborn makes it a bit of a nightmare, as Victor gradually detaches himself from everyone around him, with consequences that are at first thrilling but eventually unnatural. The narrator describes the physical sensation of cellular repair as “clearing up a house, the house of a person dead, gone…deceptive as photographs…” As the old Victor fades from the picture the newer, younger one replaces him, except that the younger one, like a photograph, is never quite the same as the original. It may be possible to reverse the ageing process at the cellular level but as Victor discovers to his peril, you will never recreate what has come before and the outcome is estrangement. Isolated and alone, Victor could have spectacularly recalled Mary Shelley’s tragic creation, but Frankenstein the monster has something that Victor the Molecular Biologist sadly lacks: dramatic power. Shelley’s novel gives us the fall-out of immortality: guilt, despair and soul searching, and because of it, the book became a classic. In contrast, the climactic moments of Unbound do not quite pack the punch they could. There is no real struggle going on in Victor’s head; even when his memories and feelings are shared with us, their significance is hard to grasp. We understand his loss of empathy, but the biological explanation is unclear; is the cellular drive to immortality a selfish yearning for survival, which has the effect of focussing the mind away from other people and back onto itself? Perhaps. But in any case the emotional consequences lose their impact — the more Victor becomes detached from other people, the more we become detached from him. Selfishness is not an admirable trait, and Victor seems to have little else to redeem him, except his waning passion for music.
Whatever your analysis, Unbound is still a very enjoyable read, and the sensations Victor feels as he gradually disconnects from other people are beautifully conveyed. “My stride was fast and relentless, as if the death of the man had entered my blood and every cell in my body was firing with hellish power”. Osborn creates a memorable character in Victor’s colleague Mikhail, a Russian nerd who believes in reincarnation, and the only person in the book who senses the danger of Victor’s obsession with the anti-ageing concept, but he seems to fizzle out towards the middle of the novel, despite such promising beginnings. “We are a little afraid of your body”, admits Mikhail, summing Victor up as the anti-ageing process sets in, “But we are more afraid of your mind”.
Two things make this book worth reading: the first is the writing, which is fluent and fascinating, and the second is the premise, which leads to questions we may one day have to ask ourselves, such as, will the price of immortality outweigh the benefits? Or, what is the value of life, and how can we quantify it? As the exhilaration fades and Victor finds himself alone, he dies another kind of death, from which no drug can save him. This is partly because of his unwillingness to share his discovery with the world at large. Where ageing is a deterioration of the genes, immortality is portrayed as the ultimate genetic selfishness. To cling to life is destructive; to let it go is wiser. There is a profound truth to this message, and Unbound almost delivers it.
Any Cop?: An interesting novel with a timeless premise.