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In the early or mid-'90s, I read a young adult sci-fi/fantasy novel that I can't now remember the title of. My recollection is that the novel involved a main character (a teenage girl, I think) from the modern day, who became aware of two immortal characters: one who was a "good guy" (who she befriended) and one who was a "bad guy".

The main thing that stuck in my head was that in this novel, the process of becoming immortal involved drowning. The "good guy" vividly describes the sensation to the main character at one point (and it's that passage that has stuck in my head.) IIRC, the only way for an immortal to die, once they had undergone this process, was for them to drown again; and I think this happened to the bad guy at the end of the novel (something involving a flooded tunnel or other underground chamber.)

The two immortals may originally have had some kind of master/student relationship or have been fellow students before gaining immortality; I'm pretty sure they thought they were the only ones who knew the secret. Both were male. I don't recall the immortals being presented as having a particularly old or young appearance, though given that it was a YA novel I would presume they were supposed to be no older than their 20s.

I remember very little about the plot, other than that the "bad guy" was trying to build some kind of device (for what purpose I can't remember) and the "good guy" was trying to stop him.

The title of the novel may have had the word "Machine" in it, but I'm not 100% sure. I also have a vague recollection of the cover depicting (among other things) a character standing in front of a bank of computer/TV monitors, viewed from above. (If I'm remembering this right, the figure was in shadow, so I don't have a better description than that.)


I posted this question on Ask Metafilter a couple of days ago; the answers there did not identify the story, but you can rule out:

  • The Immortal, Christopher Pike
  • The Tricksters or Changeover, Margaret Mahy
  • Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt
  • 2
    You seem to have a good handle on this one, but I'm certain you can recall more info than you're putting down, for example; Character names? Character ages? What ethnicity was the character on the front cover? How did they identify potential immortals? How did they know they'd become immortal? What was the actual plotline of the novel? What was the significance of the computers? Why were the two immortals fighting? Did they just call it "immortality" or did they have a special word for it? meta.scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/9335/… – Valorum Nov 8 '16 at 12:17
  • Reminds me of Alfred Bester's The Computer Connection, in which immortality comes from surviving an impossible-to-survive near-death event. – Joe L. Nov 8 '16 at 12:52
  • "In 391 A.D. two men discovered the secret of immortality... Since then, they have chased each other through the centuries, one devoting his life to preserving the past, the other to destroying it. Until 14-year-old Eric stumbles upon their secret. As the battle lines are drawn for the final confrontation, Eric becomes a pawn in the desperate battle for the past... and the future. A gripping adventure in which contemporary life comes face to face with immortality." - kennethoppel.ca/pages/liveforevermachine.shtml – Valorum Nov 8 '16 at 15:28
  • It's a lot since I read it, but I remember that drowning and immortality is an important theme in Greg Egan's Hugo winner Oceanic, too. IIRC the protagonists are young, but I wouldn't call it a young adult novel; for instance, it contains the weirdest sex scene I have ever read in a science-fiction book (way weirder than the tri-gendered alien sex in Asimov's The Gods themselves). – Federico Poloni Nov 8 '16 at 20:25
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The Live-Forever Machine

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This is an early work by Kenneth Oppel, the author of such well-known works as Airborn. It’s got "machine" in the title, of course.

According to the Goodreads description:

Alexander, guardian of the secret of immortality, only wants to preserve the past. His nemesis, Coil, will do anything to destroy it. Within the eerie museum, and deep below it in the city’s subterranean depths, Eric becomes the pawn in a life-or-death struggle for control over the Live-Forever Machine.

So there we have our two immortal characters: Alexander and Coyle (Goodreads got the spelling wrong).

The protagonist is a boy, though, not a girl.

Immortality is obtained by drowning:

“How is one made immortal?” Alexander hesitated. “It would seem like madness to you. At night, under the eye of the moon, there are certain rituals that must be observed, incantations read aloud. But that is the least of it. When that is done, the person must immerse himself in deep water and drown.”

The Live-Forever Machine

It can be undone by drowning again:

“I told him that he had destroyed only my working papers in the fire. I told him as well that he had missed one very important piece of the machine—the mechanism that enables a person to unmake himself or others. I warned him that if he did not cease his wanton destruction, I would cast him into the abyss of time.”

“Could you really do that?” Eric asked. His mind was beginning to cloud. It was too much all at once, too much to keep straight.

“Yes. If you drown a second time, you are unmade.”

The Live-Forever Machine

The villain, Coyle, does build a machine:

It was unlike any machine he’d ever seen, old and new at the same time. It was shaped like the spire of a Gothic cathedral. It bristled with copper wires and electronic components, multicoloured bundles of cable, tiny video screens, panels of twinkling lights, long levers and pistons like something from the undercarriage of a locomotive. Turning cog-wheels meshed like the insides of an old-fashioned clock. A spiral of steaming tubing surrounded the base of the machine, funnelling water in from pipes along the storm drain.

The Live-Forever Machine

And at the end, the villain does drown underground:

“You did it, then!” Chris said with a grin. “Coyle must’ve drowned. You did it!”

“What do you—?” Eric didn’t understand.

“He drowned. If he drowns a second time he’s unmade. Right?”

Eric hadn’t even thought about it. There’d been too many other things clanging through his head. He nodded slowly. Ending someone’s life, even someone insane and dangerous—it wasn’t something you could be proud of. But they’d done it. They’d saved the museum. Still, it didn’t seem anywhere near as important as having Chris in front of him right now.

The Live-Forever Machine

3

Alfred Bester's "The Computer Connection" features a society of immortals who gained that status by suffering near-death experiences including drowning.

It is not a young adult novel, though.

And as committed fan of his 1950s work, the book is far too dire for me to re-read in order to recall more details!

  • Way too many differences: there are many immortals, the drowning is just mentioned as a possibility when planning to attempt to "convert" a "candidate" (and even then they are not sure that it will work as all previous experiments ended in the death of the candidate), immortals can "die" (they just don't age/are not affected by the environment, but can be beheaded/shot at the heart/etc.), the bad guys appears just at the end, no mention to the astronauts/space colonies/etc. – SJuan76 Nov 8 '16 at 20:30
  • Yes, I commented that the other answer is the right one. Note mine was posted 3 hours prior to it. – Organic Marble Nov 8 '16 at 21:12

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