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Literature / Expiration Date

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Expiration Date is a 1996 contemporary fantasy novel by Tim Powers. It involves a secret subculture of people who retain their youth by inhaling ghosts, and the scramble that results when a vial containing Thomas Edison's dying breath (and thus offering its possessor a shot at his potent ghost) resurfaces after being hidden for decades.

Shares a setting and some characters with two other novels, Last Call and Earthquake Weather, retroactively referred to as the Fault Lines trilogy.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: Sullivan is forced to become this when the hands of Harry Houdini's ghost become bonded to his own hands. The ghostly hands refuse to wield weapons or even play violent video games.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Thomas Edison and Harry Houdini, among others, have parts in the United States' secret history of ghost exploitation.
  • Character Overlap: The gangster Neal Obstadt had previously appeared in Powers' earlier contemporary fantasy Last Call, which is also set in and around California in the early 1990s.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: Ghosts affect compasses, make telephone calls, and appear on TV sets to communicate important information.
  • Epigraph: Each section begins with a quote from or about Thomas Edison, and each chapter with a quote from Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass.
  • Fantastic Drug: The trade in "smokes" as depicted bears a lot of resemblance to the covert trade in other things people inhale illicitly.
  • Fat Bastard: Loretta deLarava is described as extremely, grotesquely fat.
  • Former Child Star: Nicky Bradshaw, who as a teenager starred as a boy ghost in a sitcom called Ghost of a Chance.
  • Historical Domain Character: The ghost of Thomas Edison.
  • Immortality Immorality: Anybody who chooses to derive a benefit by inhaling another person's mortal remains is probably lacking in finer feeling, to say the least. Some of the more committed live-forever types are outright villainous.
  • Living Memory: Ghosts are not the souls of the dead, but psychic copies created in the trauma of death. (They can also be created by other traumatic events, but they usually merge back into the person if the person survives.)
  • No Questions Asked: After Kootie Parganas's parents are killed and he goes on the run, advertisements start appearing that offer a large reward for his whereabouts, no questions asked.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Ghosts are not the souls of the dead, but psychic copies created in the trauma of death. (They can also be created by other traumatic events, but they usually merge back into the person if the person survives.) They are prone to bursting into flame if suddenly alarmed.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: There are a few weird cases where ghosts have taken possession of their own dead bodies and attempted to continue on as if they were still alive. Some last only minutes before losing their grip, with dramatically unpleasant consequences, though others (who generally have Ghostly Goals and fit into the Revenant Zombie category) may hang on for years, taking careful precautions against going to pieces psychically or physically.
  • Pocket Protector: Pete Sullivan is shot by the villain in the final confrontation, but is saved by a memento of his father he's carrying inside his shirt.
  • Punny Name: The name of the gangster Neal Obstadt is a pun on "nihil obstat", the term used when a church censor examines a book and certifies that it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals.
  • Revenant Zombie: One of the characters murdered by Loretta deLarava in the backstory has managed to stick around, possessing his own dead body, waiting for a chance to settle the score.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: While fleeing capture, Edison's ghost is briefly able to disguise the body it's inhabiting by adding biomass to increase the body's height and shape. The question of where the extra biomass comes from is addressed, and it's not pleasant.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion: Ghosts sometimes burst into flames if they are suddenly alarmed. It's suggested that human combustion happens when a person dies, but their ghost doesn't immediately notice and keeps walking around in their body for a while before suffering some shock (such as, often, the shocking realisation that they've been dead for a while and hadn't noticed).
  • Twins Are Special: Pete and his twin sister frequently know what each other is thinking and can finish sentences in unison, but it's explicitly stated that they don't have a psychic link (they just know each other really well) making it this trope.
  • Unexpectedly Real Magic: Angelica Elizalde was a psychiatrist who started using occult symbols and rituals in her treatments, thinking of them as just useful metaphors. Then a seance turned into the real thing, ending up with a dead patient and her career in ruins.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Sherman Oaks has survived for centuries through ghost exploitation. Along the way he's lost an arm, and most of his memory of who he was before his existence revolved around finding the next ghost. It's questionable whether it's been worth it.