Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Just finished reading...

...ALL THE LIVES HE LED, sci-fi legend Frederik Pohl's newest book.

Fred Pohl is a science fiction writer but this is not really science fiction… more social fiction. Although there is a bit of science in it. But no space travel, no alien cultures. We peek in on the world in the year 2079, and most of the action takes place in Pompeii, Italy. You see, the original eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii was exactly 2,000 years prior and the ruins of the ancient city have been turned into a theme park and tourist attraction for a celebration of the volcano. Our narrator Brad Sheridan, who works at the park, tells us all we need to know about how the park works, including the “virts” as he calls them: virtual reality holographic projections that make the ruins seem like a brand new Roman-era city!

And much like several works by the brilliant Margaret Atwood, we see that the future is a place a lot like our world right now… except only more, and worse, and bigger, and crazier, and more difficult, and more dangerous. After the eruption of Yellowstone in the United States, which wiped out ¾ of the country, sent millions of people to refugee camps all along the eastern seaboard, and destroyed or disrupted every aspect of life, other areas of the world rose to power, particularly China. In ALL THE LIVES HE LED, terrorism is now the norm, with fringe groups too many to count bombing, sinking, burning, exploding and maiming millions of people for causes that are even more strange and esoteric than our terrorists in 2011.

The title ALL THE LIVES HE LED is really a bit misleading. I didn’t feel that Sheridan led many lives; Pohl shows us that the single one he did have was plenty. From a prosperous family in Kansas City, to a refugee camp in New York, to being an indentured slave in first Egypt and then Pompeii, we see that Sheridan does indeed get around. But honestly, there is really only one plot line... and one life.

And that is one of the drawbacks of this novel. The first half of it seems like a very long, protracted set up for one plot line. I kept thinking, “Yes, I get it, yes the theme park is almost all virtual reality, yes, terrorism is everywhere.” Very little happens in that first half. We just get descriptions of the same things over and over. Another drawback is the first person narrative of this story… I usually don’t mind first person narratives, but it seems that as a literary device, in this instance it is doing a little more harm than good. I think if we were not tied to Sheridan, the book might have been able to roam a bit more, discover a bit more, and ultimately be a little more interesting than it is.

However, when the action does finally start, it is interesting enough. And it does weave together some of the things from the extra-long set up (a few plot threads get dropped or totally forgotten—the author is in his 90s after all). Although married (five times!) and presumably heterosexual, Pohl has always been a very gay-friendly writer and this book contains some interesting gender and sexuality issues as well. But as the story wound down, I felt like we ended up with the opposite problem from the first half of the book: the ending is swift and facile, and not really explored well. We are told a lot of things instead of seeing them unfold. It feels rushed and hurried, less of an ending and more of an afterthought.

I have read Pohl's STARBURST and his HEECHEE SERIES, and those novels are more imaginative and from what I recall, paced much better. This feels like a freshman or sophomore attempt at a novel by a much less experienced writer than I know Pohl to be.

Recommend? Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible book—it is mildly enjoyable and it can be a quick read (despite the seeming slowness of the first half). But if you have something else waiting for you on your night stand, read that instead.

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