Wednesday, June 1, 2011

All the Lives He Led (2011)

In a postscript to his 1957 novel Slave Ship (which in a way anticipated the Vietnam War), Frederik Pohl explained what it is that science fiction writers do.

"It is not the business of the science fiction writer to record matters of contemporary fact or scientific truths that have already been discovered. It his business to take what is already known and, by extrapolating from it, draw as plausibly detailed a portrait as he can manage of what tomorrow's scientists may learn...and what the human race in its day-to-day life may make of it all."

In his latest novel, All the Lives He Led (2011), he stays true to his own definition and delivers an entertaining and disquieting vision of a possible near-future.

The book is a first-person account, a memoir of sorts, by Brad Sheridan. Once the scion of an upper-class Midwestern family, Brad's fortunes took a turn for the worse thanks to a natural catastrophe. In the 2060's Yellowstone National Park, famous for it's geysers, decided it was tired of lying dormant. The resulting supervolcano laid waste to the better part of the USA and crippled the national and world economy, forever ending America's days as a Superpower. Brad and his family find themselves scraping out a meager existence in the Molly Pitcher Redeployment Village on Staten Island. Brad spends his day being bullied by the local New York youths and running two-bit hustles, like rolling drunk tourists. His life is further complicated by the black sheep of the family, the Reverend Delmore DeVries Maddingsley. Uncle Devious, as his relatives know him, ran a scam charity funneling money to terrorists, bringing suspicion on the entire family. Eventually Brad takes the only avenue open to someone in his dire straights. He becomes an indentured servant. This eventually leads him, via airship, to Italy where he gets a job working at L'Annio Giubileo della Citta di Pompeii, or the Pompeii Jubilee. This is an elaborate celebration which involves the use of holographic virtual reality, or "virts", to recreate the ancient city of Pompeii. But insubstantial holograms can't sell tourists souvenirs, and so Brad, after some minor misadventures, finds himself vending wine and hydromel to sightseers from a cramped stall on the Via dell'Abbondanza. Security is tight at this major world event. Despite some unwelcome heat from Security, in the person of the un-personable "Piranha Woman," as a result of his relation to Uncle Devious, Brad seems to be doing alright. He attends the mandatory Security meetings about the numerous terrorist groups that bedevil society. His boss, known to his employees as "the Welsh Bastard," is gruff but not unbearable. He's making some casual friends, like the attractive Elfreda Barcowicz and the emotionally needy Maury Tesch. And when he gets romantically involved with Gerda Flemming things really start looking up. But his friends aren't all they seem. And a mysterious disease, dubbed "the Pompeii Flu," starts to spread. Then Brad finds himself approached by the wealthy Eustace Chi-Leong to smuggle a stolen antiquity aboard the luxury cruise zeppelin Chang Jang. And before he knows it, Brad is in over his head in a dangerous situation not of his making.

This is a grimly plausible novel. The future it portrays is one that could easily come to pass. The setting of the Giubileo, of a virtual world superimposed on an ancient city, becomes a metaphor for the exploration of transformed identity. It is through this city experiencing a duel existence that Brad must undertake his existential journey. The simulated surface of Pompeii is reflected in the misrepresentations of the people in his life. He is confronted with the unreliability and cruelty of life at every turn. The meaninglessness of it all is embodied by the various of terrorist factions. Their propaganda of the deed is empty and futile, doing nothing to further their conflicting causes. The absurdity of their aims and actions is highlighted by the fact that among their number is a now militant Flat Earth Society. The world Brad inhabits is one ruled by chance. It is for him to make what he can of the situations, both good and ill, that Fortune confronts him with. By the end of the novel its the choices he makes and the meaning he chooses to find in life that makes all the difference.

The tone of this novel is consistently, even inappropriately, nonchalant. Brad keeps us at an emotional arms length even at the most trying of times. He seems to recognize this himself, and at one point observes, "I've told all this as though it was like some summer afternoon's idle viewing. Well, it wasn't really like that at all." As a result it is very hard to connect with him. Brad is not a particularly admirable person, and while we might sympathize with him it is usually at something of an emotional distance. He is a guarded person who tells an emotionally guarded tale.

One peculiarity among the extrapolation informing the book is the seeming absence of social media. At one point when Brad and Gerda are separated all he can do is wait for her to call rather than checking her Facebook updates.

Frederik Pohl is already a living legend in the science fiction genre. This book finds him still in top notch shape, writing as well as he ever has. The visions of the future he has crafted have always been both compelling and discomforting. This latest novel stays true to form, delivering a resolution that is hopeful yet disquieting. All the Lives He Led is not a conventionally plotted genre novel. It is much more of a character study, focusing on one young man trying to make sense of a harsh world. Although conversational in tone it is not light in subject matter, and will leave you reflecting on some of life's serious questions even as it entertains.

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