May 16, 2011

Pohl’s dystopia-flavored future

By Frederik Pohl
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Early 2011 has seen a slew of releases from the elder guard of grandmasters of fantasy and science fiction. January brought Home Fires by Gene Wolfe, March the return of Richard Matheson with Other Kingdoms, and now in April we have All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl. At the venerable age of 91, Pohl out-elders both Matheson (85) and Wolfe (79), though his latest book shows little slackening of the legendary editor and writer’s creative powers.

In All the Lives He Led, Pohl introduces the reader to a dystopic future where the eruption of a super volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park has rendered much of North America a wasteland and many of its inhabitant no better than second-class citizens of a Third World country.

Worse, the global community itself is plagued by what might best be described as pandemic terrorism. No cause is too small, no slight too ancient and no splinter group too splintery to prevent the blowing up of monuments and infrastructure, and the indiscriminate slaying of civilians.

Though the Yellowstone eruption would be fertile enough ground for a novel, it’s actually just a distant backdrop for the main story. The action centers around narrator Brad Sheridan—an American-born indentured servant/emigree—and his employment at the ancient site of Pompeii as it approaches Il Giubileo, the bimillennial celebration of the eruption that destroyed the original city. Thanks to a combination of holographic technology and good old-fashioned quasi-slave labor (proving some aspects of seasonal employment will never change), Pompeii has become a theme park of Disney-ing proportions.

During the course of All the Lives He Led, Sheridan works to pay off his debt, support his destitute (and somewhat freeloading) parents back in the refugee slums of the United States, and build a relationship with Gerda Fleming, a fellow Il Giubileo employee—a romance that brings with it an ever-expanding ring of repercussions for Sheridan. All the while, he strives to stay clear of an intrusive international and local security apparatus—a task made more difficult by his past connections and present company.

Like any good dystopic tale, the decisions and actions of the protagonist trigger not so much judgment as introspection, and the unanswered questions concerning Sheridan become self-directed questions for the reader. If positions were reversed, would I behave differently? And what decisions would I make going forward?

Pohl leaves the reader alone to wrestle with those questions.

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