Frederik Pohl’s science fiction credentials are impeccable. A veteran of the pulps, Pohl has been banging out SF novels and stories at a fearsome rate for 40+ years. A contemporary of such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven, Pohl is known to fans of the genre for such works as Gateway and Man Plus. He has won multiple Hugo awards (SF’s version of the Oscars), and at this point has little, if anything, to prove.
What a shame, then, that this late-career novel is such a disappointment. All the Lives He Led seems to be a stab at a character-driven SF story, with a first-person narrator and a storyline more concerned with the heart and head of its protagonist than with the (admittedly underwhelming) milieu of the book. Pohl still has a few tricks up his copious sleeves, but he is badly hampered by the limitations of his none-too-interesting narrator.
That narrator, Brad Sheridan, is a refugee of the Yellowstone volcanic eruption that buried much of the United States under a layer of ash back in 2062, wrecking the world economy, creating millions of economic migrants (Brad and his parents among them) and rendering the USA a minor world power. Brad relocates from the midwest to New York City as a pre-teen, sending him down a path of borderline juvenile delinquency and rough living.
Except that it doesn’t—at least not in any remotely convincing way. Brad chirps like an eager-to-please mall rat from the ‘80s, not like a thug-in-waiting from the mean streets of the 2070s. Or anyone from the 2070s, for that matter. Raise your hand if you think people will still be using phrases like “happy camper” and “crispy critter” 60 years from now. Hell, people don’t say that kind of stuff today. This really is a huge problem with the book, and the disconnect becomes more apparent when you consider how differently people talked 60 years ago as opposed to now. Project those changes another 60 years into the future and it becomes even more absurd.
While it’s true that a book needs to be comprehensible to its readers and so can’t invent an entirely new language (unless it’s Riddley Walker or A Clockwork Orange), one might expect at least a nod to the vagaries of linguistic evolution. Not here, apart from the use of the word “virts” to refer to holographic projections.
Brad’s hair-metal locutions are genuinely difficult to get past. “Well, I’ll tell you all about that… Anyway, let’s get on with the introduction… You know what I’m talking about, right? That is, to give it its full name…” This all occurs within half a page. It’s boring enough to hear someone speak so flaccidly, but reading it is pure torture.
Provided you can get past Brad’s voice, there is the story itself to consider. The circumstances of the USA as a battered nation reduced to near-irrelevance on the world stage would be interesting to explore, but Pohl doesn’t explore them. He makes sure of this by providing us with a hopelessly clueless narrator (“Of course, I didn’t know anything about a treaty…”). So the whole mechanism of the eruption that destroys America serves—get ready for it—no particular purpose. Oh sure, it reduces Brad to poverty, so he must work as an indentured servant overseas, but surely it wasn’t necessary to blow up the middle of the country just for that, was it?
Maybe Yellowstone’s eruption is meant to provide some clever thematic counterpoint to the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79. Brad ends up working at the 2000-year anniversary jubilee of that eruption in Pompeii, Italy.
This doesn’t happen right away, though. First we have to wade through 30-odd pages of irrelevancies, red herrings and filler. Some of this has to do with Brad’s Uncle Devious, a colorful character who fades from the narrative in the homestretch, and some has to do with Brad’s experiences working in Egypt before he winds up in Pompeii. None of this is terribly gripping, but it’s all so deliberately piled up that the reader feels sure there must be a purpose to it all. There isn’t much, though. This 347-page novel could easily be 100 pages shorter, and much better for it.
Pompeii is the backdrop for much of the book’s action—I use the term loosely—and it’s where Brad meets Gerda, a young woman whom he falls for, and Maury, an older man who seems to fall for him. The shifting relationships between these three are the most interesting facet of the book, and would have been a good deal more interesting if they had shifted a bit more energetically.
Brad eventually comes to the attention of the law—no surprise here, as he’s allegedly been a borderline crook since page one, and he spends much of his time fretting about the security services. These same services eventually turn up the heat and Brad flees, and for roughly 30, All the Lives He Led becomes a genuinely fun and exciting read. The something happens, and Brad stops running, and then we’re done. Except wait oh my God there are still 80 pages left.
These last 80 pages are presumably meant to ratchet up the suspense and tension to levels of nail-biting unbearability, but actually only serve as a drawn-out denouement leading from one non-revelation to another.
It’s too bad. All the elements of a gripping story are here: world catastrophe, shaky political alignments, a humorously self-deprecating narrator, some sex, some violence, some thrills. But it feels as if the writer has forgotten how all these elements are supposed to fit together, and that’s a shame.