Review: All the Lives He Led, by Frederik Pohl

All the covers I ruined

I have a confession. Back in the lonely days of my early adolescence, I spent a lot of my free time haunting bookstores and there developed a peculiar and unsavoury habit. Not shop-lifting, but vandalism.

I had it in for Fred Pohl's brilliant novel of missing aliens and absent lovers, Gateway. Y'see, the Del Rey paperback (pictured at right) was, to put it bluntly, crap. Usually, simply opening the book wide enough to scan the middle pages was enough to detach the cover from the book's spine.

At a buck-ninety-five a copy I thought Del Rey owed its readers something better, and so made it my mission to open every copy in every bookstore I entered. I was, I self-justified, protecting my fellow readers from shoddy merchandise and, maybe, encouraging the publisher to try again. It must have worked, as I don't think Gateway has ever been out of print.

Little did I know that some years later circumstances would see me become friends with Pohl's former wife Judy Merril, or that she would one day introduce me to him at a conference she had been involved in organizing in Toronto.

That meeting didn't go so well. Though we huddled together in a doorway while sharing a smoke, I didn't want to bore him by telling him how much I'd enjoyed Gateway and Man Plus and Jem and The Space Merchants and that I had the advantage of him because I had also read his autobiography, The Way the Future Was. Worse, I was even worse with small-talk than I am now, and Pohl didn't seem to think it necessary either.

We grunted about the lousy weather and that was about it. But I digress.

In 1979, Pohl had been a professional for 40 years. When I met him in person he had been at it for about 50 and seemed to me, if not quite ancient, then certainly old. He was tall but stooped, his body showing signs of that inevitable surrender to entropy and gravity that faces all who live long enough to endure it.

In 2011, Pohl has been a pro for more than 70 years and is not only regularly writing a Hugo-winning blog, he is still writing fiction.

And so I recently scrounged up the coin to pick up his latest book — in hard-cover, no less. And frankly, given my recent experiences with paying good money for one lousy book or another I put down my money kind of nervously.

So I am doubly-pleased to be able to say that All the Lives He Led is one of the best SF novels — best novels — I've read in a while and with nary a rocket ship or time machine in sight.

The full review is inside, with very little in the way of spoilers.

After the Volcano

All the Lives He Led: A Novel
All the Lives He Led: A Novel (paper, forthcoming)

By Frederik Pohl
(Tor Books), March 24, 2011
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN-10: 9780765321763
ISBN-13: 978-0765321763
ASIN: 0765321769


You might not know it, but a monster lurks beneath Yellowstone National Park. It has been asleep for about 640,000 years, but some scientists believe it is overdue to awaken. The last time the Yellowstone Supervolcano was fully-roused, it blew about 1,000 square kilometres of rock and dust high into the air.

It "probably" won't erupt again for some thousands of years, but that it will erupt sooner or later is certain. And when it does the consequences will dwarf those of any volcano since the dawn of human history.

Welcome to the year 2079, some 17 years after that volcano erupted and changed everything. North America was covered with ash and the world came within a hair's breadth of slipping into another ice age.

The surviving Americans, shell-shocked, huddle in squalid refugee camps, masters of the world suddenly beggars. Brad Sheridan is one of them, a child when the volcano blew and his once-wealthy parents found themselves suddenly surviving on handouts in a Staten Island refugee camp.

Sheridan grew up as a petty (and not-so petty) criminal, barely staying out of prison. As a young adult, he becomes an Indentured person, a voluntary slave until he pays of the bond.

But he thinks it is a price worth paying. He has escaped North America and has a job, if not a good one, fleecing tourists in the excavated ruins of Pompeii (you know, the ancient Roman city buried when Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79 CE.

As an American, even an American for whom the wealth and power of the United States is but a dim childhood memory, while Brad has accepted his situation, he still dreams like an American of old, even if he realizes that his world is shit his chances for even a small piece of happiness are fleeting.

Yet happiness arrives, in the unlikely form of a beautiful, mysterious and wealthy older woman. Gerda, for reasons long unclear, is slumming in Pompeii, working among the common people. And Brad finds himself in passionate, story-book love for the first time in his life.

Naturally, Gerda is neither who nor what she seems and the novel shifts gears when she disappears, a co-worker of Brad's is brutally murdered, and Brad himself is the prime suspect. And did I mention that Brad has an uncle who was a notorious and very successful terrorist?

Pohl's future isn't a bleak one only for Americans. Civilization came very near to collapse in the literally dark times following the eruption and, among many other problems, terrorism now dwarfs anything we know from the likes of al Qaeda.

It's hard for the reader not to think of Guantanamo Bay when Brad finds himself under interrogation by the local detachment of the anti-terrorism forces, though as with the entire novel, Pohl makes sure the reader's expectations are confounded.

All the Lives He Led is a masterful story, told through the deceptively casual voice of a troubled but likeable young man with a straightforward and accessible style that constantly lulls into the belief we have the story figured out. Without ever cheating, Pohl turns things upside down and inside-out again and again.

All the Lives He Led is structured like a thriller, yet it doesn't feel like one we are halfway through the novel, when Brad finds himself under interrogation. In the hands of a lesser writer, those first 150 pages would be frankly boring.

But all roads lead to Pompeii, and if Pohl is slow in getting to the MacGuffin, he doesn't cheat along the way. That first half gives way to a thriller that moves inexorably to a terrifying climax whose final sentence makes clear everything that has gone before.

The book is full of small surprises, from its misleading (but not dishonest) title right through to that last revelation.

Beneath its placid surface, All the Lives He Led grapples with questions of identity and free will and offers no easy answers. Pohl's future is a bleak vision, not quite despairing but one which demands its readers work hard to draw hope from it.

All the Lives He Led hasn't dethroned Gateway as Pohl's magnum opus, but it is a very good, very surprising novel from a veteran writer still exploring new fictional territory. I am already impatient for his next one.

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Thanks!

That’s really crazy habit. I don’t understand what satisfaction you got by detaching the book’s cover and destroying its beauty. Anyway thank you for sharing the confession of yours and about the book. Looking forward for more updates like this.

Re: Thanks!

If simply opening a book would loosen the cover, there wasn't much beauty to be had; I considered I was doing a service to the public, keeping them from being ripped off.

Incidentally, I deleted your spammy link from your reply; consider that another public service. This blog is moderated.

Re: Thanks

It's funny, I don't remember the fonts, just the cover. About which I always had mixed feelings. On the one hand it was kinda cool, but on the other, it didn't really capture the spirit of the book.

But yeah, I liked it.

Thanks

Great review. And just when I was wondering what was up with Pohl too. It sounds like the sort of novel you'd like to see get recognition in the wider literary circles. I didn't particularly like Man Plus, but loved Gateway, and the cover painting of Boris Vallejo's that often adorns Gateway is a classic as well. Pity about Del Rey's tacky fonts.

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