Tuesday, August 16, 2011

All the Lives He Led (Book)

Terrorism. Indenture. Pompeii. Volcanoes. Disease. Obsession. Zeppelins. A Data Coil. Sex. Inhumanity. 

Frederick Pohl’s All the Lives He Led, released this spring, is a science fiction novel set in the relatively near future, 2079. After a super-volcano exploded in 2062, what is left of the United States is a poor nation. Terrorism continues to be widespread in the world. The story is told from the viewpoint of Brad Sheridan, a small-time criminal, who becomes indentured in order to leave the poverty of his home, a refugee camp on Staten Island. In some ways, I found the book disturbing because of the way it describes how vulnerable people really are to possible future terrorism and to the aftereffects of natural disasters.

Briefly, after a number of tolerable indenture assignments, Brad finds a job working at the Pompeii Jubilee, a type of theme park that recreates the city before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Virts, realistic holograms with sound, are incorporated with the existing ruins. For much of the book, Brad has the job of wine merchant. He also has some small moneymaking schemes on the side. While the Jubilee employs a number of different types of workers, the indentured employees are looked down upon. Brad slowly makes friendly acquaintances—in most of the cases, friends would be too strong of a word. One is a professional, Maury, who is in charge of the city’s water supply. Another is a woman, Gerda, with whom Brad becomes obsessed. She keeps on disappearing for periods of times for various reasons. About a third of the way through the book, some young girls who had attended the Jubilee come down with necrotizing fasciitis, which becomes dubbed Pompeii Flu because it may—or may not—have originated with the Pompeii Jubilee. The disease spreads to other cities. As the story unfolds, Brad seems to have regular contact with various security personnel. First, he is questioned because an uncle by marriage has terrorist ties. Along with doing their assigned jobs, each employee must attend a weekly terrorism prevention seminar. At one point, Brad witnesses some security personnel kill a potential terrorist. Later on, he is in and out of custody because of his “friends”.

I think I had expected more flying magma and fewer scary people when I originally picked up the book, which may have led to my initial disappointment. While for the most part I found All the Lives He Led a compelling story, at times I found it inconsistent. As I have read in some other reviews and noticed myself, Brad is supposed to be a streetwise hustler, so it seems odd that he does not see the suspicious activity going on around him. The flow of the book feels odd to me, which might be a matter of the change of plot content. The descriptions of the Pompeii Jubilee feel well fleshed out and realistic to me. In some of the sections near the end of the book, which are pivotal in understanding the climax, there is less description and the book feels less real to me. Intellectually, I understand how the story builds, but something feels missing to me in the section. Yes, I would recommend the book, but it falls somewhere in the middle of my list.

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