All the Lives He Led
Tor Books, Released April 12th, 2011
For me, the same quality of science-fiction that makes it so vital a genre is also the thing that makes it the most difficult to discuss. I’m referring to the fact that this type of fiction can either be a reflection of our current society, or speculation on the world to come. Sometimes, in the hands of a master (or in Frederick Pohl’s case, a Grand Master) the reader is treated to a rare work that is capable of doing both at the same time. Pohl’s latest, All the Lives He Led, is one such novel. Its premise, that of the devastation that follows a massive volcanic eruption at Yellowstone National Park, feels ominous in the wake of the recent geological devastation in Haiti and Japan, and the even more recent quake in the northeastern United States. Thus, the near-apocalyptic 2079 of the novel’s present feels perilously close to our own.
In many ways, the conflicts imposed on Brad Sheridan, the main character, can be seen as the trials of modern Americans viewed through a glass, darkly. Our volatile and discouraging job market is his indentured servitude. Our diminishing national image overseas is his experience of outright cultural hostility. Our weariness with and distance from the reality of terrorism is his
acceptance of its inevitability. Our growing divide between the more-than-comfortable financial elite and the one-missed-paycheck-from-destitute working class is his insurmountable gap between the impossibly wealthy and the hopelessly impoverished. In this way, All the Lives He Led serves as the best kind of social commentary, the kind which avoids heavy-handed polemics,
but merely holds up a distorted mirror and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions.
Pohl’s novel also functions in the role many readers expect from science-fiction, that of looking toward the future. Though Pohl chooses a volcanic eruption – impossible to predict or avert – as his tipping point, America’s current financial and political climate seems poised for the sort of collapse that characterizes the America of All the Lives He Led. By avoiding the world-
wide apocalypse that has saturated much of recent dystopian fiction, Pohl creates a future that is much darker, much more possible, in which the United States is dying the slow death of a failed empire. By doing so, he forces his reader to stare some unpleasant truths in the eye. Brad Sheridan lives in a world that is in the process of leaving America behind. It is only through admitting that such a world has the potential to come about that we can hope – and work – to avoid it.
All the Lives He Led, like most novels, is not without a few flaws. Although the first-person narrator draws the reader into his story from the first page, some of his reactions and perspectives seem to belong to the author, born in the beginning of the 20th century, than to a man born in the middle of the 21st. Also, though I will be deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, there is a plot development towards the end of the novel that seems at odds with the tone of the rest, serving only move Sheridan to a position where the novel concludes.
These small blemishes, however, should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of this novel. It’s a story about America’s present and her uncertain future, about terrorism and its inherent lunacy, about dealing with the things we can control and with the things we can’t. It asks profound questions about the nature of empire and of humanity. Its final question, left unanswered by
Pohl, will haunt the reader long after the novel concludes. It haunts me, still.