Review of ALL THE LIVES HE LED by Frederik Pohl
Tor, April 2011
The explosion of the Yellowstone volcano instantly turned the United States into a poor country filled with refugees. Those who survived became refugees, often indentured to pay their debts. Brad Sheridan, one of those refugees, is working in Italy in a Disneyland version of Pompei, serving bad wine to rich tourists from Asia, Europe, and parts of America not destroyed by the eruption when he meets and falls in love with Gerda. Gerda is special, full of life, but she has a secret--one that soon has Brad in trouble with security.
In author Frederik Pohl's (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of science fiction by Pohl) near-future story, it isn't just the Yellowstone volcano that causes suffering. Terrorists seem intent on destroying nearly everything, each group pursuing some cause that seems noble to them, seems even to justify the deaths of innocents. And security has reason to believe that the recent outbreak of what is called Pompeian Flu is not a natural disease but a deadly bio-terrorist attack--one with which Brad seems to be involved--whether intentionally or not.
Pohl's world of terrorism is intriguingly complex. Brad is both a willing informant to security but also a man deeply in love with someone who clearly is not just a terrorist but who is involved with something that may kill millions. Security has extraordinary powers they use without much discrimination--but also has officers who try to do the right thing and who even care about the people they hurt. And Pohl's vision of an America virtually destroyed by a natural disaster is the perfect vehicle to remind us that extreme poverty changes everything.
Although, ultimately, I found ALL THE LIVES HE LED to be intriguing and insightful, this story took a long time getting started. As a con-man and seller of recycled wine, Brad isn't very interesting. For much of the book, Brad's major story goal was getting into Gerda's bed and staying there--even if that meant cutting what he was able to send back home to help his refugee family in New York. Only in the final third of the book does the story really take off. For a lesser author than Pohl, I probably would have quit before then. There was a payoff for my patience, but it seemed that Pohl could have found a way to introduce a story goal earlier.
Too generous? Too stingy. Or did I miss the whole point? Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll publish the best letters I get so let me know if I can use your name.
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