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All the Lives He Led cover

Let's face it, most first-person narrators have a bland, undistinguished, everyman's voice. We learn more about their character from what they tell us than we do from how they tell us. But those authors who want to put character into their narrator's voices tend to fall back on one of two models. There's the Philip Marlowe model: cynical, sharp, wisecracking, seen-it-all, the words being dealt out parsimoniously to show us how the speaker stands back from the world; and there's the Holden Caulfield model: slangy, world weary, disenchanted, sly, words tumbling over each other as if to demonstrate that the speaker is right there in the hurtling rush of events. Brad Sheridan, who narrates Frederik Pohl's latest novel, is an aging Holden Caulfield:

Well, I’ll tell you all about that, though it gives me no pleasure. I'm not sure I should. What I know for sure is that it certainly isn't going to make me look good. (p. 13)

But boy, do we get tired of that voice pretty quickly. In fact Pohl seems to tire of it too, because before too long the more grating idiosyncrasies start to disappear from his speech patterns, and by the time the plot really gets going we're back with a more identikit voice.

This would suit me fine, if the plot were strong enough to hold our attention. The problem is that Brad is, indeed, right there in the hurtling rush of events, but he is never there when these events are being planned. He never understands why one event follows upon another, nor does he really care; at first this is because he fancies himself as a sort of Jack-the-Lad streetwise go-getter (though he never displays much ability in this vein) and doesn't pay much attention to anything other than himself, later it is because he has become the victim of a (drug induced) obsession that clouds his eyes to all extraneous detail. As a result, all that we get, as readers, is incidents without context. Unfortunately, although there is an awful lot going on in All the Lives He Led, it is the context that provides plot in a novel, and since we lack the context, what passes for a plot doesn't actually make a great deal of sense. It is all very well making the narrator a hapless witness (which is what this particular narrative voice implies), but we as readers are supposed to be able to disentangle a truth from what he witnesses (about the witness or about his world), and in this instance Brad isn’t interesting enough and the events in which he is involved remain, in the end, incoherent.

The year is 2079, which happens to be the two thousandth anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius, and most of the action takes place in the massive theme park that has been erected in the ruins of Pompeii. Though, as it turns out, neither the date nor the location matter all that much for what follows. What matters far more are one physical and one social change in the make-up of the world. The physical change is that somewhere around the middle of the century the massive supervolcano that is Yellowstone finally erupted. This has wiped out most of the continental United States, turned Americans into the pariahs of the world, and so disrupted the global economy that the only way Brad can escape America is by selling himself into indentured servitude.

The social change is that terrorism has become the default option for every disaffected social group. Acts of mass murder are an everyday event; more than that, there seem to be three or four major acts of terrorism every single day. We might assume that this is a satirical play on the state of our world today, as most of these acts appear to be meaningless, violence for the sake of violence with no conceivable benefit for the group involved; except that Pohl clearly worries about this and intends something more nuanced than simple satire, and a large part of the tail end of the novel is concerned with trying to find any sort of intellectual meaning in terrorism. Meanwhile the Stans (the old Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) have become a safe haven for any terrorist group, a place where anything can be bought with enough money. The biggest terrorist of all was Brian Bossert, who had been killed in an attack that effectively wiped out Toronto; that was many years ago, but he is still talked about in hushed tones by security services around the globe.

Such is the background against which the rather overheated events of this novel are played out. Though for fully half of the novel these events come thick and fast without any real sense that there is a plot stringing them all together. Brad, our hero, is a petty villain, rolling tourists, running little cons and the like (though we never actually see any victims of his crimes, and most of the time he seems to be committing his crimes in order to send money home to his parents in their refugee camp on Staten Island, which means he's not really bad). After becoming an indentured worker in Cairo, where he seems to run several little scams, he gets the chance to keep one step ahead of the authorities by moving to Il Giubileo, the massive tourist trap anniversary celebrations at Pompeii. At this point the novel is crying out for some linkage, visual, emotional or symbolic, between the eruption of Vesuvius and the eruption at Yellowstone; it never comes. Instead, the novel seems to settle into little more than a tour of pretty scenery, incidents occurring mostly to keep Brad moving from one part of the site to another. As an indentured worker, he takes on the part of a slave, working the treadmill that grinds the grain at a bakery, and helping in a couple of other positions, before he settles into selling cheap wine from a hole-in-the-wall shop on one of the less frequented streets of the reconstruction. This allows him to fleece the tourists, but means that not very much actually happens there.

While we are seeing the scenery and fingering the tourist tat, odd meetings occur. Although several people around Pompeii seem to hate Brad for no other reason than that he is American (I was never really clear why this should be), one man, Maury Tesch, actively seeks his friendship. Maury is an engineer who works on the site's water system, which puts him several social rungs above Brad, so this is an unlikely friendship given what we see of the social structure but it is never questioned. There are hints that Maury is seeking a homosexual relationship (homosexuality would appear to be completely open yet still shameful in this society), but that is never pursued. Instead, Maury keeps inviting Brad to play chess, an offer that Brad never takes up, indeed there’s no reason to think that he knows how to play (but then again, he repeatedly insists that he doesn’t read, yet litters his narration with literary references). Somehow, despite all this unlikeliness, the friendship develops.

More importantly, from Brad's point of view, he meets Gerda Fleming, with whom he falls madly and obsessively in love. She appears to reciprocate his feelings, and for a while their relationship appears idyllic, despite her frequent and unexplained absences from the site.

There are hints of things going on. Visitors to the site are coming down with an incurable flesh-rotting disease that is nicknamed "Pompeii flu"; one morning by chance Brad sees security forces gunning down a woman who may or may not have been a terrorist. But none of this seems to have anything to do with Brad himself; indeed the only occurrence that actually promises any action comes when Brad is approached by a wealthy Korean to engage in a little lucrative smuggling. Given everything we have been told about Brad to this date, the most unlikely event in the whole book happens when he turns this offer down. But then, there is little consistency to his character at any point.

Suddenly, Pohl seems to remember that a novel should have a plot. All at once, things happen, and at a breathless pace. Maury invites Brad to his apartment, where Brad gets hopelessly drunk and wakes up in a ditch having been beaten up but remembering nothing. No sooner have security taken him in, than Maury turns up dead in Gerda's apartment. When security investigate, they find that Gerda's DNA matches that of arch- (and supposedly dead) terrorist Brian Bossert. Brad is questioned, has nothing to tell them, is released (why?), immediately smuggles himself aboard a luxury zeppelin (why?), finds the wealthy Korean on board, is taken to Cairo, evades security forces successfully then gives himself up to them (why?), is returned to Italy where he is subject to renewed and more invasive questioning, still has nothing to tell them, and then is allowed to join the security raid that finally kills Gerda/Bossert (why?) who, with her dying breath, passes an important piece of information to Brad which he smuggles past security by the simple expedient of putting it in his pocket (huh?).

As you might gather, the faster the action the less sense it makes. Actually there are other, bigger questions that are raised, such as why Gerda and Maury picked Brad, why Maury invited Brad to his home that last evening, what actually happened after Brad passed out, and why Maury was killed. None of these are answered.

And we've still got about a third of the novel to go, which is mostly made up of Brad becoming incredibly rich by telling the story of his relationship with Gerda/Bossert, and using his immense wealth to research her story and prepare an act of revenge. This is the part where Brad the lowlife who tells us he doesn’t read suddenly becomes the ace researcher going back over the entire history of the human race in order to compile an explanation for terrorism. It is also where the novel changes from being a sort-of thriller or mystery, into a sort-of philosophical novel with a distinctly nihilistic cast. I'm not sure the two forms work well together (hence my sense of incoherence in the book), but I’m certain that the latter form doesn’t work here. We have seen at least some of the nastiness that terrorism unleashes in the novel's world, but we never see any of the nastiness that has supposedly driven the terrorists to their cause. There is an imbalance in what is shown and what is told, but there is also an imbalance in what is believed. Terrorist acts, at least as presented in the novel, are visceral and immediate; the nihilistic perceptions behind them are, in the novel, remote from experience and from emotional engagement. It becomes obvious that Pohl can't bring himself to believe any of the intellectual arguments he advances because, without giving the game away (as if you might care) he caps all arguments and brings the novel to an end with something that is both simplistic and sentimental. Frederik Pohl is experienced enough to turn in a host of individual scenes that are vivid and fresh, yet somehow you get the impression that he was never engaged enough with this novel to link all those scenes into any sort of coherent whole. Or indeed create characters that actually make sense as characters. In the end, the novel feels more like a series or arguments played with rather than engaged with, of chances missed rather than chances taken.

Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology, and the author of the Hugo-nominated collection of reviews and essays, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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