Review by John for: All the Lives He Led ~ by Frederik Pohl
A thought-provoking futuristic thriller with many twists, from one of the “Grand Masters of Science Fiction”.
About: The year is 2079 and the fabulous virtual reality theme park in Pompeii is getting ready for the 2000th anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius, which buried the old Roman city. Brad Sheridan is an indentured servant working there and trying to pay off his bond; he is a refugee from the United States which has itself been devastated by a giant eruption in Yellowstone Park almost twenty years earlier.
The world is a troubled place with much political unrest and a continuous stream of terrorist attacks, coming from a dizzying array of different groups of unhappy people. Meanwhile Brad is forced to work hard at grim jobs in order to earn small amounts of money, and his life is not helped by his bully of a boss or by some people’s dislike of Americans – who are somehow blamed for the natural disaster which has devastated many livelihoods all around the world. Despite constant struggles and setbacks, he finally seems to be making some progress and even has a girlfriend (or he thinks he does) who helps to brighten up his life.
But a horrendous killer disease has started to pop up around the world, which becomes known as the Pompeii Flu when it’s discovered that most sufferers have some link to Pompeii or to people who have visited the city. It becomes obvious to Brad that many people and many things aren’t quite what they seem and he is inexorably drawn into the center of the unfolding drama. Who is his girlfriend? Where did she come from and where has she disappeared to? Why is his friend acting so strange? Who or what is causing the deadly epidemic? And why is Brad in such deep trouble with the dreaded Security forces?
The answers are complex and most unexpected, and they point to a very different future for Brad.
John’s Thoughts: This story starts out in a reasonably straightforward (albeit highly imaginative) fashion, but as it progresses it develops many different layers and threads. There is certainly no shortage of interesting ideas and concepts and Pohl creates a well-imagined near-future world – fantastic for sure but much of it is just about believable; which for me is a great mix.
The main characters in the story all seem to be twisted in some way or another, ranging from Brad’s history or petty juvenile crime and money-making schemes to some out-and-out evil terrorists – but even the evil ones are often given human faces and characteristics. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to tell the good from the bad. And are the bad things really so bad if they’re being done for good reasons?
To my mind there are lots of good things about the book, and yet the whole somehow feels like less than the sum of the parts. I found it easy to put the book down and not come back to it for a couple of days, even when I was near the end, and that’s very unusual for me. I think this was something to do with the characters – while the story was complex somehow the characters seemed a bit lacking in depth and not quite believable. I had a hard time buying in to some of the changes that they went through.
Nonetheless, it is a book with lots of very cool ideas and for that I’d rate it 3.5 stars. If you like near-future thrillers with clever twists on how the world might turn out, you should give it a go.
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Thanks for reading!