Review: All the Lives He Led

Posted: August 8, 2011 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction

Frederik Pohl’s GATEWAY (Amazon) is one of my favorite Science Fiction books from the Golden Years. I read it during a stint of trying to find out what made a good Science Fiction story. That was a tough row, let me tell you, but I definitely liked that book and remember it from all the rest. So, when I saw a new Pohl book pop up on our list of those available, I took on it—hoping that I’d find another instance of good Science Fiction.

ALL THE LIVES HE LED (Amazon) is the most recent novel of Science Fiction luminary Frederik Pohl. In it we are introduced to Brad Sheridan and told all about his life in the late 21st century. We are told about the eruption of the mega-volcano in Yellowstone and how it showered a majority of the United States in a blanket of ash, killing millions and devastating the economy and lives of those left alive. Appropriately enough, our narrator Brad takes the opportunity to travel to Pompeii, Italy, where someone had gotten it into the head that it would be a really cool to make that once ash-buried city into a place of celebration for the 2000th anniversary of the mighty blast of Mount Vesuvius. Brad takes a job as a grunt worker, trying to pay off a debt of indenture that he took on to be able to leave the slums of New York.Decent setup for a realistic, post-apocalyptic story—if somewhat benign, as there are no killer nano-viruses, nuclear-weapon fallouts, or mutant zombies with which to fight.

Most of the story though is involved in the details of Brad’s new job, the interests of his few friends, the past-lives of his family members, and a few adventures with the love of his life, Gerda. And there’s some terrorism stuff that sprinkled in here and there as well. And that’s about it. Except for the last 70 pages or so.

Mr. Pohl obviously knows how to write. The first-person PoV that he uses to display Brad Sheridan is engaging and easy to read. Brad comes across as an actual resident of that not-too-far future, with a bit of cynicism, a touch of humor, and a slice of his life to tell. The pacing of the book is quick, and things get moving pretty fast. They go and go and go and go… but don’t really lead us anywhere in particular. Instead, it’s more of a fly by the seat of your pants retelling of the life of Joe Schmoe. The characterization of the main character is good, but most of the other characters feel like fill-ins. There’s a security officer who’s good at her job, but the rest could have had a tag slapped on their heads with a single word to describe them. Girlfriend. Teacher. Buddy. Crummy boss. (Okay, that’s two words. I admit.)

ALL THE LIVES HE LED we are introduced to Brad Sheridan and told all about his life in the late 21st century. Sound engaging? We didn't think so either.

Then, near the end of the tale, Brad is given several data drives that have loads of documents and videos and information in general about all the people that Brad has dealt with over the course of his job in Pompeii and how they are definitely not what they appeared to be. We get about 60 pages of that, and then there’s an ending that I suppose was an attempt to be impactful, but really had little connection to the rest of the book and so it didn’t work for me, and then it’s done.

Leaving me not knowing what to think.

Except to lump this book into the rest of the mediocre Science Fiction mash-up and move on. I was quite disappointed. I can’t even say how much. I don’t even think I could recommend this book to those readers who like Science Fiction. The science here was very slight, very uninspiring, and even though it was necessary to the story, the tale barely felt like it belonged to the genre at all. And the relevance or the title? The one that actually screams Science Fiction? No idea. Grumble.

  • Recommended Age: 16+
  • Language: A few strong references, intermittent
  • Violence: A few deaths, nothing big
  • Sex: Various and frequent references, but no scenes

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