Review: All The Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl

Published: April 2011

Where I got it: The Library

This review was originally written for Worlds Without End’s Grand Master Reading Challenge (GMRC).

I think it’s a little strange to start reading Frederik Pohl with his latest book, All the Lives He Led.  After all, the man has been writing award-winning sci-fi since way before I was born. And after reading this book, I realize this is also not perhaps the best introduction to Pohl’s work, because unless you know about Frederik Pohl’s track record and are determined to read more of him, this book alone would not inspire you to do so.

The main character is Brad Sheridan — born into a well-to-do family, his fortunes change with the eruption of a super-volcano in Yellowstone that covers half of United States with ash. Brad’s family loses their fortune and moves to a refugee camp on Staten Island. Brad grows up committing petty crimes and getting mixed up in shady deals. He then signs up as an Indentured person and moves first to Egypt, then to Pompeii, to work at what is now a tourist theme park, complete with Roman currency, people selling Roman wine and food, and the city rebuilt via virtual reality.

At its core, the story is a thriller set in a dystopia– terrorism is common world-wide, with attacks happening virtually every day; people start dying of a mysterious disease nicknamed Pompeii Flu; Brad’s girlfriend, a mysterious and beautiful woman named Gerda, disappears without a trace; his coworker is found dead. And yet despite all these things happening, the story just seemed rather boring. Perhaps it is because Pohl’s writing seems ill-suited to the thriller genre and does not convey a sense of suspense and mystery. Perhaps it is the characters. Brad is extremely difficult to sympathize with. He is not likeable or smart — he is a pretty crude (for lack of a better word) guy, especially in the way he talks about women. He is also, despite having grown up in a rough environment, somewhat lacking in street smarts — he talks about things he probably shouldn’t talk about, fails to observe the fairly obvious.  His pining for Gerda does not elicit any sympathy either and actually starts grating on reader’s nerves after a while. The problem also is that Brad is one of those main characters who has things happening to him rather than making things happen. This, unfortunately, makes for a very shallow story — there is a multitude of events and characters, but the only way we know what is happening is to read about Brad’s reactions to all these events.

This is obviously a work of a writer with many novels under his belt, because even despite the unsympathetic character and at times slow action, you keep reading, because the narrative is just so smooth. It is a good read, but it does not read like Pohl’s best work.

This one gets 2 denarii out of 5 from me. Never fear, I will read Pohl’s other stuff (a copy of Gateway is on my nightstand).

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