Friday, May 13, 2011

One way it might be going

kw: book reviews, science fiction, terrorism, natural disasters

Let's see how many projections Fred Pohl is making in All the Lives He Led:
  1. The Yellowstone supervolcano erupts in about 2065, burying half of North America in ash to depths between a meter and a kilometer. Millions die and the US is instantly relegated to Third World status.
  2. Virtual reality based on free-space holography is developed (so I don't know why people in the novel still watch the news on screen displays).
  3. Plastic surgery can make anybody look like anyone else, irrespective of race or gender. A key player in the novel is a transsexual, and the "he" of the title.
  4. Terrorism becomes the ordinary way to protest. Kind of like the '60s on steroids; just replace every sit-in with a bombing.
That'll do. There are a few minor points, such as the data coil replacing flash drives and a personal data visualization device called the opticle. Add a lens attachment to a high-rez smart phone display, and the opticle is already in use.

The background is a "millennial Jubilee" celebration of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and its consequent incineration of Pompeii. Brad Sheridan, an ordinary low-life punk who was eight when Yellowstone blew up and sent his Kansas City-based family into refugee status, has become an indentured worker at the Jubilee (Giubileo in Italian). Never one to make friends, he has over time acquired a friend or two and, eventually, a lover. But he has a past, including his "Uncle Devious", who ripped off family and friend alike to fund "Tibetan aid" causes that turned out to be funding terrorists.

When I wrote "a friend or two" above, I meant it. One of his two friends is murdered, and first he is implicated, then his girlfriend. Of course, she has gone missing, and finding her leads to a whole 'nother ball of worms. At the book's end it is still unknown whether the human race will survive the latest terrorist threat, and it is an even bigger surprise whose decision that is.

But the mechanics of the tale are riveting. If Yellowstone does explode within the next few decades, the book's scenarios are a pretty accurate projection of its effects. With the flip-flopping of who is poor and who is rich, for a time at least the world is a meaner place. And it just may be that terrorism becomes "business as usual" everywhere.

One historical point needs attention: a character describes Hitler and Stalin as the two deadliest leaders in history. Chairman Mao propounded policies that killed three or four times as many as those two combined. But the collection of incidents recounting human inhumanity is telling, and the philosophical point remains: Is humanity worth saving from the ultimate terrorist threat? Grandmaster Frederick Pohl leaves the reader to ponder that one.

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