When the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, America was abruptly catapulted to third world status. Brad Sheridan, ex-rich kid, was reduced to hustling a life on the mean streets of New York before signing an indenture for foreign service. As a virtual slave of his new Egyptian masters he shakes down tourists at the sites in Cairo before things get too hot again and he finds himself in Italy. It’s the 2,000 year anniversary of the eruption and in this year of 2079 they’re celebrating L’Anno Giubileo della Citta di Pompeii. Brad is at the bottom of the pile as a theme park worker.
In Pohl’s dystopian future terrorism is everywhere. Every group with a cause, big or small, is taking direct and violent action. Bombings, missile attacks and mass poisoning events are reported every day and security is omnipresent. But given the human race’s history of atrocity and oppression, maybe they’re not all wrong?
As Pohl imagines him, Sheridan is a not-too-bright young man at the centre of swirling action who doesn’t understand any of it. He meets the love of his live, Gerda Fleming and is manipulated left, right and center. He gets interrogated by security in more and more invasive ways – they can’t believe he’s so ignorant, innocent and naive. Finally he’s mostly up to speed and fate deals him the biggest hand in history. At last he has to make a decision of his own.
The book starts slowly as the backstory is established in America and Egypt. You get to know Brad Sheridan’s moderately interesting biography but at page 84 you’re slightly wondering why you’re bothering. Things perk up when sex-starved Brad meets Gerda Fleming. Here, Pohl draws a convincing portrait of a young man, hopelessly in love, who misses his amour every second of her frequent and implausible absences. As events pile up the book becomes a page-turning thriller right through to the end. And there I was a little bit disappointed.
Pohl wants Brad to be faced with a genuine dilemma at the end of this book and the plot duly delivers it. However Brad is way, way too calm about it: his character remains the slightly sardonic, rather laid-back persona we’ve seen all the way through and this final existential issue seems to have as much psychological weight with him as a decision about taking the car or walking; his partner seems similarly unfazed. No, I don’t buy it.
In telling the story in first-person, the reader only knows what Brad finds out and this makes the plotting rather opaque. It’s necessary to remember things whose significance only emerges later. There are also some inconsistencies which jar, notably the critical data which Brad may or may not have had secreted on his person but which also seems to have been carried by Gerda. But in the end there are many things to like about this book: the direct, engaging style of writing; the evocation of Pompeii in all its high-tech paraphernalia; plenty of fast-moving and exciting action. With a more psychologically-convincing ending this could have been one of Pohl’s best novels. I am just amazed, however, that at age 91 Pohl is still writing at all. Best of luck to him.