Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Apr 03 18:55:40 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #35

%T Boat of a Million Years
%A Poul Anderson
%D 1989
%O hardcover, US$19.95
%P 468
%G 0-312-93199

This is the big book Anderson fans like me have long awaited -- Poul writing SF again, solo, on the scale he last attempted in Orion Shall Rise eight years ago. Anderson's lyrical, saga-like prose, his careful world-building, his feeling for the tides of history and the fierce loyalties that bind humans together against them -- all these virtues are on full display here.

Throughout human history, it seems, there have been a few immortals born -- ageless, quick-healing, disease-resistant, but otherwise all too human. They can die in battle or from despair at their loneliness among short-timers they are doomed to watch grow old and die, over and over again. Those who survive learn caution and a certain detachment from the lives of ordinary mortals. They fear exposure and the wrath of the short-timers; so they steer clear of greatness, slipping through the fringes of history like watchful ghosts.

We first meet Hanno, a Phoenician trader already centuries old at the time of the Punic Wars. He lives and prospers but grieves for all his lost loves, and is half-obsessed with the need to find an immortal woman he will never have to watch age and die. In the days of Imperial Rome he finally discovers another immortal, the barbarian Rufus. They travel together for many centuries.

Elsewhere on Earth a few others begin to realize what they are. Aliyat, born in the ancient Near East, and eventually the oldest woman in the world practising the oldest profession. Tu Shan, a Chinese peasant who becomes a Taoist sage. Yukiko, a court lady of Heian Japan. Deathless, an Amerind shaman. Svoboda, born a peasant in ninth-century Russia. Corinne Macandaul, born in an Old South slave cabin. And Gnaeus Patulcius, the eternal bureaucrat :-).

In a series of vignettes and short stories, Anderson follows them down through centuries as they grow, learn, grieve, and eventually find assorted kinds of peace for themselves. Only in the 20th century do Hanno's far-flung nets bring eight of them together. The power of technology in the hands of nation-states is making their traditional way of concealment ever more precarious. Should they reveal themselves? The last `historical' segment takes place in 1975.

Only the last hundred pages are set in the future. The eight Survivors become increasingly alienated in a nanotechnology-based civilization of immortals that is changing its very concept of humanity faster than they can adapt. Only they cannot let go of their pasts -- so they persuade the new humans to build them a starship, and go faring into the void. There, at last, they find a worthy destiny.

This book is a lot of fun, but not Anderson's best yet. It works on the micro-level (the prose, scenes, and characters are gorgeous), but seems disjointed on the macro-level; perhaps a less episodic format would have helped. And the book is history-heavy, with too much time for my taste spent on setting up the characters. Finally, I find that Anderson's potshots at present-day `liberals' in the 1975 segment seem a bit shrill and petty even though I agree with most of them (one character is a wonderfully vicious caricature of Sen. Ted Kennedy).

All the same, this book has a bit of everything that's made Anderson a star in the SF firmament. Buy it in paperback and enjoy.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Apr 03 18:55:40 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>