“If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all” should be Brad Sheridan’s motto in Frederik Pohl’s novel “All the Lives He Led”. His home, and basically entire country, has been destroyed by a massive explosion coming from Yellowstone National Park (“someone should have known there was something more sinister to those geysers”)- putting his family into poverty and relocating them to a run-down, dirty slum in New York’s Staten Island. He makes some money running different scams on the streets, but needs more if he’s going to make anything out of life. So he enlists himself as an indentured servant; and winds up in Italy at the 2000th Anniversary of the Destruction of Pompeii (ironic, isn’t it?)
There’s an underlying theme in this book- and that’s global instability from terrorism. It’s what landed Sheridan in Pompeii (where he was in Egypt was becoming too dangerous) and it’s, unknown to him, what’s running his life.
Pohl makes a beautifully crafted world out of renewed Pompeii which makes you wish it really were 2079 so you could visit it yourself: completely virtually reconstructed buildings, streets, gardens, citizens, and arenas with a variety of “authentic First Century Roman entertainment” such as the whorehouse, the bath houses, the dining, and the arena fights.
But Sheridan still can’t escape bad luck here: on the guided Introductory Tour he’s singled out and marked as a troublemaker with close ties to terrorists and is shunned by the majority of the Pompeii working community. Not only that, but his first job is “authentically grinding grain” for the bakery, which means wearing “authentic clothing made authentically” by being wool washed in urine……..
The only people who are friendly to him is Maury Tesch, a water line maintenance worker, and Gerda Fleming, a volunteer (rather than indentured servant) who works as a tour guide and dining room attendant.
In time, Sheridan’s life starts to work out: he’s been moved to a new job selling wine where he’s making money on that and by scamming people on currency exchanges, he is able to send a little to his family back home in New York, and falls in love and starts a relationship with Gerda Fleming. So what if Gerda doesn’t seem monogamous? So what if she keeps running off from Pompeii with various excuses? So what if she’s wiping him out of money by choosing fancy places to go and making him pay? So what that hundreds of people are now starting to get sick after visiting Pompeii, Maury’s starting to act strange, and Gerda’s obsessed with watching it’s progression on the news?
Brad Sheridan, the oblivious narrator of the book, doesn’t understand anything as his life starts to unravel after witnessing certain things he shouldn’t, stumbling across things he shouldn’t, and knowing things he “better keep to himself.” He takes no proactive action through most of the story. Things are just happening to him. You get so frustrated at him, and I found myself yelling at him to pay attention and getting aggravated that he couldn’t figure anything out for himself!
The beginning to the middle of the book was strong in action, storytelling, mystery, and intrigue. The ending of the book was filled with blah. Blah being too much of one thing. Too much explanation of what you just read. Too much summary of one story element for one character. Too much pining after said character. Too much on the “yeah, we get it already.”
But overall, it was an excellent story about the impact and reasoning behind terrorism and whether or not one should even have faith in the human race. Not to mention 2079 Pompeii was a nice place to escape to. Not exactly horrifically exciting, but a solid story.