Frederik Pohl:Jem

I haven't read a lot of Frederik Pohl, and certainly not enough to get a real handle on his style. I've read the first three Heechee books, and maybe a few others, but somehow I keep getting him mixed up with Poul Anderson or something. In any event, I never know quite what to expect from him.

This book was even more mysterious because all it said on the cover was "This is the way the world ends..." Which gives away a certain amount, but my motto is "You can't spoil it any worse than the back of the book." So.

The world is divided into three power-blocs: Fuel, Food, and People. The Fuel bloc includes Arabs, British(who apparently are getting oil in the North Sea), and a few others. Food is the States, Russia, and most of Europe. People is India, China, and a lot of the Third World. (Actually, it's not quite clear how Africa and Latin America fit into this picture...)

A world is found on a distant star in Gemini, called Kung(after Confucius). The star is a dim red dwarf, and the world is tidally-locked, so the same side always faces the sun, but there are three social and possibly sentient species on the planet, so all three blocs hurry to send colonies there. The planet, after a time called Klong(son of Kung)gets officially named Jem.

We spend most of our time with the Food bloc people(after all, they're mostly Americans), but we do get flashes from other viewpoints as well, including representative samples from the three sentient races--burrowers, surface-dwelling arthropods, and balloonists.

With three power blocs and three sentient races, one might imagine that they pair off, which they do, in a way. All three races are used and, to some extent, corrupted, by the humans(obviously these people never heard of the Prime Directive)in their internecine conflicts.

Meanwhile, spurred on by the immense expenditures of power, money, etc. the colonization of Jem has required, tensions on Earth get stretched to the breaking point, and past...it's clear that they haven't really developed any novel approaches to international politics in the intervening time(although they do have special individuals with split-brain surgery that apparently makes it easier for them to translate languages...), and things break down fairly quickly.

Altogether, it's a fairly dystopian novel, which can be extrapolated forwards from our time without too many strange assumptions, the largest one being that international politics stays about the same. (The lack of religious conflict between the power blocs is perhaps a bit unrealistic--Pohl doesn't bring a lot of religion into it, so perhaps he's just one of the many writers that neglects religion because it's not important in his own life; but I'm just guessing.) Furthermore, the sentient races on Jem are exploited just as the indigenous cultures in the New World and Africa were. And, finally, the nations are proceeding with the Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence still firmly in place, although Russian Communism seems to be a non- presence. For a novel written in the 70s(published in '77), this all tends to ring true. Would Pohl have written this novel differently today? Hard to say. I guess you'd have to read some of his more recent stuff to get a better idea. Remember, this is the guy who did a novel on Chernobyl...

%A Pohl, Frederik
%T Jem
%I Bantam
%C New York
%D April 1979
%G ISBN 0-553-13134-6
%P 312 pp.
%O Paperback, US $2.50

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com