Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book Review: Jem

Book Review: 'Jem' by Frederik Pohl

1 / 5 Stars

‘Jem’ first was published in hardcover in 1979. This Bantam paperback version (312 pp) was released in April 1985, and features cover artwork by Peter Grudynas.

The novel is set in the early 21st Century (an elderly Carl Sagan still attends scientific conferences). The Cold War continues to be fought, however, instead of being a contest between the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism, there is a three-way conflict between the People (the overpopulated regimes of Asia); Fuel (Arab nations; Venezuela; the UK); and Food (the USA and Russia) Blocs.

When a habitable planet, the ‘Jem’ of the book’s title, is discovered within range of FTL starships, each Bloc exerts significant effort to dispatch a colonizing expedition. In due course each of these expeditions endeavors to set up, and maintain, a base on Jem. This is no easy task; the side of the planet facing the star Kung is eternally hot, humid, and illuminated with a dull reddish glare. The colonizers discover three sapient races on Jem: the Krinpit, who resemble overgrown crayfish; the belowground-dwelling Creepies; and the Balloonists, who live an exclusively aerial lifestyle.

The opening chapters chronicle the gritty reality of eking out a living on Jem, when resources are scarce and unseen dangers have a habit of picking off the unwary. Inevitably, the humans succeed in learning how to communicate with the native inhabitants of the planet, and, just as inevitably, tensions rise as each Bloc seeks to establish itself as the prime power on Jem.

As the Cold War back on Earth begins an ominous slide into Hot War, the humans grubbing for existence on Jem suddenly become not just colonists, but perhaps the final remnants of Homo sapiens………..if they don’t succeed in wiping each other out………

Along with Niven and Pournelle, John Varley, and Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013) was one of the most visible authors in sf in the late 70s and early 80s, when – thanks to the success of sf in television and movies - the genre became much more prominent as a commercial entity.

Pohl’s novels of the period – Gateway, The Cool War, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, Chernobyl –all were reasonably well-written, if not particularly imaginative in their scope. In this regard, 'Jem' ’s sci-fi packaging is meant to serve as a vehicle for Pohls’ (somewhat rueful) exploration of humanistic themes – such as man’s ideology-driven propensity to self-destruction, versus his understanding that overcoming racial, ethnic, and political barriers is the only sure path to survival.

However much Pohl intended 'Jem' to an allegorical treatment, the novel itself is overly long and rambling, and, like Pohl’s other novels, leaves the narrative to fend for itself while devoting most of its prose to detailing the various interchanges between the novel’s large cast of characters.

These interchanges are not exclusive to the novel’s human cast, but also apply to lead characters from the Krinpit and Balloonist races, too, further overburdening the narrative with what is nowadays referred to – usually by critics of The Walking Dead - as an overdependence on ‘character development’.

The final chapters of 'Jem' regain some sense of urgency as the inter-colony conflicts come to echo the violence breaking out back on Earth, but this urgency winds up dissipating in the novel’s conclusion, which strikes an unconvincing note of humanistic optimism.

The verdict ? Unless you're a dedicated fan of Frederik Phol, you'll want to pass on ‘Jem’ .

No comments: