Friday, November 20, 2015

One Million Tomorrows by Bob Shaw

One shot each and--with care--Athene and he need not die.  He searched within himself for some trace of the exultation that ought to accompany the thought, but there was a strange blankness.  

Let's check out another novel by Bob Shaw, this one copywritten 1970.  I have the 1986 Panther paperback of One Million Tomorrows, acquired down in South Carolina in the impressive science fiction section of the used bookstore known as Rainy Day Pal.

(Joachim Boaz wrote about One Million Tomorrows back in 2011; you'll have to take my word for it that I hadn't read his review for four years and drafted the below post before rereading it, so any similarities in our posts are a coincidence.  We agree on the main points, I think, making similarities almost inevitable.  In the comments to his post Joachim and 2theD and I talk about Barry Malzberg and Vladimir Nabokov--this was before Joachim, now a big Malzberg supporter, had read any Malzberg!)

It is the future!  The year 2176!  People commute long distances at incredible speed via "bullet" cars.  Women wear clothes consisting solely of light projected from necklaces!  Gardeners use a ray gun that induces a seed to grow into a blooming flower in a single minute!  Partygoers drink from glasses that include miniature refrigeration systems so that ice doesn't water down their booze!  Most importantly, a drug is widely used that, when taken regularly, confers immortality!  If you start taking the shots at 20 your body will be as a 20-year-old's for centuries!  Awesome!

But there is a catch!  Men who take the drug become sterile and impotent.  No more facial hair either!  Such men are called "cools."  Men who have not taken the drug and can still get it up are called "funkies," short for "functional," and wear facial hair so all the ladies know what they are capable of.  That's right, women who take the drug are not sexually affected--they still have sexual desire and can still bear children.  The result is a society in which many women turn to all-female "Priapic Clubs" where strap-on dildoes see extensive use and in which it is common for adult women to date 13-year old boys!

Science fiction novels often chronicle revolutions and paradigm shifts, and we are led to expect that One Million Tomorrows is in that category.  Our main character is Will Carewe, a 40-year old funkie who works as an accountant at one of the firms which manufactures the immortality drugs.  As the novel begins he is told that his firm has developed a new immortality drug that when taken by men does not cause impotence and sterility!  And his bosses want to test it on him!    

One of the remarkable things about One Million Tomorrows is that our protagonist is kind of an ignoramus, even a dolt.  We are used to reading genre fiction in which the main character is the smartest or bravest or strongest member of his cohort, but Will Carewe comes off as the dumbest guy in the book!  People around him are always making allusions and using words ("Beau Geste" and "Luddite," for example) he isn't familiar with.  Early in the novel Shaw tells us he "had never succeeded in finishing a book"!  Carewe's career is going well, but several times Shaw indicates he is a slacker ("Carewe pushed the compucards out of sight before he opened the vision circuits--they should have been dealt with two days earlier") and a clock watcher, and that a rumor is current among his co-workers that his advancement is due to a homosexual relationship with the boss.

Carewe is one of the few people in this world of 2176 who has a one-on-one heterosexual marriage; his wife is the attractive and well-read Athene.  Right after these guinea pigs take the new drug their marriage collapses for reasons too complicated to describe here.  Carewe, heartbroken, volunteers for a dangerous mission to sub-Saharan Africa--some of the natives down there refuse to take the immortality drug and live as bandits, so people from Europe and America have to pacify their villages and inject them with the emasculating drug against their will.

Shaw assures us that the one-world government of 2176 has all kinds of regulations in place so that vehicles and power generation and such are super duper safe.  So when Carewe's hover car and then his airplane crash, nearly killing him, it can only be sabotage!  Someone is trying to murder Carewe!  He gets back to America (as in Fire Pattern, British writer Shaw sets his book in North America and presents us with American main characters, while including eccentric British minor characters) and finds that Athene has been kidnapped!  There follows a quite good action scene in an abandoned factory where are stored frictionless ball bearings, and then some weaker action scenes in which Carewe rescues Athene (saving his marriage!) and we get the big reveal.  The obvious big revelation is that it is Carewe's bosses who are trying to kill him.  This was obvious from the start because the book has too few characters for a mystery, leaving Carewe's bosses the only suspects.

The less obvious big revelation is that there is no new drug!  It was a money-making scam, mere snake oil! Carewe took a placebo and is not immortal and is still a funky!  This book is not about changes to society, but about changes in an individual. Carewe, over the course of One Million Tomorrows, goes from being an indolent ignoramus leading a sheltered life to a guy who escapes deadly traps, survives numerous hand-to-hand fights, sees his society from a different point of view, and, at the end of novel, after taking the real immortality drug that renders him sexless, decides to embark on a campaign of reading piles of books and maybe even becoming a writer himself!

One Million Tomorrows has its strong points.  Shaw tries to figure out what a world of immortals, and a world in which a majority of men are sexless, would be like, even examining how it would affect the financial sector and people's career arcs (people who have been top executives for a long time will cycle down to the level of new hires to make room for their subordinates' advancement and because they enjoy working their way up the ranks!)  There are interesting technical as well as social speculations, like those frictionless ball bearings (like leading SF writers Robert Heinlein and Gene Wolfe, Shaw worked as an engineer as well as a writer.)

From a purely literary angle I was a bit disappointed in One Million Tomorrows, however.  I've already noted that the mystery is no mystery.  The characters and human relationships also are a bit weak, underdone.  What makes Will Carewe love Athene Carewe, and why does she love him?  In a world in which monogamous straight relationships are rare, why do they have one?  The villains are only faintly drawn, so it is hard to hate them or fear them or find them interesting.  (On page 172 of the 176 page book Shaw gives a rushed psychological explanation of the motives of one of them--he's bad because of his relationship with his mother who caught him jerking off one day.  Too little too late, Bob!)

The African section is brief, and gives us little sense of what the hell is going on down there; Carewe makes (white British) friends in Africa who save his life, and even has sex with one of these people, but then these characters and relationships are forgotten (as is the saboteur, who escapes), and don't add anything to the story besides moving the labored sabotage plot forward.  The whole African episode should have been fleshed out or eliminated, in my opinion.  If Shaw felt the need for Carewe to "be off the grid" to make the sabotage seem more plausible and so he could meet "backwards" people who resist the emasculating immortality treatments (maybe this Africa section is an homage to the scenes in the hinterland in Brave New World), maybe Shaw could have gone with hillbillies in the Appalachians or inner city slum dwellers and had one instance of sabotage instead of three.

I'm willing to give One Million Tomorrows a mild recommendation, because of the solid SF ideas and the one cool fight scene, but in character, plot and pacing it falls short.  Those interested in immortality in SF should probably give it a whirl.  Maybe people who are studying depictions of race and of gays and lesbians in SF will want to investigate Shaw's brief (and not exactly flattering) flirtations with these themes.

2 comments:

  1. Hi MPorcius,

    thanks for the review.

    I have a good memory of Bob Shaw. My first "adult" science fiction novel was Night Walk. Some years ago I reread the book and enjoy it again.

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed my review. Shaw is a good writer; I liked Night Walk myself, and I have a few more books by Shaw on the shelf I will be writing about in the future.

    http://mporcius.blogspot.com/2015/03/night-walk-by-bob-shaw.html?m=1

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