Frederik Pohl’s 1979 standalone novel Jem was one of my favourite Pohl books. I think it still has its strengths. “Aging gracefully” is not one of them, but perhaps the thick drifts of zeerust that festoon the novel can serve as a warning to modern writers.
It’s … well, the year isn’t exactly clear but
Handsome, hoary old Carl Sagan [looked] like a spry octogenarian instead of whatever incredible age he really was
so it’s at least set in 2024, possibly later1.
In some ways the 21st century is surprisingly familiar. It is plagued with the same energy and population concerns as the 1970s, albeit on a much larger scale—enough to have forced the world to abandon ideological alliances in favour of resource-based blocs. In other ways it is dramatically different: this is a world with functioning, if extremely expensive, faster than light travel.
It is also a world where nuclear proliferation has continued without check, which is good, because the possibility of nuclear Armageddon means there is a limit to international aggression (despite the pressures of population bomb and resource depletion). Petty harassment like sabotage and assassinations is OK, but nobody is stupid enough to push past the limits of the endless cold war because to do so is to risk the end of everything.
At least, that’s the theory.
Marge Menninger is ambitious, well connected, and canny enough to realize that the newly discovered habitable2 planet orbiting N-OA Bes-bes Jeminorum 8426 AKA Kung’s Semistellar Object is a potentially valuable world. Although its star is barely bright enough to qualify as a star, the planet—variously named Son of Kung, Klong, or Jem, depending on who is speaking—is home to ecosystems richer than anything seen on Earth since the beginning of the industrial age. It is also home to at least three intelligent species. Four, if Menninger has anything to say about it.
Tachyon transmitters gave humanity the stars but to use them, you have to boost yourself into orbit first. This apparently requires conventional solid-fuel rockets that would be familiar to anyone from the 1960s. Even a small crewed mission to Jem has a literally astronomical price tag. But Menninger plans more than a scouting mission; she plans a settlement.
The problem is that the Fuel and the People blocs have their own Marge Menningers. And while you would think an entire planet would be big enough to share, you would be wrong. Even as the local hazards are culling the human numbers at quite an impressive rate, the three blocs manoeuvre to master their new world and sabotage their rivals. It may be that a little lethal rivalry has its place in the new world order, but Menninger and her rivals are going to discover exactly what it takes to push the Earth into nuclear war….
I suspect that Jem owes its genesis to a little-known project of Harlan Ellison’s: Medea. Medea began as a 1975 UCLA seminar called “10 Tuesdays Down a Rabbit Hole” and … eventually … became the 1985 shared world anthology, Medea: Harlan’s World. My memory is that, rather unexpectedly for an Ellison project, the anthology took longer to see print than had originally been planned and portions of it saw print long before the book was finally published. There are enough parallels between Medea and Jem that I think Pohl may have decided to re-purpose some of his work.
I will be honest: this isn’t just a dated book; it is imbued with the essence of the mid-1970s. The Energy Crisis has had a baby with the Club of Rome, the Soviets are still around, Bulgarians are still pretty touchy about WWII (although for all I know they are now and will still be in 2024), and all women are subjected to incessant sexual harassment. Oh yes, and the assumption that nuclear proliferation would continue, with the obvious implications for Mutually Assured Destruction.
While it is nice to know that celebrities like Sagan, Shklovskii, and Hoyle will get a few extra decades, it is odd that the celebrities of The Future! are people who were famous in the 1970s. Also a little sad when you reflect on the fact all three of them die once the bombs start going off.
And yet … while Pohl’s imagined future is a child of the Disco Era, it’s not the Disco Era with larger tail fins. The Soviets may have survived, but no one is worrying about left or right, or red or not-red. What matters is whether a nation has a surplus, whether fuel, food, or people. Nations that were allies in the 1970s, like the US and the UK, are in different power blocs in the 2020s. It’s the OPECification of major resources3.
I loved this as a teenager and I still find parts of it evocative. Unlike many SF authors, Pohl embraces space probes. Crewed flight is a very small part of interstellar exploration in this setting, because “tachyon probes with their cargoes of instruments—the whole thing no bigger than a grapefruit, but miraculously capable of leaping interstellar distances in a week” only run millions of dollars, compared to the seventeen billion even a small crewed mission demands. Although the end of civilization as we know it probably negatively impacts research funding, it’s nice to see a setting with the sort of robot probe program it should have (given the setting’s technology). I will admit it is odd to see FTL married to conventional rockets, but as it turned out, scepticism that rockets would get better quickly was all too justified.
This is also an unusual future for the 1970s because it is explicitly a multi-polar world, with characters drawn from all across the globe. Granted, the way in which the poorer nations are portrayed is very 1970s and notably unimaginative in the case of China, but at least they are present as something other than a sink for foreign aid grants or that place that has endless famines. And everyone gets to be horribly bigoted towards everyone else. Yay?
I was impressed by how quickly the humans to start treating the Jem natives as badly as any 16th century adventurer treated the first nations of the Americas. True, the three local species were technologically less advanced, and mired in mutual hostility, but there was no inherent reason (aside from the fact the humans collectively are bastards) for things to go as badly as they do.
And they do go very badly; the supposed utopia the humans create for themselves is based on brutally exploiting the locals while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge what they are doing.
I don’t regret rereading this. It’s dated but in interesting ways. Pohl makes some world-building choices few others have made.
Jem may be purchased here.
1: Iosif Shklovskii is also alive, a bit of a reach since by 2024 he would be 108 (or older, if it is later than 2024). As well, Fred Hoyle also seems to be alive, despite being an impressive 109. Perhaps to compensate, he does not seem to have been knighted.
2: Habitable-ish. The light is wrong for us and the local life is as toxic to us as we are to it, but at least you can breathe the air. At least until the allergies kick and you drown in mucus.
3: Also an example of one of SF’s odd blind spots: People aren’t really considered a resource except as the source of cheap labour. And the economic focus is at the primary levels (and not even a full range, at that). It’s a view of how economies work that would be primitive by 19th century standards. Even Settlers of Catan has a more complex set up.