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.
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