NESFA Members' Reviews

The Boat of a Million Years

by Poul Anderson

Orb, 2004 [1989], ISBN 0-765-31024-4

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This is solid, if rambling, Anderson fun: scenes from the lives of a small group of immortals as they learn to hide their nature and cope with the natural suspicions of their short-lived compatriots. The oldest is Hanno, a Phoenicias sailor, and the youngest is an African-American slave who eventually uses the name Corinne Macandal. The others who make it to the end of book are Aliyat (Syrian), Svoboda (Ukrainian), Tu Shan (Chinese), Yukiko (Japanese), John Wanderer (Native American), and Patulcius (Roman). Agelessness is not enough to ensure long lives, and we meet other immortals along the way, who from carelessness, bad luck, or deliberate choice, don't survive to share the ultimate fate of the eight survivors. Or rather, as they come to be known, Survivors.

Most of the book consists of the adventures the individual immortals in various well-devoloped ancient settings. Hanno joins a Greek expedition to Britain and Scandinavia. Aliyat lives too long in Palmyra while it is changing from a Christian to a Muslim city, and escapes the harem to become a prostitute--in Constantinople for a while, where she briefly meets Hanno, who has become a Rus trader. (Well, Welsh, really, for certain values of "really," but the Byzantines regard him as Rus.) Svoboda, already a great-grandmother, leaves her village before she can be killed for witchcraft, to become a merchant's wife in Kiev (and briefly meets Hanno), and later a nun, and still later a Cossack and then a soldier for Mother Russia during the Second World War. (Not for the USSR; the Soviets are better than the Nazis for Svoboda's people, but not much.) Hanno meets Richelieu; John Wanderer, under the earlier name of Deathless, survives the great cultural change brought by the arrival of the horse, and later survives the conquest of the Native American tribes by the expanding United States of America (and meets Hanno. Hanno is the unifying theme in this book.)

It's in these visits to different times and cultures that the book is strongest; it's always been one of Anderson's great strengths. Where the book drags a bit is in the late 20th century, where Hanno becomes a remarkably predictable libertarian. Only a particularly petty and unhealthy puritanism, for instance, can possibly explain laws banning smoking in elevators. Hanno's nemesis, Edmund Moriarty, a.k.a. "Neddy," U.S. Senator from some unidentified New England state, is a cartoon, about as subtle as a ton of bricks. Even John Wanderer's mild reminders that there are some real problems that are most usefully addressed at a level beyond rugged individualism carry little weight beside the fact that Moriarty's own aide has complete contempt for Moriarty's hypocrisy, evidenced in such telling signs as the fact that he has quit smoking, and the senator is too smugly oblivious to notice. Despite the fact that this is the section in which all the surviving immortals make contact, and the one in which hiding successfully becomes a serious challenge, this is a dull, draggy interlude. There is no explanation, not even hand-waving, for how clever Hanno hides them all from the nefarious forces of modern civilization for the remaining decades before aging becomes a solved problem for everyone. We then have another not very interesting section, set in the same AI-controlled world as The Stars Are Also Fire and other later Anderson works, before the real story resumes. The immortals leave this boring non-story for a far more entertaining encounter with two alien species.

Not Anderson's best work, by any means, but very enjoyable even with its weaknesses.

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