by Frederik Pohl
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Frederik Pohl’s 1979 novel Jem is the only science fiction hardcover novel to win the American Book Award in a one-year experiment to recognize genre work. Unfortunately, at a distance of forty years, Jem does stand up to scrutiny, has a dated feel, and seems to be a minor component of Pohl’s oeuvre, coming at the end of decade that saw Pohl launch his Gateway series as well as Man Plus, the stories “The Merchants of Venus,” “The Gold at the Starbow’s End,” and “The Meeting,” as well as his memoir, The Way the Future Was.
Set in the 2030s, Jem clearly takes a look at the world of the 1970s and extrapolates from the way the world was. While nation states still exist in Pohl’s world alliances have undergone a sea-change. Rather than form treaties based on political theory, the nations of the world have realigned into three major blocs based on what they have to offer. The People bloc is made up of nations who suffer from overpopulation, while the Oil bloc has energy resources, mostly oil since this world hasn’t adopted wind, solar, or hydroelectric energy, and the Food bloc has the arable land necessary to not only feed themselves, but to export.
The novel opens at a scientific conference, where Abdul Dulla, from the People bloc, is presenting a paper on Kung’s Star and its tidally locked planet, which would become known as Jem. In the wake of his paper, Dulla and his girlfriend, Ana Dimitrova, a translator from the Food bloc, would be thrown into contact with scientist Danny Dalehouse and soldier Marge Menninger, also from the Food bloc. Their association wouldn’t end there as the three blocs begin a race to Jem to explore the planet and, with luck, plunder its resources.
Jem is an intriguing planet, tidally locked to a red dwarf star, providing a gloomy atmosphere for those on the star-facing side of the planet and frigid temperatures on the dark side of the planet. The planet is also home to three different types of sentient beings, floating gasbags, burrowing creepers, and a chitonous race. Pohl sets up a planet which, if published in the science fiction magazines a couple decades earlier, would be rife for exploration and appealing to the reader’s sense of wonder. Jem, however, is not a novel of exploration, but rather of exploitation.
While the three blocs could work together on Jem to turn it into some sort of paradise, or even a resource to make life on Earth more palatable, from the earliest moments when the three expeditions set off, the blocs plot, scheme, and retain secrets from each other. Help is only provided on Jem when there is something to be gained and each bloc winds up allying with a different one of the sentient races. Rather than leave terrestrial squabbles back on Earth, those situations impact and are replayed on Jem, endangering all three of the colonies.
Pohl also has his characters made frequent use of slurs, some ethnic, some economic, with new slurs created specifically to refer to the Jemman races. This casual bigotry on the micro-level is indicative of the tensions that exist on Pohl’s future Earth which will spell trouble for the colonies. What makes this more interesting is that while Pohl is clearly using some words in a calculated and derogatory fashion, other terms that he uses were not seen as slurs when the book was written, but the changing vocabulary and culture have made them so in the intervening years.
Jem has not dated as well as some of Pohl’s other novels or, indeed, other works from 1979. Too much of Pohl’s background is based on the problems of that decade which no longer have the apparent urgency they had at the time. By tying the action of the novel so closely to those concerns, Pohl almost guaranteed a short-shelf life for the novel even as he ignored the geology, flora, and fauna of his planet.
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