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The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson4 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundImmortality is a subject that’s been tackled almost as often in science fiction as its estranged brother, time travel, but rarely as dazzlingly as it has here. In The Boat of a Million Years, we follow the lives and journeys of a group of ageless and deathless men and women, from the time of the early Roman Empire, into the future. Part historical epic, part SF, this is one of those rare, brilliant novels where almost everything simply seems to work with an effortlessness that borders on the supernatural. Ultimately it can be said that its chief flaw is its extreme length. It’s just over 500 pages, but the episodic nature of the narrative makes it feel like an entire trilogy. Still, Anderson’s fiction has been strong in his later years, and The Boat of a Million Years lives up to the grandiosity of its title. It’s the kind of book you live in as much as read.

As the novel unfolds, it first seems to take on the character of a short story collection, and it features storytelling that is some of the best in Anderson's career. The chapters — each of which is set in a particular time and place: Roman Britain, the Byzantine Empire, the early American West — are so fully realized they could make for complete novels all on their own. Almost obsessive in his research, Anderson still manages to make the story gripping and exciting by focusing squarely on his immortals, and making each one a real human being suffering under the onus of an extraordinary curse: the inability to grow old and die. Though they can be and sometimes are killed by conventional weapons or accidents, in most cases, they move quietly through the ages, watching countless spouses and children grow, pass away, and fade into memory. 

Anderson makes the immortals’ loneliness palpable and often gut-wrenching. Yet the novel is never depressing, as he has given his cast a single ray of hope that guides them all: the quest for each other. They may not know why they are the way they are, but it stands to reason that somewhere in this vast world, there must be others like them. So they seek, and eventually find.

Given the sheer scope of this ambitious book, one can imagine other writers would have succumbed to the temptation to fill its pages with cloying, self-conscious cameos by historical figures. (That nauseating movie Forrest Gump comes painfully to mind.) Naturally, most historical novels tend to focus on the major famous names of the day. The assumption, most likely, is that no one would want to read a novel about the Roman Empire and not see the emperor. Why read a novel about the Renaissance that didn’t prominently figure Michelangelo? Anderson wisely resists this, giving us a rare sort of historical novel in which we see the day to day lives of normal people in bygone days. When an exception occurs (such as a magnificent chapter where one of the immortals meets privately with Cardinal Richelieu), Anderson uses the scene to serve the basic thrust of the story: getting the immortals together. Occasionally, Anderson treats his history with real wit. One time traveller is frequently asked if he ever met Jesus. He says no, glibly mentioning that he was in Phonecia at the time. Overall, the fact that virtually no famous names from the history books put in an appearance makes The Boat of a Million Years a thousand times more authentic.

Ironically, the weakest parts come toward the end, at the point where the story has taken us into a distant future where our eight immortals, now comrades, feel so out of place on the world of their birth that they acquire a starship and venture off to systems unknown. Though this climactic chapter of the story is the one most overtly SFnal, it’s also the least compelling dramatically, mainly because it covers more familiar ground — I was consistently reminded of other Anderson deep-space voyage novels, particularly Tau Zero and the second half of The Avatar. But it’s still written with great conviction, and by this point, you’ve been intimate with these immortals for so long that you have a strong investment in seeing them through to the next phase of their lives.

This is a big novel, and perhaps too much to take in all at once. (I read three other books during the period I read this one.) But it’s a deeply personal work, written by a man late in his career who has all of his life to look back upon, and for whom mortality is still perhaps a great and wondrous — but no longer frightening — mystery. The Boat of a Million Years sails proudly among the fleet of SF’s most rewarding sagas.