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‘To Sail Beyond the World’
The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson: or The Difference Between Sci-fi and Fantasy
1989, Tor, NY, 530 pages, with a chronology and glossary in the back matter
This is very nearly my favorite book, and certainly my second favorite science-fiction book of the 500 or so I have read. Paul Anderson was the dean of what I would call the ‘anthropological’ science-fiction writers. Paul did a lot of time travel fiction because he was an extremely insightful historian of human cultures. His time travel series ‘The Shield of Time’ and his earlier work about an American scholar who finds himself in 5th Century Rome, ‘Less Darkness Fall’ are among the best tales of their kind. [I was mistaken here. Les Darkness Fall was written by L. Sprague DeCamp. Anderson did The Vault of Ages about what was essentially a post-apocalyptic time capsule. The novel was written for young adults.] But The Boat of a Million Years is a masterpiece.
Immortality in Fiction
The Boat of a Million years is a science-fiction tale about immortality. Now, in the hands of fantasists like Bram Stoker and Anne Rice and their legions of imitators, the crux of any immortality story comes down to a king or queen of the damned. It only follows in the fantasy mind that someone with the rare gift of immortality would also hold the rarest temporal place—some kind of leadership role either of or as part of an immortal secret society, or of an earthly realm such as Transylvania.
As a science-fiction writer Anderson looked at the immortal question and determined that a likely way for this to have occurred would be if certain people had an extremely rare non-hereditary condition that did what scientist hope to do in the next two hundred years: prevent cell oxidation, and hence aging.
Now, the fantasist looks at immortality and assumes that great power immediately accrues to the immortal. But Anderson looks at those who actually live unnaturally long lives and sees hermits and recluses—poor folk meditating in caves and gardens.
Distilling the Question
The consummate science-fiction writer, Anderson, distills the question of immortality—the implicit sorrow—by granting that his immortals have only the one power, the proof against aging. They can be violently killed just like anyone else. Any researcher into the primal and ancient and medieval conditions under which man lived and the attendant mortality by trauma would immediately deduce that few immortals would even live long enough to know they were ageless.
The science-fiction writer runs the numbers and finds that the only random condition approaching the low frequency of agelessness is to be born to the ruling class. Therefore the immortal begins life as a poor shmuck and likely continues life in the static pre-modern society as a poor shmuck.
So, what happens to those few ageless people both with good luck and remarkable abilities that make it to old age in a muscle-powered world?
If he is a man he gets into local middle-management. Ask everybody who you know who has ever been in middle-management in any field and they will tell you that it is a dog-eat-dog world: the dogs above with their fangs on your throat, the dogs around you angling for your position, and the dogs beneath you salivating in anticipation of your ejection from your miserable lot so that you can be eaten alive! So, in a superstitious society, when everyone around, above, and below you begins losing teeth, and getting gray, and you—an obvious practitioner of witchcraft and assorted vile arts who have sucked the life from them demon like as they have slept; well, welcome to this cozy stake surrounded by the pile of thoughtfully assembled and highly combustible brush…
Let’s say that you are a woman and ageless. Okay, ladies, just sit back and imagine how many of your female in-laws would want to slit your throat when you don’t die on time and keep looking good to boot. And, the young stud who—if you are lucky—decided to marry you and take you away in order to acquire your husband’s or eldest son’s goods, how is he going to feel about you in 40 years when you are still hot and he can’t get it up? You see, marriage is a deathtrap for an immortal woman. There are really only two occupations left to her: prostitution and monastic life.
Men as always have more options. But a man’s greater ability to travel as a merchant or sailor or fighting man puts him at greater risk of violent or accidental death.
Sorrow and Immortality
So, after tens of thousands of years a few immortals have survived this nightmare. Now what happens to these above average people who have managed to claw and sneak and connive their way to the fringes, or underbellies, or distant reaches of society?
Imagine your condition is accepted by your people. How many wives, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren can you bare to see waste away and die?
When the sorrow becomes too much wouldn’t you seek for one of your own kind?
Having decided on this course what can you functionally remember?
Think, as a 50 year old man I can barely remember what people looked like when I was ten, why I was afraid of dogs and what my grandmother told me. What does a thousand year old person remember of his youth, of a trade he might once have engaged in?
Putting on boxing gloves after a one year layoff is bad enough, like stepping into a half-remembered world of brutal shadows licking at you from the periphery of some hell. Imagine a hundred, a thousand years?
You see, in the mind’s eye of the science-fiction writer what at first glance seems to the fantasist to be a vast call-up menu of preternatural skill and power becomes instead, a mind clouded with mist, streaked with tears and turbulent with the noise of many worlds. The ageless time traveler becomes a person influenced by forgotten tragedies and beset by myriad ghosts.
The Most Poignant Big Scope Sci-Fi Novel Ever Written?
I have just discussed the bones of Paul Anderson’s monumental work of speculative fiction. I hope it is enough to convince you to read his beautiful account of seven immortals as they grope through what is an unthinkably long night for those they hope exist as they do, outside or Time, but caught I its impersonal current.
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Sheri BroadbentAug 24, 2014

With everyone's nose in their phones and never looking up to say hello to their fellow man, living under the radar should be simple. New town, city, or state every ten years or so. New cut and color for your hair, new style of dressing etc. would become lonely though after a while. :/
responds:Aug 24, 2014

Are you sure you want your husband to read this?

Actually Anderson concluded that things would be relatively easy for these immortals in our time, and also that things would rapidly get better for them at a certain point in the future. The bottleneck though, would be very long as they lived on through the violently religious past.
Sheri BroadbentAug 24, 2014

Ah, dear brother you forget on thing... The very Merry Widow !! If a woman could live forever and still look hot she could squarel away quite a tidy sum by just marrying well, over and over again. As the husband ages she acquires new lovers. Sounds good to me :)
responds:Aug 24, 2014

The only problem is your neighbors stone or burn you for being a witch or a demon.

One option the author comes up with for the woman who could not bring herself to prostitution and did not want to spend eternity in a convent, was marrying 'a trusted agent'. She would marry men who travelled as part of their business and were versed in the transfer and storage of wealth. Then, at a certain point, when he looked twice her age, they would move their base of operations and begin claiming she was his daughter. He would then arrange marriage for her, and so it went. The only problem is, she has now taken on the risky life of being a medieval traveler, which was never safe unless you had a small a army. Also she was totally at the mercy of a man's good will. How many sugar daddies would find a replacement for you before they croaked?

Three women do make it to the end of this tale, so Anderson worked out some options. But still they had it rougher than the men. There was this girl, and also a Japanese woman who had the best position since she was a member of a secluded class of courtesan women and had access to a fraternity of traveling nuns as a way of changing locales and identities. The other chick just became a man-eating prostitute who could never bring herself to trust a man after the way she was treated in 7th Century Palestine.

You see where this goes, once you start looking at the down sides of her predicament.
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