Book Review: Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg (Audiobook narrated by Paul Boehmer)
After a giant volcanic eruption led to chaos and the virus wars, the world came under a one world government led by Genghis Mao based out of Mongolia. The virus wars also led to everyone being infected with organ rot, a condition that simply spontaneously starts whenever it feels like it. Only those working close to the government get the antidote. Shadrach Mordecai, an African-American, went straight from Harvard Med to being the personal doctor for the world dictator. He has implants that allow him to monitor Genghis Mao’s health through his own body, plus he is overseeing the three projects pursuing a way to keep Mao alive forever. But when Project Avatar, which would involve implanting Mao’s brain into a new body, loses its prime candidate, Shadrach realizes his position as aid to Mao might not be keeping him as safe as her previously believed.
One of my all-time favorite books, The World Inside (review), is by Robert Silverberg, so I decided I should start working on reading all of his writings. So when I saw this Silverberg book on Audible, I immediately knew where my June membership credit would be going.
There are quite a few things that make this piece of scifi stick out. First, out of the four main characters, three are people of color. Shadrach is black, Mao is obviously Mongolian, the head of Project Avatar is Native American (Navajo, I believe), and the head of the project seeking to put Mao into a robot body is headed by a white European woman. It’s an incredibly diverse cast that I really enjoyed. Plus, Shadrach gets it on with both Nikki Crowfoot and Katya (Native and European, respectively). There’s also the fascinating fact that Mao, who previously only wanted a Mongolian body, is totally into the idea of putting his brain into the body of strong, young black man. You could read this one of two ways: either as a scifi slave narrative (Mao owning Shadrach’s body) or as a progressive future where skintone doesn’t matter but the leaders still manage to be totally evil.
The scifi in the book is incredibly strong. Silverberg obviously did his brain and infectious diseases research. It was akin to reading abstracts from medical journals when Shadrach was talking about the various medical things going on with Mao’s body and with organ rot in the general population.
Religion is dealt with in an interesting manner. Most people seem to be more religious. Even the “secular” government workers follow the new religion, whose name I can’t remember I’m afraid, that involves monks and taking hallucinatory drugs. It’s obviously an idea of a futuristic religion born out of the 1970s in which it was written, but it works within the imaginary future it exists within.
Central to the novel is Shadrach’s struggle with the Hippocratic Oath. He is sworn to repeatedly save the life of an evil dictator who is willfully withholding an antidote to organ rot from the general population. It’s obviously an intense moral dilemma and the scifi setting helps the reader look at it with less emotion than if, say, we were talking about a modern setting wherein Shadrach was working for a neo-Nazi or something.
One thing that does date the book is that Silverberg made the choice of giving an exact year for when all of this is going down, and that year is 2012. I did find it an odd bit of serendipity that I just so happened to pick up this book in 2012. In a sense, then, for the modern reader it’s more like reading an alternate history. What *would* have happened if a huge natural disaster had occurred in the 1990s? Whereas in a book like 1984, it’s still the same book for modern readers as for the original readers (you just ignore the date), here the date actually has an impact on the reading of the story. The reading is different now than it probably was for people in the 1970s, but it still works. Just in a different way.
I did feel the pacing is a bit off in the book. It’s a bit up and down. There were a couple of moments earlier in the story that had the intensity level of almost a climax, whereas the climax feels….less climaxy. It took some of the tension out for me, even though I was pleased with the ultimate ending. This did make it ideal for an audiobook, though, since it was easier to come and go from it as I had time to listen. Related to the pacing issue, although most of the book is third person Shadrach’s perspective, there are a few chapters that are first person Mao’s perspective. Those threw me a bit. I’m still not sure how I felt about them. I honestly think it would take a second read in print to get a real vibe for that dynamic.
Speaking of the audiobook, the narrator, Paul Boehmer, does a phenomenal job. He gets many different accents spot on without ever seeming to be racist. He also does a great job differentiating between who is speaking and thinking and what have you. He also did an admirable job narrating the sex scenes. The tonality of his voice is spot on for the intimacy and excitement. I would gladly listen to another book he’s narrated.
Overall then this is an interesting piece of scifi that was originally written as futuristic and now reads as alternate history. It features a diverse, three-dimensional cast and provides a great setting for the moral dilemma of helping those who would harm others. I recommend it to fans of scifi that addresses moral issues.
4 out of 5 stars