Jem by Frederik Pohl science fiction book reviewsJem by Frederik Pohl

Like Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977), books which Frederik Pohl a number of awards, Jem (1979) is another book from this highly successful period in Pohl’s career. It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards but didn’t win. It did win a National Book Award.

Jem is set in the near future (as seen from the late 1970s). The world is divided in three large blocs of nations: the food-exporting nations, the oil-exporting nations and the people nations. Membership of these blocs is somewhat fluid but they do contribute to a certain balance of power that has kept the world more or less peaceful. With a steadily rising population, though, competition for the world’s resources has become fierce. The nations are looking to the stars to fuel humanity’s growth. Although the problem of crossing light years in an acceptable timespan has been solved, hauling materials into orbit to facilitate space exploration still requires vast amounts of scare fossil fuels.

So far all this expense has come to noting. Sure, life has been discovered on other planets but nothing that will help solve earth’s problems — lichen, bacteria, hardly any higher life-forms at all. But then the planet that will become known as Jem is discovered. Jem is a somewhat earth-like planet that does not only support life, there is sentient life on the planet as well. Not one but three species! The nations of earth are quick to see the possibilities of this planet. An agreement is reached to support each other and share knowledge but everybody knows that, despite the billions it will take, the race to colonize Jem is on.

We see this story though multiple points of view. Most of the main characters end up on Jem sooner or later. Pohl also adds a point of view for a number of natives. This way he achieves a wonderfully detailed look at events but it comes at the expense of the depth of his characters. At 300 pages Jem is a relatively short novel. With so many characters demanding attention there isn’t that much space for development. There are a few surprises but mostly everybody does more or less what you’d expect them to. If you like a character-driven story, then this novel is going to disappoint.

Pohl’s story walks the line between dark satire and serious social commentary. It doesn’t make one feel optimistic about the future of the human race. It is already clear that we’ve messed up our own planet but the powers that be don’t seem to draw any lessons from that and pretty much see what happens on Jem as an extension of their earth policies. Which is to say naked power politics, backstabbing, mistrust and deceit. The story pretty much inevitably spirals towards violence and although most of the characters see it coming to some extent, nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. The way Pohl goes about describing the politics of his future earth and the characters that embody these policies seems to be a bit of a caricature at times. It contains a lot of stinging comments about the politics of the time it was written (a lot of which is depressingly relevant today) but at other points he seems to take it a bit too far to be credible.

One of the things I noticed in particular is the way the natives of Jem are treated. Although at some level most of the human characters admit these sentient creatures ought to be treated with a certain amount of respect, in practice their treatment is generally brutal. Humans won’t shy away from taking samples (read: killing and dissecting the natives) to find any way to exploit or eradicate them. They are seen as potential consumers, useful cannon fodder or outright enemies. Morality takes a back seat when more pressing concerns, like finishing off your competitor for the planet’s resources, have to be dealt with. Common sense does occasionally rise to the surface once in a while but seems to lose out most of the time. Whether or not it wins out at the end? I guess that is the question Pohl leaves the reader with. He certainly doesn’t make it easy to make up one’s mind about it.

Jem is not a light story; at times Pohl’s commentary on human behaviour is almost cynical. Although parts of the novel appear to be a bit over the top, the author gives the reader plenty to think about. Pohl certainly does not spare us the darker side of human nature. Some science fiction likes to portray exploration of the stars as a scientific and humanitarian effort, one that will lead the species to an utopian future. In Jem, base human emotions such as greed, aggression and mistrust are more important driving forces. The way it confronts the reader with these less favourable aspects of human nature makes Jem a very interesting read. It is perhaps not quite as strong as Gateway but certainly worth reading.


  • Rob Weber

    ROB WEBER, a regular guest at FanLit, developed a fantasy and science fiction addiction as well as a worrying Wheel of Time obsession during his college years. While the Wheel of Time has turned, the reading habit that continues to haunt him long after acquiring his BSc in environmental science. Rob keeps a blog at Val’s Random Comments.

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