It’s the summer of 2012 and the Earth is a disaster. A deadly virus has killed most of the world population and those who remain will eventually succumb to its organ-rotting effects if they are not given an antidote before they start to show symptoms. All of the national governments have collapsed and the world is now ruled by the opportunistic dictator Genghis II Mao IV Khan with the help of the bureaucrats who do his bidding. All of them have been inoculated against the virus and, according to the Khan, they are working on increasing their supply of the antidote so it can be distributed to the people. Meanwhile, the Khan spends his day in his room, observing the dying people with the surveillance equipment that watches every part his domain.
One of the Khan’s most important advisors is his doctor, Mordecai Shadrach, a tall attractive black man whose implanted sensors constantly alert him of the Khan’s physical and emotional status. He loyally attends the Khan daily and regularly performs organ transplants and other surgeries that keep the elderly leader alive. All of this has worked fine so far, but what will happen when the Khan’s brain starts to deteriorate? There are signs of it already.
To prepare, the Khan has teams of scientists working on different projects that he hopes will ensure his survival. When Shadrach learns that one of these plans involves transferring the Khan’s consciousness into Shadrach’s body, he has a big decision to make. If he stays, he’ll lose himself. If he flees, he’ll be caught, tried as a traitor, and sent to one of the Khan’s organ farms. He is being watched very closely…
I’m always fascinated by Robert Silverberg’s novels, but I can’t say that I always like them. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy Shadrach in the Furnace and I’d have to say it’s one of my favorites so far. The dystopic “Big Brother” setting is intriguing, the plot is exciting and tense, there are numerous ethical issues to consider, and Shadrach is a likeable protagonist. Silverberg uses the story to discuss the history and possible future of the field of medicine. Especially interesting are the ideas about how we might preserve someone’s consciousness after the body deteriorates — a common theme in modern SF, but not so common in 1976 when this was written.
Silverberg takes the usual time-outs for sex scenes and extended drug trances, but these fit into the plot successfully (not always the case in Silverberg’s stories). For example, the hallucinogenic trips allow us to visit major historical and fictional world events and to see them from the perspective of people who lived in that time.
Similarly, Shadrach’s vacation (when he’s trying to discover whether he can flee) takes us to Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Rome where we see the evidences of a past glorious civilization alongside the new devastated — but still hopeful — life that people are now leading. Silverberg also uses this time to remind us of the slavery that the Jews and Blacks endured in Egypt and America and the pain that Jesus Christ suffered along the Via Dolorosa on his way to the cross.
There are other Biblical allusions. (There often are in Silverberg’s novels.) The title Shadrach in the Furnace refers, of course, to the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were put into the furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they refused to worship him. When they didn’t burn up, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the power of the Hebrew God. Will Shadrach burn up when he refuses to bow to the Khan? Or will he walk the Via Dolorosa and become the savior of the world?
Shadrach in the Furnace was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. I listened to Audible Frontiers’ production which was narrated by Paul Boehmer who always gives a great performance. He never overacts or uses annoying accents and his enunciation is crystal clear. This was an excellent story for audio.
As America celebrated its bicentennial year in 1976, sci-fi great Robert Silverberg was, by all reports, feeling not a little “burnt out” … and quite understandably so. The author, by that point, had already come out with almost 320 books (!) since his first, Revolt on Alpha C, in 1954. Granted, of that staggering number, over half had been adult-oriented sex novels (178, by my rough count), while a good 93 had been nonfiction volumes dealing with such widely varied subject matter as the pharaoh Akhnaten, extinct animals, John Muir and Antarctica.
But it is his science fiction work, of course, that Silverberg is best known for today. During his initial writing phase (1954-’65, which included the author’s first “retirement,” due to his dissatisfaction with the literary restraints of the era), the author had come out with 23 pleasing, workmanlike, pulpish sci-fi entertainments. But Silverberg astonished his peers and readers alike with his second phase, from 1967-’76, during which time — given considerable creative leeway by editor Frederik Pohl, and reveling in the written word’s newly liberalized freedoms as regards language, style, sex and subject matter — the author came out with 25 novels that constitute one of the greatest streaks any writer, in any genre, has ever enjoyed.
Each of the 25 is a little gem, as different from the others as can be; beautifully written, literate, intelligent and highly imaginative creations, all. But all that creative effort must have taken its toll, the result being, as mentioned, one burnt-out writer. (Oh … did I fail to mention the 450 short stories and novellas that Silverberg had ALSO produced up to this point?!) One would think that the author’s final work, after all this expenditure of effort, would exhibit some signs of creative bankruptcy, of imaginative decline. Happy to say, that is hardly the case here. Shadrach in the Furnace, released in ’76 as a Bobbs-Merrill hardcover, turns out to be one of its author’s greatest creations, every bit as wonderful and captivating as any of his many other lauded works from this middle phase. The novel was nominated for a Nebula Award (ultimately “losing” to Pohl’s Man Plus) as well as a Hugo (Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang prevailed that year, however), and has remained a fan favorite ever since.
The book takes place over the course of a few months in the spring/summer of 2012. The Earth, at this point, is in a very sorry state, indeed, with over half its population dead as a result of the “organ rot” disease that had arisen after the Virus Wars of the mid-‘90s. Now, while the remaining population slowly succumbs to the rot, the world dictator, Genghis II Mao IV Khan, rules over what’s left from his enormous tower in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
The book’s central story revolves around the Khan’s doctor, Shadrach Mordecai, a 39-year-old black man from Philadelphia who, by dint of the telemetering devices implanted in his body, is able to keep track of the Khan’s precise medical status from anywhere within a 1,000-kilometer radius! The Khan is immensely old (we never learn his exact age, but it is suspected to be around 90), and through innumerable organ transplants and transfusions, intends to keep his run going for many more years.
Three scientific projects that are under way in the tower are expected to enable the Khan to achieve an even greater longevity: Project Talos, which strives to build a robotic leader; Project Phoenix, which would enable the Khan to regenerate his cellular matter; and, perhaps most remarkably, Project Avatar, which would make it possible for the aged leader to put his soul/spirit into the healthy body of a younger man! And when Shadrach inadvertently learns that the Khan has taken an interest in his own young, healthy body, he must decide whether to flee (not an easy proposition, in this world of ubiquitous citizen police and omnipresent spy satellites) or stay loyal to his leader and patient….
Shadrach in the Furnace is a fitting culmination of Silverberg’s sci-fi work up until that point. Like many of its predecessors, it features a highly likable leading character (Shadrach is one cool customer indeed: hugely intelligent, well spoken, compassionate, smooth with the ladies), a liberal dose of somewhat graphic sex (Shadrach has relationships with two female scientists in the book: Dr. Nikki Crowfoot, head of Project Avatar, and Dr. Katya Lindman, head of Project Talos), and scenes set in an amusement park of the future (here, the dead city of Karakorum has been rebuilt as a wonderland/playground for adults).
The book is one of boundless imagination, with some new wonder or stunning plot development on practically every page. Thus, we get to experience three of the world’s latest fad religions with Shadrach: transtemporalism (which allows one, via drugs, to witness ancient historic events), dream death (a hypnotic state that resembles the timeless/spaceless experience of death, and during which Silverberg gets to spin still another psychedelic sequence, harking back to his truly bizarre novel of 1971, Son of Man) and carpentry (or the attaining of an almost Zen-like state through woodworking).
Typical for Silverberg, the book contains some truly fascinating, well-written dialogue, from an author who always seems to instinctively know the right word to employ. And just as the reader begins to wonder if this entire longish novel will remain confined to the Mongolian capital, off Shadrach goes on a tour of the world, allowing the reader to see what’s going on in Nairobi, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Rome and San Francisco, as the organ rot continues to lay the world to waste. It really is some spellbinding stuff; even New Wave legend J.G. Ballard has called the book “ingenious,” and he, I have a feeling, was a tougher critic than myself! The novel is a nearly flawless creation (my only real problem with it is that we never fully learn how Shadrach came to be in the Khan’s employ to begin with) and ends quite wonderfully, with the world almost literally in the palm of Shadrach’s left hand….
Of course, Shadrach, happily, was NOT Silverberg’s final novel after all, and it was just four years later when the author came roaring back with the start of his hugely popular LORD VALENTINE series. He has come out with almost 30 more novels since, in this, his current, third phase. I have not read any of his third-phase books (yet), but after having taken in the bulk of phase 2, I must admit that I have concluded that Robert Silverberg is one of the best we’ve got. Just read his final three works of that middle phase — Dying Inside, The Stochastic Manand Shadrach in the Furnace, all written, mind you, by the author as he complained of a diminution of his creative abilities — and tell me if the man isn’t some kind of a freakin’ genius…