The Boat of a Million Years: A millennia-spanning epic

The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson

The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsPoul Anderson’s millennia-spanning epic The Boat of a Million Years (1989) follows the lives of several unusual human beings starting from a few hundred years before the birth of Christ and ending sometime in the far future.

For some unknown reason, these folks are essentially immortal, not appearing to age past 25 years old and remaining fertile forever. They heal quickly and are immune to disease, though they can be killed by accident or murder.

The problem is that these few immortal people, who are born at different times in different parts of the world, do not know each other and each assumes he or she is the only immortal person alive. Living forever is not a lot of fun when everyone around you eventually dies, including your friends, lovers, and children. When this goes on for hundreds of years, it gets pretty depressing. Besides that, if anyone notices that you don’t age, you get accused of witchcraft, so you have to keep moving on.

One of our immortal friends, a man who we first know as Hanno when he’s born in 1000 BC, travels the world, rebranding himself as needed, searching for knowledge and for others like him. An Asian man named Tu Shan becomes a mysterious spiritual leader in Tibet. Patulcius, a Roman, finds it advantageous to be a low-level bureaucrat with control over the records. A woman named Aliyat finds that prostitution is the best business for a woman who never ages, and a black woman named Corinne lives as a servant until society advances enough to give her other options.

We don’t get to know these people very well, but as they carefully navigate their world, we get to travel with them, exploring the Earth, meeting famous historical figures, witnessing important world events. We live through wars (so many wars!), famines, and pandemics. We see how poorly women and minorities have been treated throughout history. We see societies and cultures gradually change.

Eventually we arrive in the modern world and speculate about the science behind immortality, the evolution of the human species, post-humanism, and the consequences of longer lives (we’d progress so much!).

The Boat of a Million Years is epic in scope, episodic in nature, and our viewpoint feels far off, yet the message is deeply personal. More than life itself, humans crave long-lasting relationships with other humans, and the loss of these relationships are detrimental to mental health.

The Boat of a Million Years was nominated for, but did not win, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Prometheus Awards.

I listened to Tantor Audio’s recently published edition which is 24.5 hours long and excellently performed by Keith Sellon-Wright.

Published in 1989. Tantor Audio’s edition published in 2021. A New York Times Notable Book and Hugo and Nebula Award finalist: This epic chronicle of 10 immortals over the course of history “succeeds admirably” (The New York Times). The immortals are 10 individuals born in antiquity from various cultures. Immune to disease, able to heal themselves from injuries, they will never die of old age – although they can fall victim to catastrophic wounds. They have walked among mortals for millennia, traveling across the world, trying to understand their special gifts while searching for one another in the hope of finding some meaning in a life that may go on forever. Following their individual stories over the course of human history and beyond into a richly imagined future, “one of science fiction’s most revered writers” (USA Today) weaves a broad tapestry that is “ambitious in scope, meticulous in detail, polished in style” (Library Journal).

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. This is considered one of his best, and while I love the idea and how thoughtful a storyteller he was, it’s disappointing now to think that the “best job” an immortal woman could find was sex worker (I guess I’m judging, though. After all, if she wasn’t worried about the stigma, fine. But would she worry about disease?)–and a Black woman can only be servant. We know today that this wasn’t true, and was never the ONLY path open to people of color.

    Even someone as imaginative as Anderson couldn’t quite see his way beyond the boundaries of our thinking of the time.

    Maybe I’m being too harsh.

    • We see these women adapt with the times so that by the time we get to the mid 20th century, the two women meet in NYC and the Black woman starts a charity. I thought of it more as Anderson’s commentary on the roles women (especially women of color) have been relegated to rather than his inability to imagine anything different.

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