The Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson
Poul 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.