Review of Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg

Part of the Worlds Without End Grand Masters Reading Challenge.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this a page-turner with vivid characters. I expected it to be dull and dreary, but instead there’s suspense, a noble hero, and lots of sex!

That said, the plot is slightly transparent, and the ending comes a little too quickly, but this near-future dystopian story of an ailing despot, Genghis II Mao IV Khan (oh, just call him the Khan), and his personal physician, Shadrach Mordecai, pulls the reader into an enjoyable, if mild, parable of intrigue, betrayal and quiet heroism. The story hinges on whether or not the Khan will use his cadre of doctor-scientists to transfer his consciousness (or is it his soul?) into the body of Shadrach, and continue living forever while the people of his kingdom, plagued by a disease called organ rot, wait for a cure that is available, but will never be distributed if the Khan continues to reign.

Silverberg’s use of present tense, which can often be jarring and annoying, here works fluidly, turning the narrative into a kind of sly, urgent aside. The prose reveals the dual nature of Shadrach: his responsiveness as a doctor (and a lover), and his calm, aloof personality. Despite the fact that as part of his position as royal doctor, his body has been implanted with a full range of bio-sensors that attune him to every fluctuation of the Khan’s failing systems, Shadrach possesses a yogic calm (maybe a little too calm – and how come those body sensors never cause him to experience sex from the Khan’s physical perspective?) from the first chapter, when we meet him as caregiver for the dictator, to the end, when he becomes caregiver for the human race.

The novel has a richness to it that you don’t find in too many old dystopian novels, and I think it’s partly because of the vivid allusions to religious history (whether cliched or not – Shadrach’s form of meditation happens to be carpentry) and the global settings. Most post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read take place in a battered America, but Shadrach’s tale spans the globe. And it must be pointed out that you don’t come across too many science fiction heroes in the form of young black men.

Shadrach’s bedroom romps with his two paramours (a man like Shadrach – beautiful, strong, intelligent – of course finds himself linked to two different women, both fierce and flawed) deepen what could have been a boring futuristic medical thriller. A good many racy boudoir scenes provide Silverberg with the opportunity to keep the reader turning pages but also to play upon archetypes and stereotypes (sometimes unsuccessfully). It’s the Valkyrie versus Pocahontas. One of these women will disappoint Shadrach, and one will surprise him.

There’s also some hypnosis-induced recreation in the form of “dream-death,” which is a kind of hallucinatory self-discovery vacation for the non-diseased elite. In a different story, this kind of Huxleyed up mind trip might be overblown and contrived. But the character of Shadrach keeps the story grounded.

Overall, not a bad tale, and surprisingly hip.

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