The Boat of a Million Years
T. Doherty Associates, 1989
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Others have written SF on the theme of immortality, but in The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson made it his own. Early in human history, certain individuals were born who live on, unaging, undying, through the centuries and millenia. We follow them through over 2000 years, up to our time and beyond-to the promise of utopia, and to the challenge of the stars.
A milestone in modern science fiction, a New York Times Notable Book on its first publication in 1989, this is one of a great writer's finest works.
"TO sail beyond the world-"
Hanno's voice faded away. Pytheas looked sharply at him. Against the plain, whitewashed room where they sat, the Phoenician seemed vivid, like a flash of sunlight from outside. It might only be due to the brightness of eyes and teeth or a skin tan even in winter. Otherwise he was ordinary, slender and supple but of medium height, features aquiline, hair and neatly trimmed beard a crow's-wing black. He wore an unadorned tunic, scuffed sandals, a single gold finger ring.
"You cannot mean that," said the Greek.
Hanno came out of reverie, shook himself, laughed. "Oh, no. A trope, of course. Though it would be well to make sure beforehand that enough of your men do believe we live on a sphere. They'll have ample terrors and troubles without fearing a plunge off the edge into some abyss."
"You sound educated," said Pytheas slowly.
"Should I not? I have traveled, but also studied. And you, sir, a learned man, a philosopher, propose to voyage into the sheerly unknown. You actually hope to come back." Hanno picked a goblet off the small table between them and sipped of the tempered wine that a slave had brought.
Pytheas shifted on his stool. A charcoal brazier had made the room close as well as warm. His lungs longed for a breath of clean air. "Not altogether unknown," he said. "Your people go that far. Lykias told me you claim to have been there yourself."
Hanno sobered. "I told him the truth. I've journeyed that way more than once, both overland and by sea. But so much of it is wilderness, so much else is changing these days, in ways unforeseeable but usually violent. And the Carthaginians are interested just in the tin, with whatever other things they can pick up incidental to that. They only touch on the southern end of the Pretanic Isles. The rest is outside their ken, or any civilized man's."
"And yet you desire to come with me."
Hanno in his turn studied his host before replying. Pytheas too was simply clad. He was tall for a Greek, lean, features sharp beneath a high forehead, clean-shaven, with a few deep lines. Curly brown hair showed frost at the temples. His eyes were gray. The directness of their glance bespoke imperiousness, or innocence, or perhaps both.
"I think I do," said Hanno carefully. "We shall have to talk further. However, in my fashion, like you in yours, I want to learn as much as I can about this earth and its peoples while I am still above it. When your man Lykias went about the city inquiring after possible advisors, and I heard, I was happy to seek him out." Again he grinned. "Also, I am in present need of employment. There ought to be a goodly profit in this."
"We are not going as traders," Pytheas explained. "We'll have wares along, but to exchange for what we need rather than to get wealthy. We are, though, pledged excellent pay on our return."
"I gather the city is not sponsoring the venture?"
"Correct. A consortium of merchants is. They want to know the chances and costs of a sea route to the far North, now that the Gauls are making the land dangerous. Not tin alone, you understand-tin may be the least of it-but amber, furs, slaves, whatever those countries offer."
"The Gauls indeed." Nothing else need be said. They had poured over the mountains to make the nearer part of Italy theirs; a long lifetime ago war chariots rumbled, swords flashed, homes blazed, wolves and ravens feasted across Europe. Hanno did add: "I have some acquaintance with them. That should help. Be warned, the prospects of such a route are poor. Besides them, the Carthaginians."
Hanno cocked his head. "Nevertheless, you are organizing this expedition."
"To follow knowledge," Pytheas answered quietly. "I am fortunate in that two of the sponsors are…more intelligent than most. They value understanding for its own sake."
"Knowledge has a trick of paying off in unexpected ways." Hanno smiled. "Forgive me. I'm a crass Phoenician. You're a man of consequence in public affairs-inherited money, I've heard-but first and foremost a philosopher. You need a navigator at sea, a guide and interpreter ashore. I believe I am the one for you."
Pytheas' tone sharpened. "What are you doing in Massalia? Why are you prepared to aid something that is…not in the interests of Carthage?"
Hanno turned serious. "I am no traitor, for I am not a Carthaginian. True, I've lived in the city, among many different places. But I'm not overly fond of it. They're too puritanical there, too little touched by any grace of Greece or Persia; and their human sacrifices-" He grimaced, then shrugged. "To sit in judgment on what people do is a fool's game. They'll continue doing it regardless. As for me, I'm from Old Phoenicia, the East. Alexandros destroyed Tyre, and the civil wars after his death have left that part of the world in sorry shape. I seek my fortune where I can. I'm a wanderer by nature anyway."
"I shall have to get better acquainted with you," Pytheas said, blunter than he was wont. Did he already feel at ease with this stranger?
"Certainly." Again Hanno's manner grew cheerful. "I've thought how to prove my skills to you. In a short time. You realize the need to embark soon, don't you? Preferably at the start of sailing season."
"Because of Carthage?"
Hanno nodded. "This new war in Sicily will engage her whole attention for a while. Agathokles of Syracuse is a harder enemy than the Carthaginian suffetes have taken the trouble to discover. I wouldn't be surprised if he carries the fight to their shores."
Pytheas stared. "How can you be so sure?"
"I was lately there, and I've learned to pay attention. In Carthage too. You're aware she discourages all foreign traffic beyond the Pillars of Herakles-often by methods that would be called piracy were it the work of a private party. Well, the suffetes now speak of an out-and-out blockade. If they win this war, or at least fight it to a draw, I suspect they'll lack the resources for some time afterward; but eventually they'll do it. Your expedition will take a pair of years at least, likelier three, very possibly more. The earlier you set forth, the earlier you'll come home-if you do-and not run into a Carthaginian patrol. What a shame, after an odyssey like that, to end at the bottom of the sea or on an auction block."
"We'll have an escort of warships."
Hanno shook his head. "Oh, no. Anything less than a penteconter would be useless, and that long hull would never survive the North Atlantic. My friend, you haven't seen waves or storms till you've been younder. Also, how do you carry food and water for all those rowers? They burn it like wildfire, you know, and resupplying will be chancy at best. My namesake could explore the African coasts in galleys, but he was southbound. You'll need sail. Let me counsel you on what ships to buy."
"You claim a great many proficiencies," Pytheas murmured.
"I have been through a great many schools," Hanno replied.
They talked onward for an hour, and agreed to meet again on the following day. Pytheas escorted his visitor out. They stopped for a moment at the front door.
The house stood high on a ridge above the bay. Eastward, beyond city walls, hills glowed with sunset. The streets of the old Greek colony had become rivers of shadow. Voices, footfalls, wheels were muted; the air rested in chilly peace. Westward the sun cast a bridge across the waters. Masts in the harbor stood stark against it. Gulls cruising overhead caught the light on their wings, gold beneath blue.
"A lovely sight," Pytheas said low. "This coast must be the most beautiful in the world."
Hanno parted his lips as if to tell about others he had seen, closed them, said finally: "Let us try to bring you back here, then. It won't be easy."
Copyright © 1989 by Poul Anderson
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