Shadrach In The Furnace – Robert Silverberg (1976)
Shadrach Mordecai, despite his Jewish name, is a black Philadelphian, and the personal physician of Genghis II Mao IV Khan, dictator and ruler of the entire Earth in a dark dystopia of 2012.
Shadrach has a complex system of implants wired into his body which constantly update him on the tyrant’s vital signs; Genghis having extended his life so far by a process of organ transplants.
Genghis realises that this process cannot extend his life forever and is funding three research projects as an alternative.
Project Phoenix is researching into methods of rejuvenating the old man’s body. Project Talos is designing a synthetic body into which the consciousness of Genghis can be transferred, while Project Avatar is moving toward a point in which the tyrant’s mind can be decanted into the skull of his unwitting son, Mangu.
The idea of ‘getting into someone’s head’ – the perennial quest of a writer – appears in various metaphorical forms throughout the book.
Plans are thrown into chaos when Mangu discovers his fate from Katya Lindman – head of Project Talos, who may have done it in order to sabotage the rival project – and throws himself to his death from his balcony. The tyrant is then in need of another body donor, and decides that his next candidate is Shadrach.
Shadrach, upon discovering his fate, begins to write a fictional ‘diary’ of Genghis, attempting to get into his leader’s head, and piece together fragments of his past life.
Ultimately Shadrach does indeed literally get into his leader’s head and there installs a pump which will, on command from Shadrach, pump enough cranial fluid into his brain to cause him extreme pain or even kill him.
The structure is somewhat disjointed, beginning as one character third person narrative, but diverging later into Shadrach’s fictional diaries of Genghis.
Perhaps Silverberg thought that Genghis needed humanising, or at least that we should think that Shadrach needed to humanise Genghis, to put him into some sort of context.
It’s difficult to see what ‘the furnace’ of the title refers to in relation to the novel. Obviously, the reference is to the biblical Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being put into the furnace and being protected by God from burning.
Here, Shadrach has no God to rely on and has to take matters into his own hands (literally – the activating mechanism for the cranial pump is in Shadrach’s hand) in order to save himself.
At one point, however, Shadrach takes some time off, travels around the world and meets a Meshach with whom he becomes friends.
One of Silverberg’s better works which resonates with the various metaphors, mythical and historical references, and was nominated for various awards.