Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

Farewell to the truly venerable Fred Pohl, the most-often misspelled author in science fiction, and, I believe, the very last notable surviving writer of the great blossoming of the field from the 1940s. But where his barely-out-of-(if that)-their-teens contemporaries, like Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth (both close friends of Pohl's, though not, alas, of each other), early made their names as prodigal writers, Pohl, though he did write stories at this time, became notable instead as a prodigal editor and, a little later, as a prodigal literary agent.* It wasn't until the 1950s, as his agency was running out of gas, that he really got going as an author, producing corrosive social satire that prompted Kingsley Amis in 1960 to call him "the most consistently able" writer in SF, a tag that has stuck with him to this very day.

What made Pohl especially remarkable among an increasing number of consistently able writers was two things: first, that he did much of his great writing while continuing to work as an editor, of anthologies, magazines, and books. During a period of over 20 years as an editor of top-ranked SF venues (his opening stint in the early 40s was for bargain-basement magazines), he published, and I'm just picking these examples from a plethora for chronological scope, Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God", Larry Niven's first story, and Delany's Dhalgren, which would be enough.

Second, the later 1970s and 1980s, about the time that some of his contemporaries were succumbing to self-indulgent gaseousness, is the time that Pohl really got going as an author, with novels like Man Plus and Gateway and Jem, which had interesting characters as well as plots, and equally powerful short stories, a form some successful novelists tend to drop. My most vivid Pohl encounter was his reading at the L.A. Worldcon in 1984 of a story he'd just written, titled "Fermi and Frost". Dealing with atomic holocaust and nuclear winter - typically cheerful Pohl topics - it deeply impressed the audience. It was published in Asimov's a few months later and won the Hugo the year after that.

And he kept on writing, both fiction and commentary, right up until the end.

Much of Pohl's fiction was dark and bitter, a warning of the various hells we are making for ourselves, a subject that, as his blog entries tell us, deeply concerned him non-fictionally as well. Of his stories that I know, the most searingly upsetting, if not the most immediately socially relevant, is "We Purchased People", which could easily have been one of those grim stories that Robert Silverberg was writing in the 60s at the behest of his editor, Frederik Pohl. If there's a single most famous Pohl story, though, it's the actually somewhat lighter, quite short, and rather chatty "Day Million". What makes this story unusual is not that it was published in a 60s men's magazine - a common outlet for literary SF at the time - but that it was written in a demotic language specifically addressed at the typical reader of such a magazine, and all to make a point that reader might not otherwise have consciously considered, which may be expressed simply as, "The future will be very different."

I like the conclusion of Jo Walton's memorial post, which gives an essentially science-fictional perspective on Pohl's death: "He should have lived forever. He'd have enjoyed that."

*BLB points out that the instances of "prodigal" here should be "prodigy of an"/"prodigies of" or something awkward like that. She's absolutely right, but there needs to be an adjectival form of "prodigy" and if it's not to be "prodigal", what is it? It's not like we don't have other words that mean two different things.

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