The Best of Frederik Pohl

Fred Pohl and Me

I met Pohl once. It’s actually a pretty short story.

In November 1988, I attended a talk by Pohl at the University of Minnesota. After the talk, whose subject I have totally forgotten, I handed him my slightly battered, old second hand copy of The Age of the Pussyfoot. Not only did I have the indecency to have him sign such a book. It wasn’t even something he considered one of his better works. Sign it he did, though, and he also answered a question from my callow 25-year-old mouth. I asked him why he had chosen to write a biography of the Roman emperor Tiberius, to me the most interesting of the lot, and do it under the pen name Ernst Mason. The answer to why went something like “I wanted to write about someone who had all that power and still led a miserable life.” As to the pen name, he said he came from a poor background and a name (his mother’s maiden name was Mason) was the only inheritance he had.

In my case, Pohl certainly lived up to his reputation as a gentleman.img054

Frederik Pohl is an author I’ve been aware of and reading on and off for a long time. Looking through the reference works The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in my early days of reading the genre, he was there.  In my hometown’s Ben Franklin store and drug store I remember seeing his Jem, its paperback cover a stark red with the title embossed in gold. (Some kind soul donated old issues of Galaxy magazine to our high school library including an issue that serialized the first part of that novel. It wasn’t until 2007 that I actually read the whole book.) I also was aware of his famous Gateway when it came out though I still haven’t read it.

It wasn’t until the early eighties that I actually read some Pohl. I have fond memories of reading, on a bus trip back to college, his Demon in the Skull aka A Plague of Pythons, a minor, but enjoyable, novel of possession. A few years later I read Midas Worlda collection of his work which included “The Midas Plague” which I’ll get to. Next was The Coming of the Quantum Cats, a memorable alternate realities farce.  I followed that with the excellent novel The Years of the City which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is sort of a modern, very readable utopian work.

I found Man Plus superb and deserving of its acclaim, a work combining 1970s pessimism with an earlier anticipation of the cybersphere we have now as well as being a pioneer transhumanist work. I found the sequel, Mars Plus, co-written with Thomas T. Thomas, less compelling. Next was Pohl’s most famous work, the justly celebrated The Space Merchants (first edition, not the updated version done a few years before his death) co-written with C. M. Kornbluth and The Merchant’s War, both of which I’ve commented on.

In all those years I’ve read a fair amount of Pohl’s stories, but there’s a lot of his work, including some of his most famous work, that I haven’t read yet. And the influence of Pohl as a fan and editor flows through a fair chunk of significant science fiction history. He brought back Robert Silverberg back into the science fiction writing fold in 1962. After the crash of the science fiction market occasioned by the bankruptcy of magazine distributor American News Company, the market for Silverberg’s fiction greatly contracted. In 1961, after Horace Gold left the editorship of Galaxy magazine, Pohl took over. Aggravated by Silverberg’s hack work and thinking him capable of better, Pohl agreed to buy all Silverberg’s short fiction — even if he didn’t publish it — and only require, at most, one rewrite.

In later years, as a book editor, Pohl discovered new talent including Joanna Russ and Samuel R. Delany. It was, in fact, Pohl who pushed Bantam Books into publishing Dhalgren. I think it a lapse of judgment and taste. Others disagree.

After looking at the Pohl tributes in the October 2013 Locus, I decided to — finally — finish The Best of Frederik Pohl. I started it in November 1988 shortly after finishing Pohl’s The Age of the Pussyfoot.

Thus I have an answer to a question in a recent SF Signal posting: how long do you have a book before you read it?  The answer in this case, at least, is 9,354 days.

Review: The Best of Frederik Pohl, ed. by Lester del Rey

The first thing to recognize about this collection is that it is del Rey’s selection. Unlike some of the other entries in the Ballantine Classic Library of Science Fiction, we do not get an author’s first story or author favorites they regard as overlooked. His first published fiction appeared in 1940, but the date range of stories in this 1975 collection is only from 1954 to 1967.

Like his friend and sometimes collaborator Jack Williamson, who had his own entry in the Ballantine series three years later, Pohl had a lot of years left in his career. Thus, Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories from 2005 (Pohl was still publishing short fiction as late as 2010) is heavily weighted towards his later years with only four stories appearing in both collections.

For Pohl admirers, most of this book is of interest.

For those unfamiliar with Pohl, there are some classic stories. But there’s also a lot of stuff that is skillful but not outstanding, exhibits of Pohl’s acerbic wit and cynicism and some characteristic elements of his work.

“Punch” is the slightest of the lot. In looking over my 1988 notes, I see nothing that stood out, and I did not reread it. Evidently, my 1988 self only noted that “Three Portraits and a Prayer” had a muted tone and was grim. I noted the only unusual thing about “We Never Mention Aunt Nora” was reversal of the stereotypical no-good man deserting a pregnant woman in financial straits plot device.

One doesn’t usually think of Pohl as a horror writer but there is a jokey, sardonic biter-bitten element in two of these stories. “The Martian in the Attic” is pretty much the secret a hapless blackmailer threatens to reveal about the world’s richest and most powerful man. “Grandy Devil” has an immortal deciding to murder his grandfather, also one of the world’s secret immortals, after the latter nags him one too many times about having too many kids.

Overpopulation has long been a Pohl theme. “The Census Takers” is one of those twist stories, the firemen of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 being the most famous example, of a familiar institution being inverted and perverted to a new end.

Overpopulation is only one variation on environmental themes that have long run through the work of Pohl and his collaborations with Kornbluth. So, it’s not surprising that the man who co-wrote 1991’s Our Angry Earth with Isaac Asimov would give us “The Snowmen”. In the future of this 1959 story, the extensive use of heat pumps has reduced the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere to seven or eight degrees above absolute zero. Beneath the frozen mass of what was once the Earth’s atmosphere, the population resents the Feds telling them there’s a problem.

The Pohl who wrote a non-fiction work subtitled “science as a spectator sport” suggests, in a 1967 story set contemporaneously at a scientific conference, that there may be a conspiracy to inhibit, by sucking scientists into academic administrative duties, the advance of science and technology. The promulgation of scientific knowledge and theory has changed a fair amount since “Speed Trap”, but it’s still a fun story.

“The Hated”, from 1961, stands as part of a tradition of science fiction going back to at least the 1930s with Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” (though Hamilton’s story wasn’t published until 1952), a tradition that  emphasizes the difficulties and suffering of space travel and colonization. Here the psychic trauma of years in very tight quarters have rendered former crew mates literally murderous towards each other.

“Father to the Stars” is another story centering on the difficulties of interstellar travel though it also features brain transplants into chimps. It’s story of a man who gave away a fortune to promote space travel via slower than light ships. At the end of his life, he fears, when he learns of a possible faster than light drive, that he has duped thousands into wasting their lives in those voyages. Slow ships overtaken by later, faster ones to welcome colonists to their new homes reminded me of the ending of A. E. van Vogt’s famous “Far Centaurus”, and the hero’s dying wish to have his dream of space travel realized reminded me of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Requiem”. But the story also has a weird resonance with the bitter, but plausible, “What Dreams Remain” from Pohl 31 years later in Future Quartet. In that story, a young opportunist betrays an old politician’s efforts to revive space travel.

“Children of the Night” from 1964 is, says Pohl, the only attempt (at least as of 1975) to use his specialist knowledge of politics and running a campaign. Its first person account of a political operative getting approval for a base to be used in the American Midwest by a very unpopular (and formerly enemy) alien race seems prescient in its depiction of political focus groups using biometric data. It’s also very cynical about the lack of rationality the voting public shows. A couple of quotes:

It is not enough for a theme to be rational; indeed it is wrong for a theme to be rational if you want to move men’s glands, because, above all else, it must seem new and fresh and of such revolutionary simplicity that it illuminates an enormous, confused, and disagreeable problem in a fresh and hopeful light. Or so it must seem to the Average Man. … since he has already considered all the rational solutions and found either that they are useless or that the cost is more than he wants to pay.


“So how do you vote? Whichever way happens to get dominance at the moment of voting. Not at any other moment. Not as a matter of principle. But right then. No, we don’t have to change any minds …  because most people don’t have enough mind to change!”

In his comments about “The Day the Martians Came”, Pohl surprisingly says he has almost as much interest in war as science though I’ve never noticed that in anything I’ve read of his, and the story itself concerns race relations and the seeming need for there always to be some kind of minority to despise. I’ll also add this comment from Pohl’s friend Jerry Pournelle about Pohl’s knowledge of war and science:

He had an intuitive grasp of science, and no actual education. This was generally more than good enough, and in fact his lack of formal education allowed him a free reign of imagination that many can’t have, but it also led him to make some pretty dreadful scientific mistakes that marred otherwise really great works. It also led him to believe some strange misconceptions about the world of war, and we quarreled over several of those. What we didn’t quarrel about was the writing profession. Fred was scrupulously honest [in] his opinions, and could and did change his views when presented with the right evidence. It just took patience. And I suspect he understood QED [quantum electrodynamics] better than I did.

“The Day the Icicle Works Closed” is a near classic. It’s not just a lawyer trying to win an acquittal for some charged kidnappers who most definitely committed their crime. It’s a plausible look at how an interplanetary economy of slower than light speed trade would work, an account of small town machine politics, recorded personalities renting bodies, economic desperation when a company town no longer has a market for its product, and even underwater mining.

And then there are the classic stories.

“The Tunnel Under the World” is Pohl’s avowed belief of what advertising agencies would do to us if they had the power. That 1955 story got a memorable updating with Andrew Weiner’s “The News from D Street” in 1986.

“The Midas Plague” is the famous — an internet search will provide many references to it in economic and sociology contexts — story of an upside down world where the poor are forced to consume an ever escalating amount of goods and services and the rich get to step off the treadmill of frenzied consumption. Now, the obvious argument against this idea is that economic growth does not have to consist of an ever speeding conveyor belt of production matched by that treadmill of consumption. There’s capital investments to be made in new technologies and development of new sectors of the economy.

And Pohl himself seems not to have really believed in this satire. It was the idea  of Galaxy editor H. L. Gold, and Pohl initially scoffed at the idea as implausible, but his mind kept exploring the notion, and, eventually, he relented and produced this masterpiece of satiric science fiction. I doubt he changed his mind, though, on the validity of its premise.

I suspect Gold conceived the idea as a critique of Keynesian demand-side economic theory. But, the idea that all goods of an economy would be overproduced simultaneously violates Say’s Law (which Keynes held valid) as explained here in regard to Pohl’s story.

As an aside, Gold was a very important figure in 1950s American science fiction. He pushed Isaac Asimov and Alfred Bester to figure out how to combine the detective story with science fiction and fostered the type of social science fiction epitomized by the Pohl-Kornbluth collaborations. But he was hard on writers. In his Alternate Worlds, an early history of science fiction, James Gunn says that Gold’s acceptance letters read like rejections and his rejections were dipped in acid.

Finally, there is the widely anthologized “Day Million”. Pohl’s story, the one he once said he wanted on his tombstone (though, as far as I know, it didn’t make it there), is rightly celebrated as an early work on the Singularity and transhumanism. Pohl’s notes says he wanted, in this 1966 story, to explore notions of choosing your gender and recorded minds. My favorite sample from this short story:

You don’t think progress goes in a straight line, do you? Do you recognize that it is an ascending, accelerating, maybe even exponential curve? It takes hell’s own time to get started, but when it goes it goes like a bomb. And you, you Scotch-drinking steak-eater in your Relaxacizer chair, you’ve just barely lighted the primacord of the fuse. What is it now, the six or seven hundred thousandth day after Christ? Dora lives in Day Million.

As Silverberg noted in his Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonders, where he took a close look at the craft of several science fiction stories including Pohl’s, the story’s power comes from its combining novel concepts with an old fashioned approach to narration. The direct addressing of the reader only seems new. It’s actually a technique common to 19th century novels.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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