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.
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 World, a 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. Continue reading →