Nov 262018

Today is the birthday (1919) of Frederik George Pohl Jr., a prolific science fiction writer from the 1930s through the first decade of the 21st century. I was a moderate fan for quite some time, even though his plots made major scientific and anthropological blunders. I always thought of him as a kind of Orwell-lite – indulging in stories based on futures that could develop if some trend continued to a fantastical extremity. What would happen if advertising agencies became the most powerful force in the world (Space Merchants)? What would happen if stupid people bred uncontrollably while smart people limited their family sizes (“Marching Morons”)? His assumptions were not generally sound, and his characters tended towards the comically stereotyped, but I used to enjoy reading them in my 20s when I did not own a television, the internet did not exist, and I wanted some light diversion from my studies from time to time. His books were easy to read, and the holes in the plots plus the two-dimensional characters did not annoy me too much. I still have a certain nostalgic fondness for his writing, even though it annoys me much more nowadays. His books are windows into a simpler time – for me and for the world.

Pohl was the son of Frederik (originally Friedrich) George Pohl (a salesman of Germanic descent) and Anna Jane Mason. His father held various jobs, and the family lived in Texas, California, New Mexico, and the Panama Canal Zone when Pohl was a small boy. The family settled in Brooklyn when Pohl was around seven. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, and dropped out at 17.

While a teenager, he co-founded the New York–based Futurians fan group, and began lifelong friendships with Donald Wollheim, Isaac Asimov, and others who went on to be well-known writers and editors. Pohl later said that “friends came and went and were gone, [but] many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives – Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two – Jack Robins, Dave Kyle – whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later….”

During 1936, Pohl joined the Young Communist League because of its positions in favor of unions and against racial prejudice, Adolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini. He became president of the local Flatbush III Branch of the YCL in Brooklyn. Pohl has said that after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the party line changed, and he could no longer support it, at which point he left. He served in the United States Army from April 1943 until November 1945, rising to sergeant as an air corps weatherman. After training in Illinois, Oklahoma, and Colorado, he was mainly stationed in Italy with the 456th Bombardment Group.

Pohl began writing in the late 1930s, using pseudonyms for most of his early works. His first publication was the poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna” under the name of Elton Andrews, in the October 1937 issue of Amazing Stories, edited by T. O’Conor Sloane. (Pohl asked readers 30 years later, “we would take it as a personal favor if no one ever looked it up”.) His first story, the collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth “Before the Universe”, appeared in 1940 under the pseudonym S.D. Gottesman.

Pohl started a career as a literary agent in 1937, but it was a sideline for him until after World War II, when he began doing it full-time. He ended up “representing more than half the successful writers in science fiction”, but his agency did not succeed financially, and he closed it down in the early 1950s. Pohl stopped being Asimov’s agent—the only one Azimov ever had—when he became editor from 1939 to 1943 of two pulp magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. Stories by Pohl often appeared in these science-fiction magazines, but never under his own name. Work written in collaboration with Cyril M. Kornbluth was credited to S. D. Gottesman or Scott Mariner; other collaborative work (with any combination of Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, or Robert A. W. Lownes) was credited to Paul Dennis Lavond. For Pohl’s solo work, stories were credited to James MacCreigh (or for one story only, Warren F. Howard.) Works by “Gottesman”, “Lavond”, and “MacCreigh” continued to appear in various science-fiction pulp magazines throughout the 1940s.

Pohl co-founded the Hydra Club, a loose collection of science-fiction professionals and fans who met during the late 1940s and 1950s. From the early 1960s until 1969, Pohl served as editor of Galaxy Science Fiction and Worlds of If magazines, taking over after the ailing H. L. Gold could no longer continue working around the end of 1960. Under his leadership, Worlds of If won the Hugo Award for Best Professional Magazine for 1966, 1967 and 1968. He also served as editor of Worlds of Tomorrow from its first issue in 1963 until it was merged into Worlds of If in 1967.

In the mid-1970s, Pohl acquired and edited novels for Bantam Books, published as “Frederik Pohl Selections”; these included Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. He also edited a number of science-fiction anthologies.

After World War II, Pohl worked as an advertising copywriter and then as a copywriter and book editor for Popular Science. Following the war, Pohl began publishing material under his own name, much in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. Though the pen names of “Gottesman”, “Lavond”, and “MacCreigh” were retired by the early 1950s, Pohl still occasionally used pseudonyms, even after he began to publish work under his real name. These occasional pseudonyms, all of which date from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, included Charles Satterfield, Paul Flehr, Ernst Mason, Jordan Park (two collaborative novels with Kornbluth), and Edson McCann (one collaborative novel with Lester del Rey).

In the 1970s, Pohl re-emerged as a novel writer in his own right, with books such as Man Plus and the Heechee series. He won back-to-back Nebula Awards with Man Plus in 1976 and Gateway, the first Heechee novel, in 1977. In 1978, Gateway swept the other two major novel honors, winning the Hugo Award for best novel and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel. Two of his stories have also earned him Hugo Awards: “The Meeting” (with Kornbluth) tied in 1973 and “Fermi and Frost” won in 1986.

His works include not only science fiction, but also articles for Playboy and Family Circle magazines and nonfiction books. For a time, he was the official authority for Encyclopædia Britannica on the subject of Emperor Tiberius. (He wrote a book on the subject of Tiberius, as “Ernst Mason”.) Some of his short stories take a satirical look at consumerism and advertising in the 1950s and 1960s: “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners”, where flashy, over-complex military hardware proved useless against farmers with shotguns, and “The Tunnel under the World”, where an entire community of seeming-humans is held captive by advertising researchers. (“The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” was freely translated into Chinese and then freely translated back into English as “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle” in the first edition of Pohlstars (1984)).

Pohl’s last novel, All the Lives He Led, was released on April 12th, 2011. By the time of his death, he was working to finish a second volume of his autobiography The Way the Future Was (1979), along with an expanded version of the first volume. In addition to his solo writings, Pohl was also well known for his collaborations, beginning with his first published story. Before and following the war, Pohl did a series of collaborations with his friend Cyril Kornbluth, including a large number of short stories and several novels. Their Gladiator-At-Law was my introduction to Pohl courtesy of a copy left in the bookshelves of my apartment when I was a student at Oxford. Gladiator envisages a dystopian future in which corporate lawyers control the world, and the masses are kept pacified with bread and circuses.

In the mid-1950s, he began a long-running collaboration with Jack Williamson, eventually resulting in 10 collaborative novels over five decades. Other collaborations included a novel with Lester Del Rey, Preferred Risk (1955). This novel was solicited for a contest by Galaxy–Simon & Schuster when the judges did not think any of the contest submissions was good enough to win their contest. It was published under the joint pseudonym Edson McCann. He also collaborated with Thomas T. Thomas on a sequel to his award-winning novel Man Plus. He wrote two short stories with Isaac Asimov in the 1940s, both published in 1950. He finished a novel begun by Arthur C. Clarke, The Last Theorem, which was published in 2008.

Pohl went to the hospital in respiratory distress on the morning of September 2nd 2013, and died that afternoon at the age of 93.

One of the background characters in Space Merchants is Chicken Little, which is not really a character so much as a thing: an ever-growing organic blob, that outer pieces are sliced off daily. The slices are then trimmed, packaged, frozen, and shipped off to market to be bought by “consumers” (i.e. the masses) whose diet consists of such artificially grown foods because real animal meat is too expensive for all but top tier advertising executives. Well, I am not going to give you a recipe for anything artificially grown like Chicken Little. I would be part of the resistance movement in Space Merchants known as Consies (short for Conservationists). In many of Pohl’s novels he envisages a world where real fruits, vegetables, and animal products are too expensive for the masses who must be content with artificially mass-produced foodstuffs. It seems to me more likely that as the world population grows, the poorest will starve rather than that the corporate world will come up with a way to feed them. In any case, I am not going to give you a recipe for some imagined food of the future. You are better off eating sustainable products.

Meanwhile here is the kind of thing that sci-fi fans dream up to replicate exotic foods from strange planets:

My advice – you can do better than this.