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.


Jan 022016


Today is the date that Isaac Asimov claimed as his birthday. He was a Russian-American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was born some time between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920 in Petrovichi near Klimovichi, then Gomel Governorate in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (now Smolensk Oblast, Russia) to Anna Rachel (née Berman) and Judah Asimov, a family of Jewish millers. His exact date of birth within that range is unknown, but Asimov himself celebrated it on January 2. The family name derives from a word for winter crops in which his great-grandfather dealt. This word is spelled озимые (ozimye) in Russian, and азімыя (azimiya) in Belarusian. Accordingly, his name originally was Исаак Озимов (Isaak Ozimov) in Russian, however, he was later known in Russia as Ayzek Azimov (Айзек Азимов), a Russian Cyrillic adaptation of the American English pronunciation.

Azimov’s family emigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Since his parents always spoke Yiddish and English with him, he never learned Russian, but he remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five, and his mother got him into first grade a year early by claiming he was born on September 7, 1919. (In third grade he learned about the “error” and insisted on an official correction to January 2.) Asimov wrote of his father, “My father, for all his education as an Orthodox Jew, was not Orthodox in his heart”, noting that “he didn’t recite the myriad prayers prescribed for every action, and he never made any attempt to teach them to me”. After becoming established in the U.S. his parents owned a succession of candy stores, in which everyone in the family was expected to work. The candy stores sold newspapers and magazines, a fact that Asimov credited as a major influence in his lifelong love of the written word, as it allowed him an unending supply of new reading material as a child that he could not have otherwise afforded. These led him to a lifetime of writing.


Asimov attended New York City public schools, including Boys High School in Brooklyn. Graduating at 15, he went on to Seth Low Junior College, a branch of Columbia University in Brooklyn, designed to absorb some of the Jewish and Italian-American students who applied to Columbia College, then the institution’s primary undergraduate school for men with quotas on the number of admissions from those ethnic groups. Originally a zoology major, Asimov changed his subject to chemistry after his first semester as he disapproved of “dissecting an alley cat”. After Seth Low Junior College closed in 1938, Asimov finished his BS degree at University Extension (later the Columbia University School of General Studies) in 1939. When he failed to secure admission to medical school, he applied to the graduate program in chemistry at Columbia; initially rejected and then only accepted on a probationary basis, Asimov completed his MA in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. In between, he spent three years during World War II working as a civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s Naval Air Experimental Station, living in the Walnut Hill section of West Philadelphia from 1942-1945. In September 1945 he was drafted into the U.S. Army; if he had not had his birth date corrected, he would have been officially 26 years old and ineligible. He served for almost nine months before receiving an honorable discharge.


After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time (his writing income had already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured, he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979, the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry.

Asimov wrote a mountain of stuff, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve not read much of his work apart from the science fiction. I started reading his science fiction in the 1960s beginning with The Foundation Series and I, Robot and then, as I do with authors I like, moving on to read everything I could get my hands on. So, as he started to write novels that merged the Foundation stuff with the Robot stuff I was right there with him. In sum, I have to say that his ideas, inherent in his science fiction, make me think, but are usually flawed. On the plus side, his command of physics and chemistry makes his stories compelling. Nowhere is this better seen than in the three-part work, The Gods Themselves. You can’t even imagine such a tale unless you understand how radioactive isotopes work. My big problem with The Foundation Series is its assumption that social behavior can, like natural science, be reduced to mathematical formulae. Some social scientists believe this to be possible; I don’t.


As do many of his fans, I prefer his short stories to his novels. Two of his enduring pieces, “The Last Question” and “The Immortal Bard” are justly famous. The former is simply amusing. It doesn’t get me thinking about God or theology. The latter has always troubled me. The story entails the work of a physicist who is able to bring people from the past to the present day. He brings Shakespeare to the present where he enrolls him in a college course on Shakespeare, which he ends up failing. When I first read it, I was annoyed by the premise. Asimov seemed to be saying that Shakespeare knew better than his commentators what his works meant – an obvious fallacy. However, in reading Asimov’s own comments on the story I now realize that this was not his point at all: just the opposite. Asimov was saying that trying to plumb the mind of an author or artist won’t necessarily lead to anything useful. On that I concur.

Asimov is well known for not having more than the baldest of writing styles. His tales are plot driven, moved forward by dialog. This is fine with me. When I want a sophisticated stylist I’ll read Oscar Wilde. I like fast-paced action that delves the complexities of an intriguing premise. It’s exactly the same fascination that leads me to work through complex puzzles. In a nutshell, I think Asimov’s writing is fun. He and a few others, such as Poul Anderson and Arthur C. Clarke, set the stage for most of the science fiction that was to come after. I find his work much more imaginative and original than that of his followers, particularly because he relied on the plain written word and not on splashy movie effects.

Here is an excerpt from a 1988 interview with Slawek Wojtowicz:

SW: And what is your favorite kind of cooking?

IA: Well, let’s see now… I’m in a constant struggle to keep my weight down and one of the reasons is that I love virtually all food. I like Chinese, French and Italian cooking, as well as Polish sausages… I don’t know what a typical Polish meal is but if someone feed me one, I’d probably love it! So there you are. Oh, I also eat in Russian restaurants – we have here in New York all kinds of different ethnic restaurants and my wife and I, we know a large number of them.

SW: What about the “junk food”?

IA: She won’t let me. I love hamburgers, hot dogs, all that stuff – I’d gladly eat it – but she won’t let me.

SW: Why is that?

IA: Well, she wants to keep me alive.


From what I have read, Asimov was a decent cook, specializing in breakfast dishes because he was an early riser and got hungry well before others in the household were up. I found a recipe he gave a magazine for something he calls “egg-celery delight.” I don’t know why the silly name. It’s just a soufflé with celery. Here’s the recipe, which I have edited for clarity. The original is here:

Isaac Asimov’s Egg-Celery Delight


5 eggs, separated
1 cup celery, finely diced and sautéed in butter
3 tbsp butter
5 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet and make a white roux by whisking in the flour. Whilst whisking well, pour in the milk slowly to form a béchamel. Simmer gently, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens and cooks. Add salt and pepper to taste. (White pepper is preferable for aesthetic purposes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

Beat the egg yolks well and then whisk them into the béchamel. Add the celery and stir.

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Gently fold them into the béchamel-yolk mixture.

Turn the soufflé into a greased baking dish, and bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden.