landmark just about everything science fiction: Frederik Pohl

I’m not going to say a whole lot about the man himself, as he’s got his own blog here: The Way the Future Blogs. Not only is he still able to speak for himself (unlike the previous three authors I blogged about), he can explain himself much better than I ever could.

Also unlike the previous three authors I blogged about, I know Pohl best for not just writing but for doing pretty much everything there is to do in the field. He worked for a book publishing company. He worked for a magazine. He wrote books by his ownself. He collaborated with several authors to varying degrees, most recently finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s last book The Final Theorem. He did all three for longer than pretty much anyone likely to read this blog have been alive, thankyouverymuch, and over the course of those [mumble] decades, not only done all that reasonably well but gotten on a first name basis with people who I know only as Legends of the Field.

Of the works Pohl wrote by himself, I like Gateway best. The basic plot is: our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, won the lottery and used his winnings for a one way trip to the “Gateway” asteroid, where explorers discovered the first real collection of alien artifacts, ranging from what look like fans to functional space ships, programmed (so far as the humans can tell) to go to a specific destination. Human “prospectors” come to the asteroid in droves in the hopes of striking it rich by riding these ships to whatever destination they’ve been set for–a lottery of space travel rather than of ticket purchasing. Most prospectors get nothing, some get enough to cover expenses while a lucky few garner a lifetime’s worth of wealth…and the unlucky die en route. The book alternates between “now”, largely Broadhead’s sessions with his psychiatrist program, and flashbacks to Broadhead’s time on Gateway. Tastes vary, and I’m sure a lot of readers couldn’t stand Broadhead’s basically whiny neurotic personality; I liked it for the description of what it’s like to live on an an asteroid where the very air you breathe costs money, and hot showers are an expensive luxury. The sequels, as with many others, never quite lived up to Gateway; wondering what the Heechee were like based only on their relic spaceships was (as with many horror movies before and since) never quite as fascinating as what Pohl came up with. Silly, I know: I should prefer the author’s vision of what his own creation should look like. The only specific objection I had was why Essie’s English didn’t improve after all her time in the United States?

My favorite of Pohl’s collaborations is, hands down, The Space Merchants, not least because I love Kornbluth’s short story, “The Marching Morons”.The Space Merchants combines the basic premise of The Marching Morons (solve overpopulation by convincing the dimwitted public to emigrate to Venus) with Pohl’s knowledge of advertising (how to convince people that Venus is not only habitable but desireable). Some aspects are more than slightly dated now–automation and computerization among other issues–but then this is a problem for pretty much every science fiction novel I’ve ever read. How do you extrapolate from current technology to something that doesn’t exist? Only the really gifted authors manage it, and then only erratically.

What to read after The Space Merchants (and presumably the sequel, The Merchants’ War)? If it’s the satire of ‘modern’ advertising, try Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise; I know some might consider cross-genre readers’ advisory heresy, but that’s the closest I’ve found thus far to a sendup of ad campaigns.


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