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Frederik Pohl: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted February 15, 2002, with later edits

RIP: Fred Pohl, 1919 - 2013

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New York born writer, perhaps as well known and influential for his activities as an editor and literary agent as he is for his fiction, of which much was done in collaboration with others. As a teenager he was a founder and active member of the Futurians, a group of New York SF fans and writers which included Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, and C. M. Kornbluth, among others. Many of his early stories were written primarily with Kornbluth, and their partnership continued for many years, with some of their stories appearing years after Kornbluth's premature death at age 35 in 1958.

Much of his early work, both solo and collaborations, appeared under several pseudonyms. His first publication, a poem in Amazing Stories in 1937, was credited to Elton V. Andrews. His first short story, "Before the Universe," was written with Kornbluth, and it ran in Super Science Stories in 1940, as by S. D. Gottesman. By the age of 21 he was editor of both Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, in both of which he ran many of his own stories, with several issues containing work exclusively his and Kornbluth's under many different names. He worked for these two magazines until their demise in 1943, the last year of which he took a demotion to assistant editor.

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Following World War 2, he worked as literary agent for many other SF writers, but returned to editing in the early '50s when he became assistant to H. L. Gold at Galaxy Science Fiction. One of his best known collaborations with Kornbluth is the 1953 novel The Space Merchants, which originally appeared in Galaxy the previous year under the title "Gravy Planet." He continued to write prolifically through the remainder of the '50s, mostly short stories for Galaxy, as well as novels with Kornbluth, including Search the Sky (1954), Gladiator-at-Law (1955), and Wolfbane (1959). Pohl would later revise and republish all of these novels later in his career, and even contributed a solo sequel to The Space Merchants - The Merchant's War - in 1984. [These two books have been reviewed here, check link at end of article.] His other writing partners during this period included his third wife, Judith Merril, as well as Lester del Rey, and Jack Williamson, with whom he produced an excellent juvenile series - Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1955), and Undersea City (1958).

The primary theme of his work with Kornbluth was sociological satire mixed with black comedy, which Pohl attempted to duplicate in his solo work, although with less success. Perhaps his best short work of this period is "The Midas Plague," to which he later added stories for the collection Midas World, published in 1983. The original story was selected by the SFWA for inclusion in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 2. Collections of his solo stories of this period include Alternating Currents (1956), The Case Against Tomorrow (1957), The Man Who Ate the World (1960), and Turn Left At Thursday (1961), with collaborations with Kornbluth appearing in The Wonder Effect (1962), and later, Our Best: The Best of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1987). His solo novels were Slave Ship (1957) [Also reviewed here, check link below.] and Drunkard's Walk (1960). During the '50s, he also edited one of, if not the first series of original anthologies, Star Science Fiction. This series continued for six volumes (1953-59), along with one volume of longer stories, Star Short Novels, appearing in 1954.

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His writing output dwindled somewhat in the '60s, as he took over full editing duties at Galaxy, along with its sister publication IF (at times known as Worlds of IF) in 1961. He retained those positions until late '69, and during the same period created two other less successful magazines; Worlds of Tomorrow (1963-67) and International Science Fiction (1967-68). For three years in a row (1966-68), IF won the Hugo award for best professional magazine. Writers who were first brought to its pages by Pohl include Larry Niven and Alexei Panshin, and award-winning stories appearing there included a serialized version of Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, along with Niven's "Neutron Star" and Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." The '60s did see the blossoming of his writing partnership with Jack Williamson. The Starchild Trilogy - The Reefs of Space (1964), Starchild (1965), and Rogue Star (1969) - combined Pohl's economy of style with Williamson's melodramatic flair. This series was far more successful than any of his solo work of this period, which included A Plague of Pythons (1965) and The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969). He would later revise and republish A Plague of Pythons, under the title Demon in the Skull, in 1984.

By the early '70s, when he was no longer editing full time, Pohl's solo work showed a marked improvement at all lengths. His excellent novella, "The Gold at Starbow's End" (1971) was successfully expanded to novel length in 1982, as Starburst. Another novella from '72 - "The Merchants of Venus" - proved to be an interesting prelude to what is perhaps Pohl's best-known work, The Heechee Saga. This series began in 1977 with Gateway, the only one of the books I've reviewed so far. It won the Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus, and Prix Apollo awards for best novel. The series as a whole comprises an awe-inspiring and spirit-uplifting saga of galaxy-spanning adventure. The basis of the plot revolves around the discovery of an immense, abandoned alien craft, orbiting high above our solar system's ecliptic plane. From this mysterious base adventurers can take interstellar trips in pre-programmed ships. It is essentially a gigantic form of Russian Roulette, since the chances of returning alive are very slim. But a lucky few return with wealth unimaginable, guaranteeing a steady stream of soldiers-of-fortune willing to take their chances they too will strike it rich. The series has expanded so far to four other titles, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), The Annals of the Heechee (1987), and The Gateway Trip (1990). Recently, in an interview available at Locus Online, Pohl has indicated there will probably be at least one more book in this series. [UPDATE: The Boy Who Would Live Forever, which continues the Heechee saga, is now in paperback.]

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For quite a few years I read most everything I could find by Pohl, and for the most part all were satisfying reads, full of logical scientific speculations and peopled with intelligent, identifiable characters. Preceding the Heechee Saga was the Nebula Award-winning Man Plus (1976), which featured a tragic hero, genetically and prosthetically altered for life on Mars. [UPDATE: I've recently re-read and reviewed Man Plus, not liking it as much as I had recalled from before.] The general cynicism present in this novel was echoed in 1979's Jem: The Making of a Utopia, which concerned the colonization of an alien world by several competing power blocs from Earth. Into the '80s, Pohl turned his focus toward more mainstream themes set in near-future scenarios. The first two of these - The Cool War (1981) and Syzygy (1982), were rather lukewarm efforts that initially had me thinking Pohl had lost his touch, but he made an effective comeback with 1984's The Years of the City. This was a collection of interrelated short stories comprising a future history of various sections of New York City. Many of the stories in this set were originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, including the Nebula-nominated "The Greening of Bed-Stuy."

The Coming of the Quantum Cats (1986) is an enjoyable, satiric romp in the alternate world sub-genre, and The Day the Martians Came (1988) continued in this satiric vein, collecting stories which included "The Day After the Day the Martian's Came," which was Pohl's contribution to Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology. This was followed in 1989 by Homegoing, a more mellow, somewhat romantic vision of a human-alien encounter. The World at the End of Time (1990) is perhaps his most complex story, at least that I have read. The tale spans thousands of years, relating the fate of a human colony on a planet they have named Newmanhome, as it suffers from the effects of manipulations by an ancient, god-like being.

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Sad to say, but this is the last of Pohl's books I've read. Through most of the '90s I read very little due to several factors, including my work schedule and constant financial difficulties. There are several other of Pohl's novels from this period which, based on their titles, could be sequels to The World at the End of Time, although I don't know that for sure. These include The Other End of Time (1996) and The Far Shore of Time (1999). He has also contributed a book of science-fact essays, entitled Chasing Science (1995). Hopefully, I will be able to experience these books in the very near future. Pohl has also returned to his editing roots to bring us the SFWA Grand Masters series, so far comprising Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3. Another recent publication is Platinum Pohl, a career-spanning story collection, now available in paperback from amazon.com

Regardless of the fact I have not kept up with his most recent work, I still consider Pohl to be one of the most consistently satisfying writers from the Golden Age. His fellow writers seem to have the same opinion. Pohl served as president of the SFWA from 1974-76, and as head of World SF from 1980-82, and in 1993 he was honored as a Nebula Grand Master. Even though his characters usually displayed emotional flaws, and anxiety about their situations, his scenarios for the most part were highly optimistic about man's future in space. His scientific speculations are also consistent with existing knowledge, extrapolating current trends for dramatic impact.

"The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and you take it apart into all its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens. That's the method: restructure the world we live in in some way, then see what happens." [Frederik Pohl, from the Locus Online interview]


Special Note: This article was originally uploaded more than seventeen years ago (February, 2002), so quite a few of the books for which I have provided an amazon.com link might now be out of print, or some for which I did not provide a link may be back in print, or possibly available as e-books. I haven't had the time to check them all. Even if so, you would still be directed to sellers who are offering new or used copies, or check ebay or BookFinder.Com for any title you are seeking.

Related Links:
My review of Gateway
The Space Merchants & The Merchants' War reviewed by Raedom
A review of Slave Ship by Chris Exner
Pohl's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Review of The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law by Dani Zweig


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November 26, 1919

September 2, 2013

Official Website

4 Hugos for writings
3 Hugos for editing
3 Nebulas
2 John W. Campbell Memorial Awards
National Book Award (Jem, 1980)
SFWA Grand Master (1993)
SF Hall of Fame (1998)