Old and Unwise

I had a tiny shock of realization while reading Frederik Pohl's new novel, called O Pioneer! This was politically incorrect ageism. The book's a pleasant piece of bog-standard midlist sf – not great, but OK – although Pohl will be 80 next year.

Sf has seen some famously long writing careers. The SF Encyclopedia even has an entry for LONGEVITY, commemorating certain writers' boggling persistence in old age. Jack Vance is still bashing them out at 82, although this year's Ports of Call is below standard (still, the 1996 Night Lamp was one of his better novels). 90-year-old Jack Williamson, whose "golden age" space operas first appeared in 1928, has published three 1990s titles and may have more to come.

What's morbidly interesting is when sf writers go batty in later life. Good old Fred Pohl still comes across as sane, humane and liberal – causing one paranoid US critic to grumble that "Pohl is still up to his Liberal-leftist plotting ..." Likewise, Arthur C. Clarke still has all his marbles at 80, apart from his notoriously deviant aberration of subcontracting novels to the hopeless Gentry Lee.

It was different when the once-great Robert A. Heinlein passed 70 and became obsessed with preaching his version of libertarianism. According to the aged Heinlein, success and moral worth are equivalent, and any horrid leftist who suggests that the rich might pay a few taxes is a commie scumbag who should be chucked out of the airlock. To make things worse, Heinlein also caught a bad dose of solipsism, the belief that you're the only real person in the universe. In his awful novel "The Number of the Beast", all the characters who aren't mere cannon fodder are clones of the author, who talk exactly like him irrespective of sex. His women in particular are constantly amazed and thrilled that they have these fantastic "breast" things, whose nipples go "Spung!" when excited. The story peters out in a party where everyone mingles with real-world sf people and walk-ons from other Heinlein books, in a mutual admiration society. Even the bad guy "Mellrooney" is an anagram of his old pseudonym Lyle Monroe.

Isaac Asimov didn't exactly go bonkers ... but got bitten by another Heinlein obsession, the urge to join up all your sf (however incompatible) into one great big "Future History". Asimov had two perfectly good sequences, his robot detective stories and the far-future Foundation/Empire saga. As one cruel critic said, linking these was like trying to cross a prize bloodhound with Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The major problem was how a near future with walking, talking robots everywhere could lead to a Galactic Empire with no robots and indeed no computers.

Asimov's solution was embarrassing, considering that he was a lifelong rationalist and sceptic who had no time for conspiracy theories or UFO cover-up stories. Er, he introduced this vast conspiracy and cover-up, whereby all the robots have gone into hiding and are secretly watching over the Foundation saga.... This unfortunately ruined the early Foundation stories, when dangerous risks were being taken and the fate of the galaxy was supposedly at stake. According to Asimov's revised history, helpful mind-controlling robots had been steering events all the time and making sure everything happened right. What a swiz.

Much more overtly barmy was L. Ron Hubbard, who long ago achieved modest fame as a pulp sf writer who could churn the stuff out at top speed ... and then went off to make his pile with a combination of weird home-brewed mental therapy and pyramid-selling (Dianetics) which somehow turned into an expensive religion (Scientology). However cynical Hubbard may originally have been about all this, his decades of writing holy books did not leave him looking like a good advert for Dianetics. Russell Miller's highly unauthorized biography Bare-Faced Messiah reveals weirdly hilarious stuff about how senile Hubbard, now believing his own stories, sailed round the world searching unsuccessfully for treasure he thought he'd buried during past lives. Meanwhile, like Asimov, he made a late come-back to sf – with the deeply awful and scientifically illiterate Battlefield Earth, which one of our kinder critics described as doing for science fiction what the Reverend Jim Jones did for soft drinks.

Well, we all get older and may yet go gaga. A few decades hence, perhaps Sir Terry Pratchett will celebrate his 80th birthday by launching the First Church of Discworld....

David Langford would like to remind readers that he's younger than everyone else mentioned above – so there.