Pohl Position

What an astonishing career Frederik Pohl had, one of the longest in SF. It began with a poem in Amazing Stories in October 1937, when he was seventeen, and ended with a joky post to his Hugo-winning blog on 2 September 2013, the day he died at the age of 93.

In between ... many things happened. With Isaac Asimov, James Blish and Cyril Kornbluth, Pohl was in that notorious 1938-1945 fan group the Futurians, whose escapades he described in The Way the Future Was. Soon he was simultaneously editing awful pulp-SF magazines and writing for them under pseudonyms. After World War Two he became a literary agent and a pioneer SF anthologist while moving to better-class mags like Galaxy and If – which won three 1960s Hugo awards while Pohl was editor.

It's his fiction that's best remembered. With Kornbluth he wrote the famed The Space Merchants (1953), a funny, pointed, prophetic satire whose massively overpopulated USA is dominated by rival ad agencies. With Mad Men in charge and planning to beam ads directly into people's retinas, contract-breaking is a worse crime than murder and the underclasses are fed on "Chicken Little", an artificial culture of chicken-heart tissue: fast-food science is only now catching up. Customer loyalty gets boosted by lacing junk food with addictive drugs, the Venus colony programme is hard-sold through mendacious TV commercials, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art our protagonist reverently admires the uplifting classic artwork "I Dreamed I was Ice-Fishing in my Maidenform Bra".

Other collaborations with Kornbluth are well worth reading, especially the very strange Wolfbane (1959) – where Earth has been kidnapped by alien robot entities who use people as components in their servo-mechanisms. Kornbluth died young, though, and Pohl did so much more. His stories moved from slick farce and black comedy (as in "The Midas Plague", where automated overproduction leads to Americans meeting enforced user quotas by 24/7 guzzling, swilling and general overconsumption) to thoughtful tales like "Day Million", a jolting evocation of future shock, and two bizarrely different takes on the SF problem-solving tradition: "The Gold at the Starbow's End" and "In the Problem Pit".

Personally I have a soft spot for Pohl's collaborations with another SF golden oldie, Jack Williamson (1908-2006). One example: their 1964 The Reefs of Space features fairytale asteroid "islands" built by vacuum-dwelling equivalent of coral polyps and crowded with colourful life.

But Gateway (1977) is his finest novel. Long, long ago the alien Heechee visited our solar system and abandoned lots of little FTL starships in a tunnelled-out asteroid. Each can take you to an unknown destination, in a gamble vaguely like Russian roulette. Most chambers are blanks; one in twenty crews get rich from Heechee treasures or scientific discovery; three in twenty don't come back. The hero, a chronic loser who became a winner, has a guilt complex the size of Jupiter about how – as slowly and painfully emerges in flashback – he did it. Unforgettable.

Still darker, psychologically, is Man Plus (1976), describing a astronaut's cyborg adaptation to survive the gruelling Martian deserts. No Six Million Dollar Man wish-fulfilment here, just a steady process of transformation away from human appearance and even – with a computer interface handling his reflexes – human thought patterns. Despite truly nightmarish episodes he does, in a way, win through.

Naturally Pohl collected virtually all the SF awards, not just the Hugo (four times, or seven counting If magazine wins) and Nebula (twice) but life achievement honours that lesser authors can only dream about, like the SF Writers of America Grand Master award, the French Prix Utopia, and entry to the SF Hall of Fame. He was always funny, never pompous, and by US standards daringly left-wing. One of the greats. I miss him already.

David Langford met Fred Pohl at a convention but was too overawed to say much.