Frederik Pohl
Midas World

There is something charming and enticing about a truly daft SF premise... provided the author treats it with that care normally reserved for some ghastly china dog presented by a rich relative. It's fatal to point crudely and jeeringly at the central daftness; equally fatal to stow it away in some lumber-room of plot. The trick is a straight-faced following of reductio ad absurdum logic (as, to strain our metaphor probably too far, the living-room's decor might be wittily arranged to highlight the naffness of that blasted ornament): Aldiss and Emotional Registers, Vonnegut and universal handicapping, Vance and the Temple of Finuka... Pohl with his inverted energy crisis in "The Midas Plague" (1954).

That story, revised a little for the 80s, is the springboard of this linked collection. It stands up quite well; the reversals stemming from a ludicrous economy of overabundance are still funny. Poor folks live unhappily glutted, in sprawling mansions with quarter-acre ballrooms, while the rich enjoy a simple cottage life and the heady wine of austerity. The hero's marriage is on the rocks since he can't afford to keep his wife in the style to which she's accustomed; the Ration Board compels him to shower her with jewellery, stuff her with unwanted food. Driven to alcohol, he goes on a binge so dissolute that he madly lets half the world batten on him by paying for his drinks... Pohl's distorting mirror offers a crude but amusing caricature of capitalist mores, and for younger readers can still do what SF writers claim science fiction does: Make You Think. The more jaded of us may gripe at the brash lack of sophistication, and the implausible – even in the story's own terms – resolution. Though avoiding the complete disaster of a lapse into actual common sense, Pohl's happy ending (the robots responsible for overproduction now help with consumption) provokes too many familiar responses like "Why now and not before?" or "So what?"

But robot emancipation is a theme which which Pohl is to have fun in his 1980s pendants to the original. The book comprises seven stories and an opening vignette called "The Fire-Bringer", concerning Amalfi Amadeus, responsible for the fusion-power vector of the midas plague. Then comes the 1954 piece; then "The Servant of the People" (1982), "The Man Who Ate the World" (1956), "The Farmer on the Dole" (1982), "The Lord of the Skies" (1983) and "The New Neighbors" (1983). The 1956 tale is rather off the main line of development, an uneasy story of a man still trapped in compulsive patterns of overconsumption long after 1954. His torment and the Original Daft Premise do not sit well together, and the story – adequate in itself – seems to be gently pleading for release from this book's context. Even a semi-serious psychological study deserves not to be placed on the mantelpiece next to that gargoyle of a china dog.

The eighties are here, Pohl is older and wiser, and the four new stories are worlds away from their origins. "Servant", almost too underplayed for its own good, shows the logical development of robots' "satisfaction circuits" (required by the Ration Board in "Plague", to prevent robot consumption being mere anathematical waste). Becoming more human, robots rise from helot status to that of second-class citizen, even gaining the vote: in the story, a robot Congressional candidate is running against a human robot-rights campaigner ("Some of my best friends...). Several barbs are planted, none very deeply; the Asimovian twist in the tale depends on the fact that Pohl's robots are both logical and (unlike Asimov's) reasonable.

"Farmer" lets a good deal more hang out, with incidental fun and invention as good as anything Pohl's written. Zeb is a down-to-earth farming robot ("'Dem near eighty-five percent relative humidity,' he muttered to himself, 'an' yet it doan rain. Lord sakes ifn I know...'" etc.) Made redundant, he ventures into the big city, where the equivalent of a job centre does its very best for him by reprogramming him as a mugger. With a new turn of phrase:

"Well, you wouldn't want to talk like a farmhand when you live in the big city, would you?"

"Oh, granted!" Zeb cried earnestly. "But one must pose the next question: The formalisms of textual grammar, the imagery of poetics, can one deem them appropriate to my putative new career?"

The RRR frowned. "It's a literary-critic vocabulary store," she said defensively. "Look, somebody has to use them up..."

And somebody has to fill up the cities: most people have buggered off on the free-energy gravy train, to enjoy life in orbit, while the pampered few at home demand crowds of role-playing robots to make cities still feel like cities. Caught in the system, Zeb is increasingly and hilariously alienated until his own rebellion helps reveal his true niche. At first glance this looks like a standard too-pat ending, resembling in shape that of the original story: but it's entirely logical in terms of the new scenario, and conceals a second and blacker twist.

Meanwhile, above a poverty-line now coterminous with Earth's atmosphere, the freeloading space habitats of "Lord of the Skies" depend on a new and still less plausible turn in Pohl's demented energy economy. Brace yourself: solar power is not enough, and the idle rich are supported by a robot population working flat-out to beam energy from Earth into space. The despicable hero, product of his crumbling space environment, passes the time huntin', shootin' and fishin' – targets of all three activities being von Neumann machines straggling in from the asteroids with cargoes of raw materials – and generally jetsetting, just as everyone can in a time of "free" resources. But what is this ominous voice from Earth, announcing doom "if this goes on" and proposing to call a halt? After several adventures our hero has no hesitation in ignoring still small voices no matter what their source or message. Black, black.

More gently, "New Neighbors" completes a process begun in "Servant". An all-robot apartment block is shaken by social tremors when a couple of... organic folks move in. They may consider that they're slumming, but the robots are seriously worried about the quality of local life:

"...I really don't see why we're all getting so upset. There are only two of them, and there are a couple of hundred of us."

"Now there are!" Gregory cried. "Did you forget they're organic? What are we going to do if they start to reproduce?"

A gently unscrupulous campaign to save the neighbourhood is successful. Robots duly inherit the Earth. Amalfi Amadeus (deprived by lawyers of full kudos for the fusion process) sniggers in his grave. All ends perplexedly.

This tenuous connection of Amadeus at front and back doesn't really veil the disparity of the contents. The gigantic shadow of the Daft Idea falls heavily across the quieter new stories; the gulf between these – the low-key "Servant" and "Neighbors" – and the exuberantly inventive "Farmer" and "Lord" is almost as great as that between 1950s and 1980s Pohl. Better than the curate's egg, it's good and enjoyable in most of its parts: they merely fail to make a coherent whole.