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Tuesday September 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday September 24, 2013 MYT 7:43:22 AM
by christopher priest
Frederik George Pohl, Nov 26, 1919-Sept 2, 2013.
Remembering a celebrated science-fiction writer and editor with a prolific output.
FREDERIK Pohl, who died earlier this month aged 93, was one of the greatest and most prolific of American science-fiction writers.
During a career lasting more than 60 years, Pohl was among the most celebrated SF authors of his era. His novel The Space Merchants (1953), written in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth, was the first modern satire of American consumerism. It was translated into more than 40 languages and remains a classic. British author Kingsley Amis said that it had “many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far”.
Pohl wrote several collaborative novels in his early days, including four more with Kornbluth, one with Lester del Rey and, from the middle of the 1950s, many with Jack Williamson. In 2008 he completed a novel, The Last Theorem, which had been begun by Arthur C. Clarke before his death that year.
However, the novels Pohl wrote as sole author are probably his lasting legacy. In his late 50s he produced Man Plus (1976), winner of the coveted Nebula award. A year later came the first of his “Heechee” novels, Gateway (1977), the winner of most of the main SF awards in its year. Full of ideas and formal experiment, it still represents a high point in the science fiction of that time.
Using an ingenious narrative voice, the novel describes the exploration of the galaxy by use of unpredictable and often dangerous technology that had been abandoned millennia before by a vanished civilisation (the Heechee). Five more Heechee novels were to follow. In 1979, Pohl’s novel Jem won the American National Book award. He continued writing until the last years of his life: his most recent novel, All The Lives He Led, came out in 2011.
He also published more than 20 collections of short stories and one of the best and most revealing autobiographies by any of the writers of his period: The Way The Future Was (1978).
An only child, born in Brooklyn in New York City, Pohl spent much of his childhood travelling: within weeks of his birth his parents had moved from New York to Panama in search of work, the first of many relocations as their fortunes changed. “Sometimes we lived in luxury hotels,” Pohl wrote. “Once or twice we lived nowhere at all.”
He began reading SF pulp magazines when he was an adolescent and soon made contact with the Futurians, a small group of New York SF fans, many of whom went on to become recognised as science-fiction professionals. They included Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim and James Blish.
Pohl began selling his work while still a teenager. Most of his early sales were collaborations, while his solo efforts appeared under pseudonyms. By the time he was 20 he had become an editor himself, working for the vast Popular Publications chain: they published 60 pulp-fiction magazines a month, half of them Westerns, and only two of them science fiction: Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, both edited by Pohl. Each title had a monthly budget of US$405 and printed 45,000 words. To make ends meet, he ended up writing much of the material himself.
Pohl joined up in 1943, serving in the US Army Air Forces in Italy and France. Afterwards, he became a literary agent, then went into advertising. This provided the inspiration for the material so ruthlessly satirised in The Space Merchants. Pohl’s joint ventures with Kornbluth continued until the latter’s death in 1958, by which time Pohl was working mainly as an assistant and contributing editor to SF magazines edited by Horace L. Gold.
Throughout most of the 1960s Pohl was editor-in-chief, and for the magazines concerned it was a successful period. One of them, Worlds Of If, won the Hugo award three years in succession. Pohl later became an editor at Bantam Books where, among many other titles, he published Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), both snapped up by Pohl after several other publishers had nervously turned them down and both now recognised as lasting classics of serious speculative fiction.
This period showed a gradual steadying of belief in his own writing. Once he had ceased being an editor, he evolved into a serious, original and distinctive novelist whose work will be remembered. Pohl maintained a steady output of four pages every day, no matter where he was or what else he was doing. In 2000, he turned up in Nantes, France, to collect a lifetime achievement award, the Prix Utopia. I was allotted the pleasant task of greeting him on his arrival. Clearly exhausted after the overnight flight from New York, Pohl smiled politely at everyone then retired to his hotel room to produce the day’s quota.
In 2009, in response to a publisher’s request for some publicity material, Pohl began a blog, The Way The Future Blogs. He maintained this on an almost daily basis, filling it not only with acerbic commentary on political and social issues, but also long and often personal reminiscences of the many people he had known: other writers, critics, artists, filmmakers, editors, and so on. He wrote the final entry in the blog on the day of his death.
Pohl is survived by his fifth wife, the literary scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull, whom he married in 1984; three of his four children; and several grandchildren. – Guardian News & Media
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