I was sorry to learn that the long-time science fiction author Frederik Pohl had passed away. He died on September 2, 2013, aged 93 years. I haven’t read a huge amount of the prolific Pohl’s work. But I found each of the five novels by him that I do have to be very interesting, insightful, and enjoyable.
I first discovered Pohl’s work via a gift from my grandmother. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and she gave me a pair of science fiction paperbacks: The Years of the City and Midas World. I doubt that she had any idea who Pohl was, but she knew I really enjoyed sci-fi. In retrospect, I think perhaps she was also trying to get me to stop watching so much TV and read more books. As for why she chose those two, they were recently published, and the cover artwork must have caught her eye.
It actually took me nearly a decade to finally sit down and read both The Years of the City and Midas World from start to finish. But once I did, I found them really great, with an engaging style of prose, three-dimensional characters, and a unique sense of humor.
The Years of the City and Midas World are not, strictly speaking, actual novels. Each of them is a collection of linked shorter stories. The Years of the City, via a quintet of novellas, examines the future of New York City, beginning in the present day (i.e. the late 20th Century) and ending a few centuries later. Each of the five tales is told via the perspective of the man or the woman on the street. Through their eyes, we see the massive urban decline and renewal that NYC experiences over an extended period of time.
By the way, while the cover artwork is striking, the illustrator did take a bit of artistic license. Yes, in the later installments of Pohl’s book, Manhattan Island does indeed get covered by a giant transparent dome. Fortunately, though, the Outer Boroughs do not end up utterly destroyed!
Midas World is a much more cynical look at Earth’s future by Pohl. The unchecked spread of capitalism and production results in widespread consumerism, as people struggle to keep up with each other’s lifestyles. Consumption has become a psychological obsession for many people. (Hmmm, this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Meanwhile, a population of robot workers gradually gains emancipation. As time goes by, the majority of humanity departs Earth to find a new future in outer space, leaving the planet to the robots, who are now happily charting their own destiny.
On my own, I picked up Pohl’s novel Black Star Rising. Set in the late 21th Century, the backdrop is that the United States and the Soviet Union have wiped each other out, leaving Communist China to pick up the pieces. And then a mysterious alien spaceship appears, its occupants demanding to speak with the President of the United States. This is a major problem, since America has not been an autonomous nation in nearly a century. The story is told from the perspective of Castor, a worker from a collective farm in Mississippi. Chosen by the Communists to play the role of “President” in order to appease the aliens, Castor finds himself on a journey off-planet. The farmer comes to believe that the aliens may the key in liberating North America from Chinese rule, but cooler heads perceive that these beings might also inadvertently cause the destruction of humanity.
Probably my favorite work by Pohl was his 1977 novel Gateway, which later became the first installment of his “Heechee saga.” The narrator is Robinette Broadhead, who served on an ancient space station built by the long-vanished Heechee aliens. The troubled Rob, now back on Earth, recounts his experiences on Gateway to a computerized psychiatrist who he has nicknamed Sigfrid von Shrink.
Cannibalizing the technology of the Heechee, humanity has been using Gateway as a base from which to explore the universe. Due to the limited understanding of the Heechee’s spaceships, these are often risky, sometimes fatal expeditions, and the motivation for embarking on them is the dangled promise of great financial reward. Pohl describes it as “the ultimate game of Russian roulette.” Rob is a really intriguing, flawed, realistic character, and Pohl does superb work developing him. There is one moment where Rob attempts to explain his frustration at his existence to Sigfrid:
“When I sit down to the feast of life, Sigfrid, I’m so busy planning on how to pick up the check, and wondering what the other people think of me for paying it, and wondering if I have enough money in my pocket to pay the bill, that I don’t get around to eating.”
God, this just hit so totally at home for me! Throughout my life, I’ve always had this awful feeling of disquiet. I am such a neurotic, always fussing about the details, about “what if” and “if only” that I can seldom enjoy the moment. Then I read this beautifully phrased metaphor by Pohl, and it summed up all of my feelings perfectly.
The last of the five books by Pohl that I’ve read was The Space Merchants, which he co-wrote with C.M. Kornbluth in 1952. As with Pohl’s later works, The Space Merchants features a satirical, scathing look at a near-future Earth overrun by rampant capitalism, consumerism, and advertising. A massive gulf of economic inequality exists between a rich minority and the impoverished majority. (Again, sounds really familiar!) The protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, is one of the “haves” who, in the course of various corporate intrigues, finds his identity stolen, forced to assume a subservient role as one of the “have nots.” These events cause Mitch to drastically reconsider the world-view and principles which he previously held as sacred & infallible.
Looking back on Pohl’s work, it is apparent that he was a very prescient writer. Yes, in The Years of the City, he did see that there could possibly be an optimistic future if humanity reassessed its priorities. However, if it did not, and Western society continued upon a path of unfettered capitalism and rampant materialism, it would eventually lead to a very dire state of affairs. We can certainly see some of Pohl’s fears on display in this current climate of economic inequality and the obsession with the acquisition of fame and material possessions, of coming out ahead of everyone else, no matter what the cost.
There are a number of writers, as well as artists, who I have enjoyed tremendously, but who I unfortunately never got to meet before they passed away, never got to tell them how much their work meant to me: Kirby, Clarke, Bradbury, Harryhausen, Matheson, and so on. Fortunately, Frederik Pohl is one of those rare exceptions.
I forget the exact year, but it was probably in the mid-1990s. I went to the I-CON science fiction convention at Stony Brook, Long Island for the first time. One of the guests was Frederik Pohl, and I was definitely looking forward to meeting him. At the time, I’d only yet read The Years of the City, Black Star Rising, and Midas World, and of those three books, the first two had gotten pretty dog-eared from me dragging them over the place throughout the years. So, since Midas World was the least dinged-up volume, I brought that one along with me, hoping to get it autographed.
Once I was at the convention on Saturday morning and I looked at the program, I was disappointed. I saw that Pohl was scheduled to do a signing on Sunday. Unfortunately, I was only going to be there for that one day. He was, however, also going to be on a panel discussion that afternoon. I figured that if I didn’t get to meet him, at least I would be able to hear him talk about his work. Regrettably, I don’t remember the details of that panel. But afterwards, Pohl seemed to make a quick exit via the back door. I left the building through the front entrance. Lo and behold, a few dozen feet away, there was Pohl, standing by himself, smoking a cigarette. I wasn’t sure if he would want to talk to me, or if he preferred to be by himself, but I decided to give it a try. I walked up to Pohl and politely explained that I knew he wasn’t scheduled to do a signing that day, but I was a huge fan of his work, and since I would not be at the convention tomorrow, could he please autograph one book for me? He sort of hesitated for a second, and then nodded. I handed him my copy of Midas World, and he signed it. I spent about 30 seconds or so telling Pohl how much I had enjoyed his various books and then said my goodbyes before I wore out my welcome.
Subsequently, I had always hoped that I’d have the chance to meet Pohl again, and let him know how much Gateway had meant to me, how I had really identified with the character of Robinette Broadhead. That was not to be. But I am very grateful that I did have that one opportunity to talk to Pohl at I-CON all those years ago, however brief it was.