Frederik Pohl (1919-   )

1,758  words
posted:  july  15,  1997

  In his classic study, New  Maps  of  Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis described Frederik Pohl as "the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced." Pohl's contributions as fan, editor, and writer span the history of modern American science fiction. Pohl first became interested in science fiction as a young man, one of countless teenagers drawn to the genre through Hugo Gernsback's pulp magazines.

He was a central figure in the Futurians, an important fan group, whose other members included Donald Wollheim, John Michel, Cyril Kornbluth, Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, James Blish, and Judith Merrill. The Futurians were committed to the idea that science fiction might function as a vehicle for social criticism and political transformation.

Andrew Ross has written of the Futurians: "Their injection of social consciousness into the fandom world had an enduring effect at a time when the pulp stories were beginning to address the future of authoritarian social orders. Graduating to the ranks of professional editors and writers at the end of the decade, they eventually formed something of a counterculture operating against the established power of the field's publishers and editors. Having lived communally for a number of years, their collaborative writing habits bore fruit -- especially in the case of Kornbluth and Pohl, whose novels like The  Space  Merchants (1953), became classics of socially critical SF."

Pohl became editor of Astonishing  Stories and Super  Science  Stories at the age of 21 and was a key force in encouraging the introduction of social science perspectives into science fiction.

The Futurians encouraged a shift in the nature of characterization in science fiction, away from a focus on scientists, engineers and inventors, and toward the experience of everyday people living in future societies. In his short stories and novels of the 1950s, Pohl's protagonists were often men in grey flannel suits, corporate executives, ad men, who represented the middle class culture of the near future. They worried about paying bills and getting raises. Cogs in great corporate machines, these characters often came to recognize the horrors their companies were helping to produce. If Hugo Gernsback saw science fiction as inciting young people to study science with "amazing stories" of wonderful discoveries and breakthroughs, Pohl focused on mundane life in future cultures, asking us to reflect on social, economic, and cultural trends that might link his apocalyptic societies to our own.

Pohl's sharp satires of consumerism, corporate and suburban life, the social conformity of the 1950s established him as a significant critic of the bland optimism of Eisenhower's America. In "Tunnel Under the World" (1954), the protagonist awakens to discover he has been reliving the same day -- only the advertisements have been changing. As one of the characters explains:

They aren't Russians and they aren't Martians. These people are advertising men! Somehow -- heaven knows how they did it -- they've taken Tylerton over. They've got us, all of us, you and me and twenty or thirty thousand other people, right under their thumbs. Maybe they hypnotize us and maybe it's something else; but however they do it, what happens is that they let us live a day at a time. They pour advertising into us the whole damned day long. And at the end of the day, they see what happened -- and then they wash the day out of our minds and start again the next day with different advertising . . . Think of it, Swanson! They test every last detail before they spend a nickel on advertising!

  Pohl's short stories depict societies where citizens are issued "rationed books" and monitored to make sure they are fulfilling their obligations as consumers ("The Midas Plague," 1954). In "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus" (1956), Pohl describes a society where consumerism totally rules the Christmas season. Friends send each other cards telling how much they plan to spend on each other, with the numbers rounded off to the nearest fifty cents in order to preserve discretion. The religious significance of the holiday is all but forgotten as familiar verses are revised into advertising jingles:

'Tis the season of Christmas, and all through the house St. Nick and his helpers begin their carouse. The closets are stuffed and the drawers overflowing With gift-wrapped remembrances, coming and going. What a joyous abandon of Christmastime glow! What a making of lists! What a spending of dough! So much for the bedroom, so much for the bath, So much for the kitchen -- too little by half! Come Westinghouse, Philco! Come Hotpoint, G.E.! Come Sunbeam! Come Mixmaster! Come to the Tree! So much for the wardrobe -- how shine Daddy's eyes. As he reaps his Yule harvest of slippers and ties. So much for the family, so much for the friends. So much for the neighbors -- the list never ends. A contingency fund for the givers belated Whose gifts must be hastily reciprocated. And out of the shops, how they spring with a clatter, The gifts and appliances words cannot flatter! The robot dishwasher, the new Frigidaire, The doll with the didy and curlable hair! The electrified hairbrush, the black lingerie, The full-color stereoscopic TV! Come, Credit Department! Come, Personal Loan! Come, Mortgage, Come Christmas Club, Come ---

Pohl was unapologetic about his use of actual companies and brand names in his stories, taking aim at sacred cows of the corporate era. At a time when other science fiction dystopias, such as George Orwell's  1984 (1949) or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit  451 (1953), worried about the threat of totalitarianism, Pohl and Kornbluth's The  Space  Merchants (1953) worried about the growth of consumer capitalism and corporate America. The novel, probably Pohl's best work of the 1950s, envisions a world divided by warring companies, where brand loyalties are more important than political ideologies, and where privatized space travel is transforming the stars into advertising space.

Pohl's stories and novels envisioned major advances in media and reflected on their potential social effects. In Gladiator-At-Law (1955), one of his collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, he describes a world where gladiator fights are televised to provide "bread and circuses" entertainment for huddled masses living in decaying Levittowns. In the following passage, he describes the preparations for such a telecast, which employs computer-based simulation:

Norvie sent Miss Dali to round up his staff and began the tooling-up job for the integrator keyboard, while the production men busied themselves with their circuits and their matrices and the job began. This was the part of Norvie's work that made him, he confessed secretly to himself, feel most like God. He fed the directions to Stimmens, Stimmens fumblingly set up the punch cards, the engineers translated the cards into phase fields and interferer circuits -- and a World That Norvie Made appeared in miniature. . . . All Norvie did was to decide what forms and images he wanted to see. It was The Engineers who, in their wisdom, transmuted empty visions into patterns of light and color that magically took the form and movement of tiny fighters and wrestlers and spear-carriers. . . . It was the tremendous technical skill that transformed the thought into visual reality in the table-top model previewer that was important. . . . It took twenty minutes and a bit more, and then Norvell's whole design for a Field Day was on punch cards. While Stimmens was correcting his last batch of cards, the production men began the high speed run-through. The little punched cards went through the scanners; the packed circuits measured voltages and spat electrons; and in the miniature mockup of the Stadium, tiny figures of light appeared and moved and slew each other and left. They were Norvell's own, featureless and bright, tiny and insubstantial. Where Norvell's script called for the bodies of forty javelin-throwers in the flesh, the visualizing apparatus showed forty sprites of light jabbing at each other with lances of fire. No blood spilled; no bodies stained the floor of the stadium; only the little bodiless fire-fighters that disappeared like any other pattern of excited ions when the current went off. Somehow, inside Norvell's mind, it was here and not in the big arena that the real Field Days took place. He had heard the cries of the wounded and seen the tears of the next of kin waiting hopelessly in the pits, but they were not real; it was as manikins that he thought of them always.

This passage is a useful caution to those who see science fiction writers simply as prophets for the future. On the one hand, Pohl and Kornbluth correctly predict one of the ways in which computers might be used in contemporary society -- as a means for simulating costly productions. On the other hand, their futuristic computers still depend upon punch cards! More striking is the way this passage hints at the social and cultural effects of such a technology -- the dehumanization which must occur before a television executive could casually plan gladiator fight and the ways in which digital simulations might enable this distancing from the human consequences of his actions.

  Like many of the cultural critics of the 1950s, ranging from Theodor Adorno to Jules Henry, Pohl and Kornbluth were disturbed by the power of media imagery to shape the human imagination, by the ways in which mass media often transformed cultural materials into resources for advertising and commodification. Pohl envisioned a world where even our dreams could be bought and sold, as in this detail dropped without much fanfare in "Happy Birthday, Jesus" (1956):

I reached under the pillow and turned off my dreamaster before I went to sleep: I had a full library for it, a deluxe model with five hundred dreams that had been a present from the firm the Christmas before. I had Haroun al Rashid's harem and three of Charles Second's favorites on tape, and I had rocketing around the moon and diving to Atlantis and winning a sweepstakes and getting elected King of the world, but what I wanted to dream about was not on anybody's tape, and its name was Lilymary Hargreave.

Pohl was editor of Galaxy and If in the early 1960s. He has remained a highly prolific writer, sometimes collaborating with Jack Williamson, sometimes writing solo. His books span the full range of the genre, including satires and space operas, stories of space exploration and speculations about the immediate future of New York City, juvenile adventure stories and sophisticated speculations about alien religions. He has also edited many important anthologies of science fiction.

Selected Bibliography

With Cyril Kornbluth:
  The  Space  Merchants (1952)
Search  the  Sky (1954)
Gladiator-At-Law (1955)
Wolfbane (1959)
With Lester Del Rey:
  Preferred  Risk (1955)
With Jack Williamson:
  Undersea  Quest (1954)
Undersea  Fleet (1955)
Undersea  City (1958)
The  Starchild  Trilogy (1970)
The  Saga  of  Cuckoo (1983)
The  Merchants  War (1984)
Land's  End (1988)
The  Singers  of  Time (1991)
  Slave  Ship (1957)
Drunkard's  Walk (1960)
Plague  of  Pythons (1965)
The  Age  of  the  Pussyfoot (1969)
Man  Plus (1976)
Gateway (1977)
Jem:  The  Making  of  a  Utopia (1979)
Beyond  The  Blue  Event  Horizon (1980)
The  Cool  War (1981)
Syzygy (1982)
Heechee  Rendezvous (1984)
The  Years  of  the  City (1984)
Black  Star  Rising (1985)
The  Coming  of  Quantum  Cats (1986)
The  Annals  of  the  Heechee (1987)
Chernobyl (1987)
Narabedla  Ltd. (1988)
The  Day  the  Martians  Came (1988)
Homecoming (1989)
The  World  at  the  End  of  Time (1990)
Outnumbering  the  Dead (1990)
The  Gateway  Trip (1990)
Stopping  at  Slow  Year (1992)
Mining  the  Oort (1993)
Land's  End (1994)
Mars  Plus (1994)
The  Other  End  of  Time (1996)
The  Siege  of  Eternity (1997)


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