On learning of the death of Frederik Pohl

I was just sitting in the bar of one of this year’s Worldcon hotels, enjoying the end of LoneStarCon 3, the 73rd Worldcon, when bad news came through on Twitter. Frederik Pohl’s granddaughter announced that he had died. As soon as this was read aloud the whole group fell silent. This was a group of writers, editors and fans, and all of us were immediately struck with a sense of shock and a sense of loss. We didn’t want it to be true, and as it became clear that it was true we didn’t want to come to terms with it. Frederik Pohl was almost the last of his generation, one of the last people to remember the birth of science fiction as a genre with an identity and a community. We felt colder and closer to the grave, the way you do when you lose a grandparent or a parent.

It’s impossible to over-estimate the importance of Frederik Pohl to the science fiction genre.

Many people are important writers, though few have a career that spans such a long time. He wrote stories and novels that were absolutely essential to the genre, and he kept on writing them, from his early stories in the 1930s to his most recent novel in 2011. Whether he was writing satire like his 1952 collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth The Space Merchants, or psychologically serious SF like his 1977 Hugo and Nebula award winning Gateway, his work was always full of invention. He packed his stories with ideas in the Campbellian mode and then gave them an innovative twist that made them memorable. He crossed the eras, seeming just at home with the New Wave as he had been with the Campbellian mode. He has been hugely influential on the whole genre over decades. For example, the ninetieth birthday tribute anthology Gateways features Larry Niven, Gene Wolfe and Cory Doctorow.

If that was all, it would be quite enough to quieten the bar at Worldcon.

But Pohl was also a truly great editor—he edited Galaxy and If for more than a decade in the sixties. He also edited for Bantam, and bought and published Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (both 1975). He was one of the most imaginative editors the genre has ever seen, always prepared to buy things in new styles and move ahead. His agency was not a success but it was a fascinating idea that should have worked.

That would be more than enough on its own too.

Pohl was also a fan. In the thirties he was one of the Futurians, one of the people who helped invent fandom. And he remained a fan while becoming a pro. In 2010 he won a Hugo for Best Fanwriter for his blog, a funny and fascinating combination of science fiction memoir and rants on any subject that took his fancy. It was one of my favourite blogs and I’ll really miss it. He had a huge appetite for life and was wry and funny writing about it. A lot of older people shy away from new technology and methods of communications — not Pohl. He was out there being interesting and passionate on the internet in his nineties, even after a stroke. He loved living in the future, on his blog he demonstrated over and over that he was full of life and excitement.

Pohl lived a long life, he was married five times and has many descendants. His fifth marriage, to Elizabeth Anne Hull, has lasted happily since 1984. He fought in World War II. He wrote the books he wanted to write. He was a Grand Master and a multiple award winning author who never stopped writing. He couldn’t be more respected in the genre. He was a hugely influential editor over a long period, and won Hugos for this too. You just can’t hope for better than that. But even in these circumstances death is a terrible thing, cutting off his life cruelly. He was a vital person in all senses of the word, full of life and vitality and vitally significant. He was a primal force in science fiction, and always a force of innovation, ready for change, longing for it, in the most science-fictional way imaginable. He should have lived forever. He’d have enjoyed that.

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