A charming history of Science Fiction and Fandom: Frederik Pohl’s The Way the Future Was

I once got so wrapped up in Pohl’s story “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” that I didn’t hear the teacher asking a question and got given an order mark. I can still remember being wrenched from the line “the incident of next week” back to the classroom. Pohl wrote some other amazing short stories, many of them collected in Platinum Pohl. I’m also very fond of his novels, especially Gateway and The Space Merchants, but I think The Way the Future Was may be my favourite of Pohl’s books. It’s a memoir—but it reminds me of the comment about Churchill’s History of the Second World War “Winston’s writing an autobiography and disguising it as a history of the whole world.” The Way the Future Was is certainly Pohl’s autobiography from 1920-1979. It’s also the story of the history of science fiction and of science fiction fandom between those dates, filtered through Pohl’s unique perspective—he was fan, writer, agent and editor. He was right there when dinosaurs walked the earth and everything was fresh and starting out. If I were an editor, I’d get on to Mr Pohl and ask him to write a few more chapters about the years since 1980 and then reissue the book. Meanwhile, you could do a lot worse than read his blog.

The book begins:

When I first encountered science fiction, Herbert Hoover was the President of the United States, a plump perplexed man who never quite figured out what had gone wrong. I was ten years old. I didn’t know what had gone wrong either.

Pohl is an engaging writer. The book is fast-paced and often funny. The events he’s writing about are fascinating. He talked himself into editing two science fiction magazines when he was nineteen at the end of the Depression. He went broke being an agent in the SF boom of the fifties. He collaborated with Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Williamson and Arthur C. Clarke. He edited Galaxy and If. He had an interesting relationship with John W. Campbell. He knew all the science fiction writers in the world when you could get all the science fiction writers in the world in one room. He was at the first convention ever, and excluded from the first Worldcon ever in the first fan feud—well, one of the first fan feuds ever. He dropped out of high school and graduated just this year. He lived through the Depression, he was a Young Communist until the Hitler-Stalin pact, he fought in Italy in WWII, he worked in advertising and he’s been married five times. But what makes the book worth reading is his voice, deprecating, funny, ready to share information or an anecdote, serious where he needs to be, never whining or self-justifying, accepting blame where appropriate. Pohl is someone it’s a delight to spend time with—at least on the page, I’ve never been fortunate enough to meet him in person.

There’s a lot here about the small technical details of life—print technology, living on next to nothing in the Depression, the economics of pulp magazines, the fan clubs and fan feuds of the thirties. It’s all great. What there isn’t a lot about is writing—there’s a little bit about collaboration with Kornbluth, and a little about Pohl’s four page per day writing method. I picked this up the first time in the early eighties wanting the secrets of how to be a writer—they’re not here. There’s gossip about other writers, but never mean-spirited gossip, nor does Pohl ever reveal things that weren’t common knowledge. He does not, for instance, mention that Arthur C. Clarke was gay, which was still a secret in 1979. It isn’t a tell-all kind of memoir—he’s candid about what’s his to tell, but he keeps other people’s secrets quiet.

The chapters of the book were written as stand-alone articles, and it shows a little sometimes—you get information repeated and presented as if it was new. This should have been fixed—it’s very noticeable if you read the book all through in one gulp.

This is the kind of book where I keep wanting to read bits aloud as I get to them. I could easily fill this post with quotations—but it would be hard to know where to stop. Go and read his blog and then if you can, get hold of the book for yourself.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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