Frederik Pohl Made Doing Literally Everything Look Easy

Frederik Pohl was one of those people who seem to make up the constellations of science fiction, a man who seemed to live five or six different lives in the time most of us only live one.

He was born in 1919, and his family travelled constantly in his early childhood, before his family settled in Brooklyn. He co-founded The Futurians, and belonged to that group as well as the Young Communist League during the 1930s. He left the Communists in 1939, joined the Army in 1943, and remained a sci-fi fan throughout. After World War II he worked as a writer, editor, and SF literary agent. He was married five times and had four children. He did, almost literally, everything.

In an attempt to capture everything, then, I’ve divided his life into pieces:

Agent. Frederik Pohl attempted a career as a specialist science fiction literary agent, at a time when that wasn’t really a thing that existed. By the early 1950s he had a large number of clients, but he finally decided to close the agency to focus on editorial work. He was the only agent Isaac Asimov ever had.

Writer. Frederik Pohl wrote several books, including the award-winning Gateway, as part of his Heechee series. He also wrote many standalone books, collaborations with Lester Del Rey, and Arthur C. Clarke, a memoir, The Way the Future Was, and many, many short stories. He co-wrote 11 books with Cyril Kornbluth, of which The Space Merchants isthe most well known, and deservedly so. It’s Mad Men in space, yes, but it’s so much more than that, such an arch, witty take on advertising, gender equality, consumerism, and the status-mad 1950s America that we’re all still living in. He charts a cycle of marketing-department-managed addiction that is horrifying while still being funny:

The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain,” the authors wrote. “And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr Cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies.

His novel Gateway is about prospecting and aliens and black holes and lost love and all that important stuff, but it’s also, mostly, about survivor’s guilt. The structure of the novel jumps around between a cataclysmic even and the event’s aftermath, with ship’s logs and technical bulletins interspersed, to create a profound meditation on time, consciousness, and duty. Jem (which won the National Book Award’s only science fiction award in 1980) is about hopeful colonists who make all the same mistakes that screwed up their home planet. His work always looks for an unexpected angle, an emotional truth that turns everything on its head. Pohl was a fearless writer, and while he was the original Futurian, he interrogated science and human nature mercilessly when imagining where humanity was heading next.

Magazine Editor. He edited Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories from 1939-1943. In one of the publishing stories typical to that era, Pohl asked about a job at one of Robert Erisman’s pulps, Marvel Science Stories and Dynamic Science Stories, but instead Erisman recommended him to the Popular Publications, who were looking to start a science fiction magazine. Even though the pay rate wasn’t very high, Pohl was able to tap his friends in the Futurians for stories.

Pohl returned to magazine editing when he joined Galaxy Magazine. Galaxy, edited by H.L. Gold, was already helping redefine sf in the 1950s, publishing stories including Ray Bradbury’s “The Fireman” and Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man.” Pohl worked with Gold on acquiring authors, but took over the magazine after a taxi accident compromised Gold’s health. Pohl then simultaneously edited Galaxy and If, publishing Jack Vance, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Silverberg in Galaxy. If, meanwhile won three Hugos in a row, and Pohl published Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and the five-[art serialization of Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Pohl published first stories from Larry Niven and Gardner Dozois.

SF Bon Vivant. In addition to writing and editing, Pohl formed two clubs that proved instrumental in the development of American science fiction. The first was the Futurians, a group of young people who gathered during the 1930s to talk about SF and, well, the future. The group broke up as people left for World War II, but in 1947, once the writers and fans were back home, Pohl took the lead in forming a new society. At that year’s WorldCon, Lester del Rey mentioned to Pohl that he missed getting together with other sf fans. So the two of them set up a meeting on Grove Street n New York, gathering up some friends including Lester del Rey, David Kyle, Judith Merril, and Martin Greenberg. Since there were nine people at that first meeting, they decided to name the group after a certain nine-headed mythical monster, and voila: Frederik Pohl co-founded Hydra. You can read more about the Club here, and see Judith Merril’s article about the group (which includes Harry Harrison’s adorable sketch of the members) here!

Book Editor. In the early 70s, Pohl had a position at Bantam Books that…well, honestly, it sounds like the sort of fantasy novel an editor would write when they’re at their desk at 8:00pm with another few hours of reading in front of them. Or, maybe mid-meeting.

By then, I had landed a dream job as science-fiction editor for the independent paperback giant, Bantam Books—didn’t have to come in to the office except when I felt like it, had total freedom to publish any property I chose without needing to get anyone’s permission or approval, or even without needing anyone’s okay to offer as high or as low an advance and royalties as I chose. It was the very model of the position that any ink-stained editorial wretch would have given his eyeteeth to be offered.

Having wanted to work with Samuel Delany for many years, he was excited when a manuscript of Dhalgren came across his desk. It wasn’t exactly sci-fi, but, taking his dream job into account, Pohl decided to buy it anyway.

It was a Bantam custom to Xerox multiple copies of every new accepted manuscript as it was signed, and as those copies began to circulate, I began to have one particular conversation, over and over, every time I chose to come in to the office. One of my colleagues would stop me in a hallway, placatory smile on his or her face, and say something like, “You know, Fred, I certainly would never dream of questioning your editorial decisions, you know that. But I was just wondering—well, why, exactly, did you buy that book?”

I finally figured out an answer that satisfied them. I said, “Because it’s the first book that told me anything I didn’t know about sex since Story of O.”

Since Dhalgren went on to become a massive bestseller (through a combination of Pohl’s own promotional work and kismet) his faith in pushing the boundaries of SF was rewarded. He tried to pull the same trick for Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, which unfortunately didn’t sell nearly as well…but it did go on to be acknowledged as an absolute classic of feminist science fiction, so at least there’s that.

Blogger. He won four Hugos and three Nebulas over all, but more notable I think is that his 1977 novel, Gateway, won four very different awards. Not only the Hugo and Nebula, but also the Locus, where it was voted in by the magazine’s readers, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, where it was honored by a jury of academics. He also won a National Book Award for Jem in 1979, and a second Campbell (one of only a handful of authors to do so) for his novella collection Years of the City. So all of that is great, and of course he was made a Grand Master, and of course he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

But where Pohl goes from being great to being amazing is that in 2010, seventeen years after becoming a Grand Master, he won a Hugo for “Best Fan Writer” for his blog. He was 90 years old at the time, and if you take even a cursory skim through his posts, you’ll meet a mind that is still as excited about science fiction and the possibilities of story at 90 as it was as a fledgling writer in the 1930s. So, in closing, head over to The Way the Future Blogs and settle in for a while, and read.


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