Monday 30 April 2012

Book Reviews: Two By Frederik Pohl

Book Review of:
(Granada paperback – 1978
ISBN 0-586-05211-9)

‘There is very little that can be said about Frederik Pohl, except everything’ explains Harlan Ellison in ‘Dangerous Visions’. Distrust Golden Ages. All genres have them – Rock, Big Bands, Comics, Movies, and they all tend to happen around the time the story-teller hits that watershed of emotional vulnerability that occurs between puberty and maturity, twixt twelve and twenty. When the soft grey cerebral underbelly is at its most receptive to new high-power inputs. When the guy in the movie says ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died’, it says more about his own state-of-adolescence than it does about either Rock ‘n’ Roll or about Buddy Holly.

Frederik Pohl’s autobiography is sub-titled ‘Science Fiction’s Golden Age recalled’. You get the picture? Demonstrably the best SF ever written on this planet did not appear in magazines like ‘Thrilling Wonder’ or ‘Super Science Stories’. Pohl himself states as much – he admits that ‘the worst of modern television is not quite as brainless as the average pulp story of the Twenties or Thirties’. But that’s where his allegiances lie because that’s when he first became a ‘practitioner of the solitary vice of Science Fiction’. He was a ‘tall skinny guy with glasses’ caught up in a Depression Years’ escapism industry, a boy Bolshevik with acne prominent enough to be taken for an ‘auxiliary nose’. In those far-off days, membership of the Young Communist League held in tandem with membership of the Futurians SF fan-group presented him with no contradictions because both were progressive, both offered tantalisingly vibrant visions of tomorrow harnessed to that same smug clique elitism of being on the inside of that fantastic vision.

‘Reality is a terrible annoyance to a novelist’ he can concede, while simultaneously getting down to the gritty and torturous reality of creating Golden Ages for later generations through a non-stop barrage of fine books. From the sociological SF of ‘Gladiator-At-Law’ (1955) about multinational capitalism at war, ‘Slave Ship’ (1957) about the military training animals to fight wars, and novels as bizarrely compulsive as the utopian ‘Jem’ (1979), or as breathtaking as ‘Gateway’ (1977), the Nebula-award winning opening to his acclaimed ‘Heechee’ series. All the while charting other people’s blueprints as Literary Agent and Editor. Much of the way we now think about Science Fiction was shaped by the persistent nudging of Frederik Pohl.

His remembrance of things (and futures!) past is contagiously readable, loose as only a pulp survivor can be, jokey, bustling with anecdotes about Harlan Ellison and Lester Del Rey trashing a restaurant, about John Campbell testing out the ideation of ‘Analog’ editorials by systematically provoking arguments with every luckless individual who stumbles into his office, and about now-forgotten hacks sweating out ten-thousand words a day – filling entire magazine-editions under half-a-dozen pseudonyms, and still coming out of it broke! The book bulges with typewriter portraits and line-sketches that are lethally accurate, perceptively humorous and gently mocking. What such tales lack in the critical objectivity of – say, the ‘Billion Year Spree’ school of cool academicism, or the ‘Hell’s Cartographers’ nuts-and-bolts self-historification, they balance out with meandering intrigue, fascinating diversions, and Pohl’s own distinctly bragging easy-on-the-eye word-flow.

Born in 1919 he was inoculated into SF early. If you think Mark Perry’s punk-era ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ invented the fanzine you’re over half-a-century late – Pohl was doing that in Brooklyn round about the time he was discovering sex. By nineteen (and page 57) he’d already made his first professional sale (a poem, “Elegy To A Dead Planet: Luna” to ‘Amazing’) – and rapidly, in succession had become pro editor of two magazines, enabling him to buy stories from himself! As his tale unfolds he pulls few personal punches. He relates details of his four marriages, a World War, and his artistically successful but commercially disastrous seven-year spell as a Literary Agent. Among other legends, he represented expert dreamers like Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham, and Clifford D Simak (‘of the top fifty SF writers in the early-Fifties, I represented at least thirty-five!’). Yet he still managed to emerge $30,000 in debt! He went on to edit both ‘Galaxy’ and ‘If’ clear through the sixties – ‘the pay was miserable. The work was nerve-ending. It was the best job I ever had in my life’. Yet, pursued by this dogged ‘Fool-Killer’ of a ludicrously absurd and terribly annoying reality, he still found time to write, write, and then write some more – ‘making up lies about things that never happened’ in novels as powerful as the anti-utopian Madison Avenue satire ‘The Space Merchants’ (1953), or through classic short story collections such as ‘The Man Who Ate The World’ (1960), ‘Gold At The Starbows End’ (1972), clear up to relatively recent ‘Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories’ (2005).

Pohl’s visions of tomorrow continue unabated, and if that original simon-pure vision got slightly dog-eared in the process, it remains fundamentally as vibrant. There are unmistakeable lines of continuity. ‘When you invent a new civilised planet’ he explains, ‘you have to invent a new society to inhabit it, when you invent a new society, you make a political statement about the one you live in’. Something of the 1930’s boy-Bolshevik remains detectable in such an analysis. Pohl’s personal Golden Age is pretty stunning.

What ‘a writer has to sell is his own perspective on the universe’ he rationalises, and Pohl’s perspective is well worth the price of admission. Personally, I missed out on his Golden Years, mine came later, but the way he writes it makes you wish you was there. But Golden Ages are constantly renewing. ‘You can blow up the world as often as you like, but there is a future, there is always a future, and while some of it will be bad, some of it will be better than anyone has ever known’. I’ll buy that future – and pretty much any of the others he writes.

Book Review of:
(Orb Books – 2005 - ISBN 0-765-30145-8)

Frederik Pohl has been writing fiction across more decades than most of us have been alive. Yet his stories seldom betray their vintage. Instead, they chameleon into some timeless Pohl-space that defies time. Sure, in the earliest of these tales – “Let The Ants Try” (1949), there’s a three-hour nuclear war that destroyed civilisation in 1960, but so precise a lapsed-time date detracts nothing from the accelerating plot which switches around through time altering the present with dizzying speed.

While the plot of “Waiting For The Olympians” (1988) – which I’d not read before, vaguely mirrors Dick’s ‘Man In A High Castle’ in which a sci-Rom writer in an alternate present is (reluctantly) persuaded to concoct a fantasy alternate history of a world which sounds suspiciously like our own. There, the resemblance ceases. In his time-stream, the Roman Empire persists, to become global. Here, it is Roman Legions which clash with the Mayan civilisation, not Spanish conquistadors. Christianity never happened, Jesus was let off with a caution, there was no crucifixion, hence the cult based on the cruciform icon never took off. Is that good? Pohl is morally equivocal. He provides no neat equation. In the global Roman Empire there is no war. But there is institutionalised slavery, the morality of which the characters never question. And such matters are incidental anyway. The narrative is mainly concerned with Julius’ brain-storming deadline-haunted search for a plotline for his next novel, in which he’s assisted by friend Flavius Samuelus who just might be a disguised version of Isaac Asimov. Or perhaps not. While he’s threading his restless travels from the London backwaters, through the Imperial city itself and down to Alexandria, there’s a simultaneous further plot-thread – the impending arrival of a first-contact alien delegation. But that’s of lesser importance. When the aliens inexplicably break off contact and return to the stars that’s of lesser consequence than the progress of his seduction of Rachel, and the success of his novel. Not the vital alternate history, but the rejected earlier novel that led to the imposition of his publisher’s thirty-day deadline in the first place. Pohl’s morality can be quirky, if not downright perverse. Why have the aliens chosen not to make contact? Again, you draw your own conclusions. Because Earth still practises slavery? Possibly, but Pohl stays schtum.

Elsewhere, “Day Million” (1966) – which I’d already read several times before, is still a stunning foray into head-spinning future-sex. It originally appeared in ‘Rogue’ – a soft-porn mag… or maybe that’s too strong a term for the time, perhaps a ‘girlie pin-up’ title would be a more accurate description. But what must have made a puzzling read for its sensation-seeking readership retains the potential to amaze as its multi-sexual hyper-evolved protagonists pursue their convoluted but effortlessly inventive courtship. And if Pohl seems unfeasibly pleased that a now-forgotten Liverpool indie-band took their name from his story-title “The Day The Icicle Works Closed” (1959), then the story is way-better than anything that minor-league band ever produced.

“The Merchants Of Venus” (from the August 1972 ‘Worlds Of If’) is a startlingly good, intensely suspenseful novella, and the first of his acclaimed Heechee series set into overdrive by the enigma of the 250,000-year old alien artefacts across the solar system. Its human dilemma centres on Audee Walthers, an airbody driver who exploits visiting ‘Terry’ tourists to the Venus Spindle colony, on a planet other writers had long since bypassed but which Pohl brilliantly reactivates, complete with toxic yellow-green 95% carbon-dioxide atmosphere with fluffy clouds of hydoflouric acid at 20,000-millibar surface pressure, driven by 300kph winds at 270C surface temperature. Venusian meteorological and hesperological conditions are meticulously reasoned, as the arrival of spaceship ‘Yuri Gagarin’ carrying megarich Boyce Cochenour and his WAG-companion Dorotha Keefer offers Audee the opportunity of hunting the ‘Big Pay-Off’. His need for a life-saving liver-transplant gives his urgency extra momentum, or he’ll go into total collapse within ninety days. ‘Liver, bye-bye; hepatic failure, hello’. By contrast, Cochenour is 110, but surgically gen-modified to the physical condition of a muscle-beach man half that age. There’s three-way personal tension in Walthers’ seashell-shaped craft as they go prospecting the super-hostile terrain for an unlooted Heechee warren in the restricted South Polar Security Area, where it becomes clear that Cochenour’s need is as urgent as Walthers, with his wealth – and hence Walthers pay-cheque, in doubt. With the digs as bare as his bank account, and both with nothing left to lose, they follow an earlier lead to Trace C in the military exclusion zone. It’s almost a treasure map marked ‘X’. But, betrayed by Cochenour, with the biological countdown hurtling, and life-support metres running into the red, he and resourceful Dorotha are stranded in the warren as the tale goes into furious meltdown. Suffice to say that, although the military impound his unlooted discoveries in the warren, his pay-off covers med-expenses. He gets the girl, and the new liver. In fact, something of Cochenour will stay a part of him always. Brilliant! With just about every S-Fictional ingredient any reader could possibly want.

The most recent of the thirty titles in this fine collection – “The Mayor Of Mare Tranq”, rescued from a 1996 anthology, is a playfully affectionate tribute portraying fellow-writer and sometime-collaborator Jack Williamson as the man who saved JFK from the Dallas assassination, and as a reward gets to crew the Apollo moon-launch alongside Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Consistent with his five decades-plus of stories, it shows that to Pohl, all of time and all of space are tinker-toys to make and re-shape at whim. Always have been. These are stories that creatively crumple reality into imaginative paper-shapes, and seldom give their age away.

Expanded from a feature on website:
‘THE ZONE: BOOKS’ (UK – February 2007)

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