Remembering Frederik Pohl (1919-2013)

Back in June, this blog marked the first anniversary of the sad and untimely death of one of my favourite SF authors, Iain M. Banks, who we lost to cancer last year at the age of only 59. This month marks the first anniversary of the death of yet another of my favourite SF authors, this time one of the old greats, Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the true titans of the genre Frederik Pohl, who died on September 2nd last year, at the age of 93.

Fred Pohl had been with us seemingly forever, since the dawn of time, or, more accurately, since before the Golden Age of Science Fiction began, way back at the end of the 1930s – his first published work was the poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna” (under the pseudonym “Elton Andrews”), in the October 1937 issue of Amazing Stories. I’m one of those many people who felt almost as though he was always going to be with us, although that was sadly obviously never going to happen.

The previous year or two had been very unkind to the world of SF, with the loss of a number of great authors. Ray Bradbury (91) died in June 2012, and Harry Harrison (87) in August 2012. Jack Vance (96) and movie special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (91) both passed away in May 2013. And then Banks (59) in June 2013 and Pohl (93) in September 2013. True, with the exception of Banks, all of these authors were “greats” from an earlier era, and all lived to a grand old age (Harrison was the youngest to pass on, at “only” 87). But they were all giants of the genre, and their passing was a great loss to all of SF.

I’ve been a huge fan of Pohl’s writing since I first encountered him in my early teens (way back in the early-to-mid 1970s), and he was a huge figure in my formative years as an SF reader. His SF novels were some of my favourites, among them GATEWAY and the other Heechee books, MAN PLUS, THE SPACE MERCHANTS (with Cyril M. Kornbluth), SEARCH THE SKY (with Kornbluth), GLADIATOR-AT-LAW (with Kornbluth), WOLFBANE (with Kornbluth), MINING THE OORT, JEM, SYZYGY, STARBURST, THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, DRUNKARD’S WALK and many, many other classics. These still grace my bookshelves to this day, although most of them are long overdue for a re-read.

But as much as I like his novels, I’m an even bigger fan of his short fiction. As a matter of fact, the irony is very first Pohl story that I recall reading, “Wings of the Lightning Land”, was one that I didn’t even know was written by Pohl, as it came from that period during the Golden Age of SF the 1940s, when he wrote much of his short stories under the pseudonym “James MacCreigh”. I still remember “Wings of the Lightning Land” with great fondness, and it’s one of those old stories which hit me between the eyes at an early age, and has stayed with me ever since.

It’s now amusing for me to recall that, for quite a while after I read that story, I had absolutely no idea that this “James MacCreigh” dude and Frederik Pohl were one and the same person. And it’s even more amusing to recall that the classic old anthology, in which I first read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, was SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, edited by none other than a certain Carol & Frederik Pohl! It was ironic (and very creepy) that, last year, after not having read that story for many, many years, I just happened to come upon that old anthology again, and re-read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, the very week before Frederik Pohl died. How weird is that? 🙂

So this year, to mark the first anniversary of his death, I once again opened up SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, and re-read “Wings of the Lightning Land”, in memory of Frederik Pohl and his alter ego, “James MacCreigh”. And to add another one for good measure, I also dug out a really good collection of Pohl’s earliest short fiction, THE EARLY POHL (1976), which contains a bunch of his Golden Age stories, all written under his “James MacCreigh” pseudonym. Great stuff!

Of the short fiction that Pohl wrote under his own name, I think that the first one that I read (and one that has also stuck in my mind all these years) is “Let the Ants Try” (1949). Fantastic tale, and the ending of that story still sends chills up my spine, even now, forty years after I first read it. But he also wrote so many other memorable short stories. “Day Million”, “The Tunnel under the World”, “The Midas Plague”, “The Man Who Ate the World”, “Critical Mass”, “The Abominable Earthman”, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, “In the Problem Pit” and so, so many others.

Fred Pohl was an awesome, awesome writer. But he was also hugely influential in SF as an editor throughout the 1960s, on classic SF magazines Galaxy and its sister publication If. And over the decades he has also edited far too many great SF anthologies to even start listing them here.

I’ve also been following his blog, The Way the Future Blogs, assiduously over the past couple of years. I’ve been really loving his recollections about the past history of SF, and I’m going to miss the writings of this great man, but he’s left a huge body of work out there for all of us to enjoy. He should be compulsory reading for all SF fans, old and young.

In Memory of Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction Grand Master.

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Frederik Pohl (1919-2013)

Back in June of this year, I made a blog posting about the tragically sad and untimely passing of one of my favourite SF authors, Iain M. Banks, who we lost to cancer at the far, far too young age of 59. He was merely the latest in a long line of all-too frequent announcements of the passing of yet another top SF author.

This past year or so has been particularly unkind to the world of SF, with the loss of far, far too many great authors. We lost Ray Bradbury (91) in June 2012, and Harry Harrison (87) in August 2012. Most recently, we also lost Jack Vance (96) and movie special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (91), both in May 2013. True, unlike Iain Banks, these other “greats” were from an earlier era, and all lived to a grand old age (totalling a combined age of 365), with Harry Harrison being the “youngest” to die (if I manage to live till I’m 87, I’ll be more than happy). But they were all giants of the genre, and their passing diminishes and saddens all of us.

And only last night, I come online to find out that we’ve lost yet another one. Science Fiction Grand Master and one of the true titans of the genre Frederik Pohl passed away yesterday, September 2nd, 2013, at the grand old age of 93. Fred Pohl had been with us seemingly since the dawn of time, or, more accurately, since before the Golden Age of Science Fiction began, way back at the end of the 1930s (his first published work was the 1937 poem “Elegy to a Dead Satellite”). I’m one of those many people who felt almost as though he was going to be with us forever, although that was sadly never going to happen. But it still hurts that he’s now gone.

When I first read the news last night, on a Google+ status update by SF author David Brin, all I could do was stare at the computer monitor with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Even though he was so old, and we’ve been expecting this to happen for some time now, it still came as a complete shock. I’m absolutely, absolutely gutted by this terribly sad news.

Isn’t it strange how we can get so upset about the passing of someone that we’ve never even met in person? But Fred Pohl (and his writing) was more real, more vivid, and more important to me than any of the thousands of faceless Joes and Josephines that I see walking the streets of my home town every single day. I’m fifty-two years old now, and I’ve been reading SF since I was about eight years old. I’ve been a huge fan of Pohl’s writing since I first encountered him in my early teens. He’s like an old friend, and I’m so, so sad to see him leave us, even if he was just a shade over six years off his 100th birthday.

I love the writing of many SF greats, but Frederik Pohl was a particular favourite of mine, and was a huge part of my overall life as an SF reader, as I’ve been a fan of his writing since way back in the early-to-mid 1970s. His SF novels were some of my favourites, among them GATEWAY and the other Heechee books, MAN PLUS, THE SPACE MERCHANTS (with Cyril M. Kornbluth), SEARCH THE SKY (with Kornbluth), GLADIATOR-AT-LAW (with Kornbluth), WOLFBANE (with Kornbluth), MINING THE OORT, JEM, SYZYGY, STARBURST, THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT, DRUNKARD’S WALK and many, many other classics. These still grace my bookshelves to this day, and all are long overdue for a re-read.

I’ve also always been a huge fan of his short fiction, going right back to the Golden Age of the 1940s, when he wrote much of his fiction under the pseudonym James MacCreigh. I still remember “Wings of the Lightning Land” with fondness, one of the earliest Pohl stories that I read (although for many years I never realized that James MacCreigh and Frederik Pohl were one and the same). A fantastic Pohl collection to read for this early stuff is THE EARLY POHL (1976), which contains a bunch of his James MacCreigh stories. Great stuff!

Of the short fiction that he wrote under his own name, one of the earliest that I read, and one that has stuck in my mind all these years, is “Let the Ants Try” (1949). The ending of that story still sends chills up my spine, even now, forty years after I first read it. But he also wrote so many other memorable short stories. “Day Million”, “The Tunnel under the World”, “The Midas Plague”, “The Man Who Ate the World”, “Critical Mass”, “The Abominable Earthman”, “The Gold at the Starbow’s End”, “In the Problem Pit” and so, so many others. What an awesome, awesome writer.

He was also hugely influential in SF as an editor throughout the 1960s, on classic SF magazines Galaxy and its sister publication If. And over the decades he has edited so many of my favourite SF anthologies that I wont even start listing them, or I’ll be here all evening. In an eerily weird stroke of synchronicity, just a few days ago I was re-reading one of my very favourite classic anthologies, SCIENCE FICTION: THE GREAT YEARS, edited by a certain Frederik Pohl and his then-wife Carol, and in that anthology was “Wings of the Lightning Land”, by some dude called James MacCreigh. I hadn’t read that book and story in many, many years, and I just had to pick the week that Frederik Pohl dies to read it again. Wow! How creepy is that? 🙂

I’ve also been following his blog, The Way the Future Blogs, assiduously over the past couple of years. I’ve been really loving his recollections about the past history of SF, and I am just so, so gutted that he’s gone, and we’ll never see another one of those charming, fascinating blog posts ever again. Tragic.

I’m going to miss the writings of this great man, but he’s left a huge body of work out there for all of us to enjoy. He should be compulsory reading for all SF fans, old and young.

RIP Fred. You done well.