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RIP Frederik Pohl

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Pohl’s Law: “No One Is Ever Ready For Anything.”

Well, that’s one version of it, and the man behind that passed away today.

Frederik Pohl was one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction, an elite few who shaped and guided the genre into what it is today, one of 29 men and women who defined Science Fiction for generations. It’s an impressive list, including Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffery, Ursula Le Guin and Harlan Ellison, and Frederik Pohl deserved to be there, without question.

Born in 1919, Pohl was a fan of science fiction from a young age, helping found the Futurians in 1937. Initially a fan club, it would become a breeding ground for the writers and editors who would transform the genre, with members like Issac Asimov, James Blish, Judith Merril and Damon Knight. They would explore big ideas on society and politics and believed that there was a place in science fiction for those big ideas. There the seeds of Pohl’s extensive career begin to grow, and it never really stopped until today.

Consider his writing career alone: In 1937, his first published poem, “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna” appeared in the original Amazing Stories magazine, under the first of many pseudonyms he would use over his early career, Elton Andrews. He would partner with Cyril M. Kornbluth, (“The Marching Morons”) on many short stories and novels beginning in 1939, a collaboration that led to, among many other great stories, the 1952 novel The Space Merchants, widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels ever written, and considered to be one of the books that defined the genre at its publication.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time when the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy rarely published under their own names, but that time was Pohl’s early career, and under names like Warren F. Howard and James MacCreigh, S.D. Gottesman and Paul Dennis Lavond, Pohl released, alone and with collaborators, dozens of short stories from the 30’s and 40’s. Even after he became a recognized author under his own name in the 50’s, he would return to pseudonyms from time to time, but it was under his own name that seminal novels like  Man Plus, Jem, Farthest Star and Gateway and its sequels in the Heechee Series would appear.

Slave Ship. The World at the End of Time. The Coming of the Quantum Cats. Collaborations with Jack Williamson and Lester Del Rey, and finishing Arthur C. Clarke’s final novel The Last Theorem in 2008. The list of authors who state that Pohl was an inspiration and influence? Ben Bova. Brian Aldiss. Neil Gaiman. Cory Doctorow. Larry Niven. Sheri S. Tepper. Robert Silverberg. Isaac Asimov and many, many, many more.

Because aside from his extensive writing, Pohl was the editor of Astonishing Stories in the early 40’s, where writers like Asimov, Manly Wade Wellman, Robert Bloch, L. Ron Hubbard and Alfred Bester saw their early work published. He also edited Super Science Stories, where names like James Blish, Frank Belknap Long, Robert Heinlein and many others would appear, and in 1961, he took over as editor of If and Galaxy Science Fiction, where he would publish works, often the first works, by Larry Niven, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert and Robert Silverberg. He was also the literary agent for many of the greats of the genre in the 30’s and 40’s, helping get their work in front of the public, and helped launch the careers of authors like Samuel R. Delany and Joanna Russ.

And then there are the awards. The Hugo, the Campbell Memorial, the Locus SF and the Nebula for 1977’s Gateway. The Nebula for ’76’s Man Plus and The National Book Award for 1979’s Jem. Many more of his novels would be nominated and be finalists in all the major science fiction literary awards because he simply was one of the finest writers in the genre and out of it.

Pohl’s health begin to fade in the last few years, with the work he did on The Last Theorem complicated by his being no longer able to type and having to complete the novel in longhand, but he kept publishing his blog, www.thewaythefutureblogs.com, up until his death today, and age clearly hadn’t laid a hand on his smart, funny and insightful way of looking at the world or his feelings on politics, ecology and society.

I read Gateway when I was 11. That copy fell apart years ago, but there is a copy I picked up at a used bookstore on my bookshelf, and I think I’m going to take a little time and fall in love with that series again.

If you haven’t read Frederik Pohl yet, I can think of no better memorial than discovering what made him one of the true masters of Science Fiction yourself.

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Timothy Harvey

Timothy Harvey is a Kansas City based writer, director, actor and editor, with something of a passion for film noir movies. He was the art director for the horror films American Maniacs, Blood of Me, and the pilot for the science fiction series Paradox City. His own short films include the Noir Trilogy, 9 1/2 Years, The Statement of Randolph Carter - adapted for the screen by Jason Hunt - and the music video for IAMEVE’s Temptress. He’s a former President and board member for the Independent Filmmakers Coalition of Kansas City, and has served on the board of Film Society KC.

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