We are now living at the end of an era. Frederik Pohl, the last major SF writer from the Golden Age, passed away earlier today at the ripe old age of 93.
Between the passing of Jack Vance and Richard Matheson, I did a rundown of the oldest living science fiction authors. Namely, the authors from the genre’s glory years—anyone active between 1937 and 1946 (the Golden Age of SF) or between 1946 and around 1959 (the Atomic Age, the Silver Age, the Second Golden Age, the “Real” Golden Age… both transitional phase and boom years).
It was a short list.
I came up with just three names: Robert Silverberg, who grew up reading SF but didn’t try his hand at it until he was in college in the mid-’50s; Brian Aldiss, who also started out in the mid-’50s, but early on was a tad outside the American SF mainstream by virtue of being British; and Frederik Pohl.
Pohl was one of the Futurians, a group of left-leaning New York SF fans who would later become the famous SF writers, artists, editors, and critics of the Golden Age: luminaries like Isaac Asimov, Donald Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, Damon Knight, James Blish, Robert Lowndes, Hannes Bok, Richard Wilson, Larry Shaw, and Judith Merril, who married Pohl for four years. Pohl saw his first story published in T. O’Conner Sloan’s Astounding Stories in 1937; around that time he became a literary agent for the Futurians and other New York-based SF writers. From 1939 to 1943 he was one of the youngest magazine editors in the field, until the War caused his charges (Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories) to fold.
Post-war, he became one of the iconic writers for Galaxy magazine, since his stories focused on the same kinds of social satire editor Horace L. Gold loved to print. Pohl wrote tales of bureaucratic paranoia and corporate control that no doubt influenced Philip K. Dick. Some of Pohl’s best include “The Tunnel Under the World,” “The Midas Plague,” “Day Million,” “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus,” “The Census Takers,” “Children of the Night,” “Fermi and Frost,” and his many collaborations with Cyril M. Kornbluth, the best (and most famous) of which being The Space Merchants.
By the late ’50s, Horace Gold’s ailing health and agoraphobia meant Pohl was doing more and more of the work editing Galaxy and If, and in December of 1961 the change was officially noted in the magazines’ mastheads. Pohl kept the magazines’ quality high but broadened their scope, acquiring an impressive bibliography for his magazines: Jack Vance (The Last Castle and The Dragon Masters), Robert Silverberg (“Nightwings”), Larry Niven (“The Coldest Place,” “Neutron Star”), Harlan Ellison (“‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”), Clifford Simak (Way Station), one of “Doc” Smith’s Skylark novels (Skylark DuQuesne,) and even Robert Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Farnham’s Freehold). If pulled in three successive Hugo Awards from 1966 to 1968, and while Galaxy didn’t win any awards itself, a number of its stories did. An abrupt change in publisher caused Pohl to re-evaluate his career at Galaxy, and he returned to writing.
He’d also spent time as an editor with Ace (which he hated) and Bantam (Frederik Pohl Selections, which included Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man). Before that, he’d done work for Ballantine Books, creating the Star Science Fiction series—paperback collections full of new, original stories, from top-name authors paid top-dollar for their best work.
I’d also be remiss not to mention his dozens of popular novels: Gateway, Jem, Man-Plus, Beyond The Blue Event Horizon, his collaborations with Kornbluth and Lester del Rey and Jack Williamson, and many others. Truth be told, I’ve never been blown away by Pohl as a novelist: there’s something about his novels that rubs me the wrong way, and I’ve never managed to connect with them. I keep reading his novels though, trying another one hoping to be proven wrong—I can point to three of his more famous ones on my shelf I still need to read. And my personal issues with his novels doesn’t change the fact that there are many fans of Gateway and Man Plus (rightfully so!), or that I admire Pohl for his impressive editorial career, and thoroughly enjoy his blistering satires of consumerism and commercialism from the pages of Galaxy circa 1955.
Pohl was the last primary-source Gold Age SF author out there, someone who could say they were there in the early days: when SF was still escaping the mire of the pulp ghetto; who knew Asimov before he became “The Good Doctor;” when Cyril Kornbluth was still alive; back when SF fandom was small but vocal and got into spats over major conventions. Thankfully, Pohl was also an excellent fan historian: The Way The Future Was is a great memoir of the early New York SF scene, and Pohl continued writing regular anecdotes and memories on his blog, The Way The Future Blogs. (Note that the blog is more about life and politics with SF an ancillary element.) Reading that blog off and on over the years is how I managed to write all this off the top of my head; apologies if I forgot or misremembered anything.
Farewell, Frederik Pohl. I have a shelf full of your Hugo-winning If: Worlds of Science Fiction digests and several collaborative novels with Kornbluth to read, just a sliver of your many amazing contributions to the genre.
A few memorial posts: