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.


3 responses to “Frederik Pohl (1919-2013)”

  1. In My Not So Humble Opinion: the Writings and Ramblings of Ben Herman avatar

    Very sorry to hear about this. I really like Frederik Pohl’s writing. He penned some absolutely amazing books. I’ve read The Years of the City, Midas World, Black Star Rising, Gateway, and The Space Merchants. I was fortunate to meet Pohl about a dozen years ago at the I-Con sci-fi convention on Long Island. He was on a panel discussion the one day I was there. He was scheduled to do a signing session the next day. So after the panel, I approached him outside, where he was smoking a cigarette. I explained that I knew he wasn’t scheduled to do a signing that day, but I was a huge fan of his work, and I wouldn’t be around tomorrow, and could he please autograph one book for me? He sort of hesitated for a second, and then nodded. I handed him my copy of Midas World, and he signed it. I spent about 20 seconds or so telling him how much I had enjoyed his various books and then said my goodbyes before I wore out my welcome.

    1. Phil Friel avatar
      Phil Friel

      Thanks for the comment, Ben. That’s a nice little story you have about meeting Fred Pohl. I’ve read many glowing accounts by fans who had encounters with him, and it seems that he always remained “one of us”, even after he became the big author and editor. That kind of behaviour was pretty common among older SF authors. Modern authors tend to keep a sort of professional “me author, you fan” barrier between themselves and the readers. I’m pretty envious of you, actually, as I’ve never met Fred or ANY of my writing heroes. I just have to be content with the fond memories I have of reading his classic fiction when I was a teenager, and that I can re-read it again and again whenever I want.

      1. In My Not So Humble Opinion: the Writings and Ramblings of Ben Herman avatar

        You’re very welcome, Phil. I just wrote up a WordPress post with my thoughts on Frederik Pohl and his work. Here is a link to it:

        Thank you for taking a look. I hope you enjoy it.

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