Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Centenary Review: Short fiction of Frederik Pohl

Today is the centenary of Frederik Pohl's birth. We had a panel in his honor at WindyCon this year, particularly appropriate as Fred was a long-time Chicagoan. He is one of the oldest SF personages I've met -- I shared a panel with him at a Windycon in 2012 perhaps(?), not too long before he died (in 2013, just shy of his 94th birthday.) (The only SF people born before Pohl that I met were David Kyle (very briefly indeed, just a handshake at Chicon in 2012), and Bob Tucker (I was "smoothed" by him at ConQuesT sometime in the late '90s.)) In this honor, then, here's a compendium of things I've written about his short fiction (and one Analog serial) over the years.

Beyond, July 1954

The novella in the July issue is "No More Stars", by "Charles Satterfield" -- a name Frederik Pohl used quite often as a pseudonym, though this time, its first use, it's a Pohl/Lester Del Rey story. It's about a man snatched from death into a world in which some sort of Ptolemaic magic/astrology is true, and an attempt to save the literal firmament from destruction. Not bad, kind of original.

Galaxy, July 1955

The stories include installment 2 of the notorious contest-winning serial "Preferred Risk", by Edson McCann. McCann, of course, was actually Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey, who whipped out the novel on short order when Gold couldn't find a worthwhile novel by an unpublished writer to win Galaxy's first novel contest. This installment is about 14,000 words -- I have no other comment as I have never read the story.

The lead novelet is also by Pohl, "The Mapmakers" (12,000 words). Navigating hyperspace is very difficult, and can only be accomplished by especially trained eidetic memories called Celestial Atlases. The Terra II, thus, is in big trouble when a meteor kills their Atlas, and blinds another officer. They seem likely to be stranded thousands of light years from Earth -- unless they can find another way to navigate. Pretty minor Pohl, it must be said.

Galaxy, July 1958

The short stories are by "Paul Flehr", L. J. Stecher, Jr., and Arthur Sellings. "Flehr" is of course a pseudonym for Frederik Pohl. I first read "We Never Mention Aunt Nora" in Pohl's "Best of" collection back in the mid-70s, so the "Flehr" name never fooled me. I'm not sure why he used this pseudonym when he did -- for about 5 stories in 1958 and 1959. Earlier he had used "Charles Satterfield" and "James MacCreigh". (Though the Satterfield name was used at least once for a collaboration with Lester Del Rey (other times for solo stories). The MacCreigh name was used for collaborations with Judith Merril and with Isaac Asimov, but in those cases the story was credited to "James MacCreigh and collaborator".)

At any rate, I really like "We Never Mention Aunt Nora", a brief (3400 words) smart SF horror tale. Aunt Nora is the disreputable relative of an bachelor and his sister -- disreputable because she lost her virtue to a man who later disappeared. The sister falls suddenly in love with a handsome and rich young man, and her brother's objections to the sudden marriage are overcome by wealth and a nice prenup. The ending and the corresponding revelation of Aunt Nora's past are predictable, perhaps, but nicely sprung on the reader.

Galaxy, June 1959

The cover story, as mentioned, is by Frederik Pohl. "Whatever Counts" is a novella of about 22,500 words, and so listed on the TOC. (I think Galaxy was  one of the first SF magazines, if not the first, to use "Novella" as a length category.) A human ship has made it to the planet Aleph Four, with 58 people ready to colonize. But the grey, biped but rhino-like, aliens called Gormen have got their first. The Gormen refuse to communicate or negotiate with humans, and they are preternaturally fast and can control their own ships manually, while humans need computer help. The humans are imprisoned and subjected to experimentation, and their ship is destroyed. The ship's psychiatrist appears to be helping the aliens, leading to general hostility, even from pretty young Rae Wensley, who had previously been one of the few people who liked the man. The situation seems hopeless, but, it turns out, the psychiatrist had a plan all along. I don't think this is one of Pohl's better efforts -- the solution, though clever, is not really plausible, and the characters don't really come into focus.

If, November 1964

It also had one of Frederik Pohl's most sentimental stories, but a pretty effective one: "Father of the Stars", about a man who spent his life and fortune supporting a monumental effort to send Slower Than Light colonizing ships to likely stars, only to see this effort rendered obsolete by the invention of FTL. 

Odyssey, Spring 1976

Pohl's "The Prisoner of New York Island" is a rather obscure piece from him -- I can't find any evidence that it has ever been republished. (And a quick glance at The Years of the City indicates that it wasn't incorporated into that either.) Does anyone know any more about it? The story itself is OK, not great. It's about a couple from a group marriage in Tucson who come to visit the rather decayed New York, sometime in the middle of the 21st Century. Their mission is to find the body of their fiance, who died in an accident. To bury him? Nah, for genetic material.

Cosmos, May 1977

Pohl's "Rem the Rememberer" is a preachy story about a boy who may live in a utopian future and dream of a dystopian alternative, or vice-versa.

Analog, October/November/December 1997

(Cover by Bob Eggleton)
O, Pioneer! by Frederik Pohl is the serial from these three issues.  A computer hacker and his ex-whore lover for some reason decide to emigrate (WHY???) to Tupelo, the Peace Planet, where 5 alien races and humans are trying to build a peaceful society.  The hacker is elected mayor (WHY???), and finds some unpleasant things going on beneath the surface.  Pohl is a very easy writer for me to read: his ironic style keeps me interested throughout, but this seems, well, sort of half thought through, just thrown off in a few days for kicks. The characters are rather unconvincing, the villains are morons, the tech and the planet are not blatantly absurd but don't feel fully imagined either. I must say, it was still fun to read: a lot of that is just Pohl, though, one of those guys who can make laundry lists readable: pretty minor Pohl, though, all in all.  I will add that it's possible that this serialized edition is abridged, and that some of the holes might be patched over in a longer version.

Locus, October 2005

This is in many ways an aging field, and the September Asimov’s provides some evidence of that by featuring stories by two writers in their 80s. But both are close to the top of their form. Frederik Pohl’s “Generations” is a very cynical but also SFnally involving post-9/11 story, following several linked people from 2001 to a few decades in the future. At one level it is a depressing story of political decay, as the West becomes enmeshed in an ongoing war against Islam, with a concomitant decay of civil rights in the U. S. But there is another intriguing aspect, as a discovery about the nature of the universe pulls the foundations from under both science and established religions – but the replacement isn’t exactly nice. Solid work.

Short review of Turn Left at Thursday

(Cover by Richard Powers)
I like to read old short science fiction collections. This is one of the best ways to fill in knowledge of the field's past. Fred Pohl is a very consistently readable author: Turn Left at Thursday is one of his weaker collections, but still readable throughout. The long bookend stories are a bit odd for Pohl, mainly in that they are very Campbellian in their heroic Men against the Aliens themes. "Mars by Moonlight" concerns a group of prisoners on Mars, who have had all memory of their crimes erased. The twist to the story is obvious, and the whole setup is horribly undermotivated. "I Plinglot, Who You?" is better, about a shape-changing alien who plans to trick the nations of the world to solving the problem of Earth's population by starting a nuclear war. But the humans are smarter and especially more courageous than the aliens. OK stuff, nothing much.  Better are a couple of the shorts, "The Hated" and "The Martian in the Attic", which are neat setups with mordant endings.  The others are lesser stuff.  All very '50s in tone.

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