Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

PohlI didn’t know Frederik Pohl personally, but several of my authors did. I met him briefly at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton, England, and he was kind and cordial while he listened to me gush for five minutes. (Those who did know him tell me this graciousness was typical.) I was grateful for his own work, particularly THE SPACE MERCHANTS – written with frequent collaborator C. M. Kornbluth and the most cutting satirical novel about advertising; Pohl himself spent a few desultory years in the business before leaving in bemusement and disgust – and GATEWAY and MAN PLUS, which still bestride the science fiction field like the colossae they are. But he really guided me through this thrilling genre by serving as editor of Galaxy and If magazines in the Sixties, when I was just graduating from Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton “juvies” into something more provocative. I couldn’t walk away without thanking him for that.

Great, award-winning author that he was (his admirers included no less than Kingsley Amis), Pohl’s most lasting effects on the genre were probably his achievements as an editor. Besides his terrific run at Galaxy Publications (he took over its flagship from the equally legendary H. L. Gold and immediately made it his own), his STAR SCIENCE FICTION series introduced the concept of book-length anthologies of original stories. He raised Bantam Books to prominence during his stint there, culminating with the purchase of Samuel R. Delany’s brilliant novel DHALGREN. Pohl insisted on attending the sales conference for that book (he muscled his way in; editors weren’t normally invited), and told the reps that this was Delany’s masterpiece, they should just get their accounts to stock it and get out of the way, and he was right. Bantam repeatedly went back to press on this long, challenging read, and it was a jewel of their backlist for many years.

Way before that, Pohl was one of the earliest science fiction fans to seek out other like souls; he was a founding member of the pioneering Futurians. In a sense, he helped lay the groundwork for organized science fiction fandom, and, along with a notable number of others, went from its glorious obsession – that’s how he could tolerate a gusher like me; he used to be one himself – all the way to the highest rank of professional. His splendid memoir THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS tells the story of that arc in American culture better than anyone else ever has.

One day he walked past my office at Bantam, probably on his way to see Ian Ballantine, his longtime publisher, who was a few doors down. I guess I should have jumped up and said something, but I was still very new, green enough so that my mind just timidly flashed, Oh my God, that was Frederik Pohl! I won’t ever have that chance again, because he passed away yesterday afternoon of respiratory failure at 93. Fan, author, agent, editor, critic, even blogger, one of our last remaining links to the birth of modern science fiction, he was a man who changed his own world – and thanks to his talent and influence, made it our world too.

12/5/13: The directors of SFWA, the sf/fantasy writers’ organization, announced that its Grand Master Award — the highest honor for a lifetime of work — will be bestowed on Samuel R. Delany at the next Nebula Awards ceremony. I wish Mr. Pohl could have lived long enough to see this, for DHALGREN is still considered by many to be Chip’s masterpiece.

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4 Responses to Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

  1. onewithclay says:

    What a fine tribute to a giant and a pleasure to read!

    I gushed, too, Tom, when I met Algis Budrys. I didn’t tell him I had a problem with ROGUE MOON. I did tell him that “The War Is Over” was absolutely brilliant. He smiled indulgently and was as gracious as you experienced Pohl to be.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I met A.J. at the same convention referenced above. They’d done their program book in hardcover, so I got the bright idea of asking everybody to sign it like a school annual. I just pulled it out for another look, and it’s a gallery of greatness. Sadly, some of the signers are no longer with us — now including Mr. Pohl.

  2. Tom Dupree says:

    Not to brag – OK, let’s brag – here are the names on the front and back endpapers of that same volume from Brighton, which has been one of my most valued possessions for the last quarter century: Forrest J Ackerman, Orson Scott Card, Robert Silverberg*, Ben Bova*, Brian W. Aldiss, David Brin*, Norman Spinrad*, Frederik Pohl, Clive Barker, Julius Schwartz*, J. K. Potter, Dennis Etchison, Ramsey Campbell, George R. R. Martin, Harry Harrison, Mike Resnick, Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Whelan, Patrick Woodroffe, Ray Harryhausen, R. M. McAvoy, Gardner Dozois*, “Hal Clement,” Donald A. Wollheim, Algis Budrys, Bob Shaw, William Gibson*, Andrew Porter*, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ian Watson, Terry Pratchett, Jack M. Chalker, and finally Cecil W. Vick Jr., my mate who traveled with me all the way from Mississippi to Conspiracy ’87. I had to meekly walk up to each and every titan and act as if I was from the A.V. Club and they were head cheerleader. Yet only one person declined, an author who always does so, and I think it’s for some physical reason, not out of snottiness. Yet this person does not explain, just refuses with a single syllable. (*) denotes the remarkable number of signers that I got to know much better and/or actually worked with after I became a professional editor not all that many years later.

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