Frederik Pohl: Science fiction author famed for the sharp and precise satire of his writing

 

Frederik Pohl was a science-fiction author of extraordinary longevity and accomplishment. In hundreds of stories between 1940 and 2010, and dozens of longer works from 1953, he became the sharpest and most precise satirist in the science-fiction world. Kurt Vonnegut may have created greater myths of the awfulness of America, and Philip K Dick may have had a profounder understanding of the human costs of living in a unreal world; but Pohl – from experience garnered in the field of advertising – knew exactly how to describe the consumerist world that began to come into being after the Second World War. Though his first novel, The Space Merchants (1953), was written with the brilliant CM Kornbluth (a childhood friend who died young), it is clear that the savage description of the New York advertising world is pure Pohl.

Its acerbic flare appealed to Kingsley Amis, who suggested in New Maps of Hell (1960) that it had "claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far". The book has been translated into at least 40 languages, and in 2012 it was included in The Library of America.

Pohl filled every role possible for a professional man of letters, sometimes well, sometimes without much success. He was, at various times, author, editor, fan, agent, anthologist, polemicist, and latterly, blogger.

Pohl was born in 1919 to peripatetic parents, but by his teens had settled in New York, the city of his birth, where the young science-fiction genre had begun to attract its first organised fans. By the age of 19 he was publishing amateur fiction and poetry and had taken some rudimentary steps towards becoming a literary agent.

He also became editor of two magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. Both were inferior to John W Campbell's Astounding, but Campbell had eccentric tastes, and so Pohl was able to publish fine stories by Robert A Heinlein and L Sprague de Camp, as well as New York friends like Isaac Asimov, whom he had met when he joined the Futurians, a moderately left-wing fan club whose membership included Judith Merril. Their marriage in 1948 (his third, her second) began after the Futurians dissolved and was tempestuous; it has been memorialised by all participating parties, though Pohl's memoir The Way the Future Was (1978) was comparatively decorous. They divorced in 1953.

During the Second World War Pohl served in the US Army Air Force, on his release joining an advertising agency, then becoming a fully fledged literary agent, instrumental in persuading Doubleday & Company to institute the first US hardcover science-fiction list. By the early 1950s he was dominant, though financial incompetence bankrupted him.

After a long apprenticeship he began finally to publish fiction under his own name, most of his novels in collaboration, first with Kornbluth, and later with Jack Williamson. Early solo stories included "The Midas Plague" (1954), "The Tunnel under the World" (1955), "The Day the Icicle Works Closed" (1959), and other tales set in the near future on this planet, which Amis described as "comic infernos". During this period he also edited, in the Star Science Fiction Stories sequence, the most significant original-stories anthologies yet to appear in the field. Seven volumes appeared in all; much of the best American short fiction of the 1950s first appeared here.

By 1960, however, Pohl seemed to have lost his creative drive, and turned to magazine editing on a large scale. From 1961-70, as general editor of Galaxy and its stablemates, he was a dominant power in the genre. He became an effective public speaker, appearing frequently on radio.

After several peculiarly disjointed novels, and a time of personal turmoil, he came into full focus. Man Plus (1976), the first novel of his extraordinary later years, is a tale of threatened identity, and depicts the transformation of a man into sentient machine with relentless, assured chill. It seems to sense the future, and won a Nebula. Gateway (1977) began a successful series of novels about the relationship of humanity to a preceding starfaring race, whose legacy of knowledge and riches is conveyed with youthful-seeming exhilaration; the psychological exploration of its unprepossessing hero is both stringent and comical. It won both a Nebula and a Hugo.

From then his career was one of unstoppable productivity. Of the 30 novels to follow Gateway, several stand out. JEM (1979) is a devastating study in utopia; Midas World (1983) links "The Midas Plague" and other stories into a surreal nightmare; The Years of the City (1984) forgivingly dissects his beloved New York; The Day the Martians Came (1988) is a near-future satire, The World at the End of Time (1990) an effortlessly expansive space opera. Some of the later novels perhaps lacked his earlier suave, imperious drive, but all contained delights.

After marrying his fifth wife, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Pohl's last decades were calmly successful. In 2009 he began a new career as an online blogger. He maintained "The Way the Future Blogs" assiduously, contributing hundreds of posts, some of them sharply political, about the futures we are facing today; the last appeared on the day of his death.

His blog also fills in the backstory of his life and career in science fiction and is full of detail about the culture – science fiction in America over the previous 75 years – that he knew inside out. My own strongest 1990s memory of Pohl was seeing him strolling through Florida sunshine, pushing an oxygen tank on wheels. He was a thin tall man whose dignity seemed to increase with age. He was deeply, if distantly, courteous to the hundreds who thought they knew him, perhaps because they'd known his name all their lives. Even into extreme old age, he never stopped earning his fame.

Frederik Pohl, writer, editor and literary agent: born New York 26 November 1919; married 1940 Leslie Perri (divorced 1944), 1945 Dorothy LesTina (divorced 1947), 1948 Judith Merril (divorced 1952; one daughter), 1953 Carol M Ulf Stanton (divorced 1983; one daughter, one son, and one son deceased), 1984 Elizabeth Anne Hull; died Chicago 2 September 2013.

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Software Engineer)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C#.NET VB6 Developer (Software Developer, Softwa...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition