Frederik George Pohl, Jr. (Nov. 26, 1919 – Sept. 2, 2013) was almost a living artifact of a bygone era in science fiction, as well as one of the genre’s most fertile and perennially refreshed talents. Born in the immediate aftermath of World War I, he died in the epoch of Google Glass and the Large Hadron Collider, without ever losing his imaginative spontaneity or intellectual curiosity, or his ability to upset and disturb the genre consensus.
For all its radical technological vision, science fiction has a reputation for frequently being socially and politically conservative, whether it’s Orson Scott Card’s anti-marriage equality crusade, Robert Heinlein’s militaristic starship troopers, or John Norman’s patriarchal counter-Earths.
Pohl, however, was briefly a member of the Young Communist League prior to World War II, and kept a political edge in his work that put the “hard” into hard science fiction, from the Mad Men madhouse of “The Space Merchants” (and yes, the space here is ad space) to the equally atrocious dystopia of “Gladiator-At-Law,” to the smorgasbord of diverse societies and political structures in “Search the Sky”—all of them co-written with his brilliant, short-lived collaborator Cyril M. Kornbluth.
On his own, Pohl was capable of being just as challenging, developing levels of body horror that leave Robocop far behind in “Man Plus,” ringing the changes on species and societies in “Jem,” and mixing space exploration with Malthusian crisis in the Heechee cycle. And he championed even more outre talents of the U.S. science fiction New Wave like Samuel R. Delany, whose work he had arguably anticipated as early as the mid-1950s.
A multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, Pohl died just at the wrong moment to be specially honored in this year’s Hugos. But the entire science fiction genre bears his stamp, as well as owing him a debt of thanks for dragging it out of mechanical engineering-driven scientism. And at two of his key early collaborations, “The Space Merchants” and “Gladiator-At-Law,” are available for free online.