R.I.P. Frederik Pohl: Science fiction's veteran iconoclast

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.

Frederik PohlFor 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.

About Paul St John Mackintosh (1569 Articles)
Paul St John Mackintosh is a British poet, writer of dark fiction, and media pro with a love of e-reading. His gadgets range from a $50 Kindle Fire to his trusty Lenovo cell phone. Paul was educated at public school and Trinity College, Cambridge, but modern technology saved him from the Hugh Grant trap. His acclaimed first poetry collection, The Golden Age, was published in 1997, and reissued on Kindle in 2013, and his second poetry collection, The Musical Box of Wonders, was published in 2011.

4 Comments on R.I.P. Frederik Pohl: Science fiction's veteran iconoclast

  1. Er, I’m pretty sure those links aren’t to legal copies.

    You can buy 20 of Mr. Pohl’s ebooks from Baen, and a handful of others from the usual legal sources (B&N, Amazon, etc.)

  2. In the U.S., works published prior to 1978 had an initial copyright duration of 28 years. Thus, a 1955 book would pass into the public domain in 1983 unless the author renewed the copyright. In that case, tack on another 47 years. Now, we’re at 2030.
    Stanford has assembled a copyright renewal database:
    According to this source:
    The copyright for “The Space Merchants” (1953) was renewed in 1981.
    The copyright for “Gladiator at Law” (1955) was not renewed.

  3. Thanks for the alert, Frank and Raja – noted and actioning.

  4. No offense, but to characterize Heinlein’s whole political philosophy based on Starship Troopers does a serious disservice to the author; it ignores the fact that he also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, both of which could be described as being radically liberal in their social views.

    Likewise, militarism is not a uniquely conservative value (or for that matter even one that necessarily defines conservatism since in this country at least, conservatism had a strong isolationist streak into the 1950s); plenty of leftist countries have been very militaristic starting with the French Revolution.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail

wordpress analytics