Frederik Pohl Essay - Pohl, Frederik (Short Story Criticism)

Pohl, Frederik (Short Story Criticism)


Pohl, Frederik 1919-

American novelist, short story writer, editor, nonfiction writer, and memoirist.

A major figure in the science fiction genre, Pohl is best known for the novel he cowrote with C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953), and his short stories of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, including "The Midas Plague," "The Tunnel under the World," and "Day Million." His work of this period marked a new direction in science fiction, which, up to this time, consisted primarily of space adventure stories. Pohl, instead, satirized American consumer culture, incorporated politics and psychology into his works, and brought an element of social criticism to the genre. In addition to his writing, Pohl has edited such major American science fiction magazines as Galaxy and If as well as numerous science fiction anthologies. Considered to have profoundly influenced the development of science fiction, Pohl was once described by Kingsley Amis as "the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced."

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Pohl grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. His father was often unemployed, and his family moved frequently, with Pohl attending school only intermittently until he was eight. In his memoir The Way the Future Was (1978), Pohl recalls the homeless and destitute people he encountered as a child, and some critics have speculated that such experiences have profoundly influenced his fiction. Pohl began reading science fiction when he was about ten years old; he read all the extant back issues of the famous pulp magazines of the day, including Amazing Stories, Science Wonder, and Weird Tales. In his teens, Pohl was active in science fiction fan clubs and wrote for and edited fan magazines. After joining a group of would-be science fiction writers called the Futurians, Pohl became friends with Isaac Asimov and met Kornbluth and Jack Williamson, both of whom he collaborated with on later projects. Before he was twenty, Pohl was selling his own short fiction, working as a literary agent, and editing two pulp magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories.

Pohl served in the Air Force in Italy during World War II and later worked in a Madison Avenue advertising agency. He continued to write short stories in science fiction and other pulp genres during this period. Pohl's career took off in the 1950s when he produced several books a year, often in collaboration with other writers. His first short fiction collection, Alternating Currents, was published in 1956. Pohl edited Galaxy and If from 1961 to 1969, before resigning to devote more time to his own writing. As an editor, he tried to encourage more socially conscious writing; he also both supported and decried the "New Wave" writers of science fiction, a group that borrowed literary techniques from mainstream literature and attempted to eliminate what they saw as the genre's clichés. Pohl applauded their efforts to make science fiction more literary, but he disapproved of what he considered their emphasis on sex and their aesthetic excesses. Pohl served as executive editor at Ace Books in the early 1970s and later worked as an editor at Bantam. He has since participated in numerous international science fiction conferences, lectured at colleges throughout the United States and abroad, and served as the president of Science Fiction Writers of America. Pohl has won numerous literary prizes, including a Hugo Award for best short story of 1972 for "The Meeting" and again in 1986 for the story "Fermi and Frost."

Major Works of Short Fiction

Pohl's short stories of the 1950s frequently satirize and attack American consumer culture. For example, in "The Tunnel under the World," collected in Alternating Currents, a town of 21,000 people is destroyed in an industrial accident. It is then rebuilt in miniature, and the minds of its former inhabitants are implanted in miniaturized robots of themselves. The experiment is run by an advertising executive who uses the model town as the perfect market research arena for outrageously abusive advertising campaigns. Another of Pohls's most notable stories from the 1950s is "The Midas Plague." In this story, the lot of the poor is to endlessly consume opulent and useless goods foisted on them by robot servants until one ingenious man, Morey Field, gets his robots to consume for him. Other significant stories from this period include "What to Do till the Analyst Comes," which presents a world transformed by the effects of Cheery-Gum, a harmless and physically nonaddictive happiness drug, and "The Census Takers," one of several Pohl stories in which an alien who comes to warn the human race of danger is nonchalantly killed.

Although Pohl spent much of the 1960s editing If and Galaxy, he did experiment with what he called "velocity exercises," short stories in which he de-emphasized plot to focus on thematic and satiric concerns. He also began to incorporate aliens and other elements of outer space into his works. The story "Earth 18," for example, includes a tourist guidebook to Earth's attractions developed by alien entrepreneurs. "Day Million" is a love story set in the future when, according to critic David N. Samuelson, "genetic engineering and social change have modified the meaning of gender, the forms human bodies can take, and the immediacy and exclusiveness of a love relationship."

Pohl's short fiction of the 1970s and 1980s is less satirical and more pessimistic and introspective than his earlier works. In these stories, he examined the negative effects of science and technology, including overpopulation and the exploitation of natural resources. He also experimented with style and structure, using more complex characterization, multiple viewpoints, and unreliable narrators. Noteworthy stories include "We Purchased People" and "Spending the Day at the Lottery Fair," both of which are collected in Pohlstars (1984). "We Purchased People" is the story of a couple who are found guilty of horrible crimes. Sold to aliens, who then use them for their business dealings on earth, the man and woman seldom meet, except when the aliens want to observe them to learn more about human sexuality. In the latter story, a family ambles through an amusement park where randomly selected visitors are killed throughout the day and put on display as an antidote to overpopulation. Following the publication of Pohlstars, Pohl focused primarily on novel writing.

Critical Reception

Before he published The Space Merchants with Kornbluth, Pohl was considered a talented but unexceptional science fiction writer. The Space Merchants, however, brought him unprecedented popular and critical acclaim. In one of the first serious critical works about science fiction, New Maps of Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis found The Space Merchants "the best science fiction novel so far"; he also praised Pohl's "consumer" stories of the 1950s. Later critics also focused on these early stories, heralding Pohl for his humor and satire, his inclusion of personal experience and everyday problems, his believable characters, and his focus on complex social concerns. Writing about Pohl's collaboration with Kornbluth, Charles Platt stated that the two writers "pioneered and excelled in a completely new kind of science fiction. They invented and played with 'Sociological SF'—alternate futures here on Earth, exaggerating and satirizing real-life social forces and trends." Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin also emphasized Pohl's contribution to the evolution of science fiction when they asserted that he is one of the few writers to "make a genuine impact on the science fiction field."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Alternating Currents 1956

The Case against Tomorrow 1957

Tomorrow Times Seven 1959

The Man Who Ate the World 1960

Turn Left at Thursday 1961

The Abominable Earthman 1963

Digits and Dastards 1966

Day Million 1970

The Gold at the Starbow's End 1972

The Best of Frederik Pohl 1975

The Early Pohl 1976

In the Problem Pit 1976

Critical Mass [with C. M. Kornbluth] 1977

Pohlstars 1984

The Gateway Trip: Tales and Vignettes of the Heechee 1990

Other Major Works

The Space Merchants [with C. M. Kornbluth] (novel) 1953

Gladiator-at-Law [with C. M. Kornbluth] (novel) 1955

Slave Ship (novel) 1957

A Plague of Pythons (novel) 1965

The Age of the Pussyfoot (novel) 1969

Practical Politics (nonfiction) 1972

Man Plus (novel) 1976

Gateway (novel) 1977

The Way the Future Was (memoir) 1978

JEM (novel) 1979

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (novel) 1980

The Cool War (novel) 1981

Syzygy (novel) 1981

Midas World (novel) 1983

Heechee Rendezvous (novel) 1984

The Years of the City (novel) 1984

The Annals of the Heechee (novel) 1987

Chernobyl (novel) 1987

The Day the Martians Came (novel) 1988

Narabdela Ltd. (novel) 1988

Home going (novel) 1989

Outnumbering the Dead (novel) 1990

The World at the End of Time (novel) 1990

Mining the Oort (novel) 1992

The Voices of Heaven (novel) 1994

The Other End of Time (novel) 1996


Kingsley Amis (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Utopias 2," in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960, pp. 118-33.

[In the following excerpt, Amis examines the themes of production and consumption in the stories "The Midas Plague," "The Wizards of Fung's Corners," and "The Tunnel under the World. "]

We have now reached the point of departure for the consideration, in some detail, of the work of Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced. His field of interest is contemporary urban society and its chain of production and consumption. He is thus in some sort a novelist of economic man, or, rather, of two...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)

Frederik Pohl with Paul Walker (interview date 1970)

SOURCE: "Frederik Pohl," in Speaking of Science Fiction: The Paul Walker Interviews, Luna Publications, 1978, pp. 129-43.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in September-October 1970 and first published in Moebius Trip in 1971, Pohl discusses such topics as his writing and editing careers, his collaboration with Cyril M. Kornbluth, and the effects of technology on literature and society. ]

[Walker]: On your Grand Tour of 2527, in The Age of the Pussyfoot, you suggest (if I understand you correctly) that for the future we may expect even more of today. Capitalism moves ever onward in its ever-changing guises, motivated by man's desire for...

(The entire section is 5582 words.)

Lester Del Rey (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "A Variety of Excellence," in The Best of Frederik Pohl, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1975, pp. ix-xvi.

[In the following excerpt of his introduction to The Best of Frederik Pohl, Del Rey gives an overview of Pohl's literary career, highlighting some of his best short stories. ]

Nothing is easy to categorize about the life and works of Frederik Pohl. His stories vary more in length, attitude, type and treatment than those of any other writer I know. About the only point of similarity is the high level of excellence to be found in everything from his short-shorts to his novels. To make things more difficult for a biographer, he has been one of the leaders in...

(The entire section is 2700 words.)

Harold L. Berger (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The New Tyrannies," in Science Fiction and the New Dark Age. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976, pp. 86-146.

[In the following excerpt, Berger examines Pohl's heavy-handed treatment of the theme of advertising in "The Tunnel under the World" and "The Wizards of Pung's Corners. "]

Frederik Pohl's advertising agency background has evidently filled him with disdain for the business world's coercive methods, for some of his best work deals with the cupidity of the huckster and the vulnerability and vacuity of consumer-man. Pohl is far less concerned with the world being blown up than with it being turned into a marketplace for the buying and selling of...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

David N. Samuelson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Critical Mass: The Science Fiction of Frederik Pohl," in Voices for the Future, Volume Three, edited by Thomas D. Clareson and Thomas L. Wymer, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984, pp. 106-26.

[In the following excerpt, taken from an essay first published in S-F Studies in 1980, Samuelson explores the social criticism in Pohl's short fiction from the 1950s through the 1970s.]

The problem of determining Frederik Pohl's rank among SF writers is not a simple one to resolve. As a satirist and thinker, he is at the top of American SF writers who are "fan-oriented," but as an artist, even as a technician, he often shows significant defects. Even the...

(The entire section is 4496 words.)

C. N. Manlove (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Frederik Pohl, Alternating Currents" in Science Fiction: Ten Explorations, Macmillan, 1986, pp. 35-56.

[In the following essay, Manlove discusses major themes in Pohl's short fiction, focusing in particular on the stories collected in Alternating Currents.]

Pohl began his trade with conventional short stories of travel to far planets, but in the early 1950s discovered that his métier lay as much in this planet, in the portrayal, via fantastic metaphors, of men caught up in social and technical changes beyond their control. Pohl did continue to write (in collaboration with Jack Williamson) plain adventure stories in the form of the...

(The entire section is 9197 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Interim: A Resurgence of Pessimism," in Frederik Pohl, Starmont House, 1987, pp. 122-38.

[In the following excerpt, Clareson analyzes the pessimism evident in Pohl's short fiction from the 1970s and early 1980s.]

Even while he was working on the early novels of the Heechee Quartet, in which Heechee technology and Broadhead's entrepreneurship at least began to end many of Earth's problems, when asked about the future, Pohl has repeatedly said that anyone more optimistic is foolish. One can sense a brooding pessimism in Pohlstars (1984), his "first short story collection in a decade"; it gains its unity from the sobriety with which he treats familiar...

(The entire section is 1373 words.)

David Seed (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Take-over Bids: The Power Fantasies of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth," in Foundation, Vol. 59, Fall, 1993, pp. 42-58.

[Below, Seed discusses what he considers Pohl's "preoccupation with the working of commercial processes" in three early short stories, including "The Tunnel under the World," "The Wizards of Pung's Corner, " and "Waging the Peace. "]

Pohl's preoccupation with the working of commercial processes in society emerges in one form or another in most of his fiction and in 1984 he published a sequel to The Space Merchants entitled The Merchants' War which recapitulates the same themes as the earlier novel. However, three stories from...

(The entire section is 1887 words.)

Further Reading

Owings, Mark. "Frederik Pohl: Bibliography." Fantasy and Science Fiction (September 1973): 65-69.

Listing of Pohl's works through the mid-1970s.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil, and Gordon Benson. Frederik Pohl: Merchant of Excellence: A Working Bibliography. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press, 1990, 109 p.

Comprehensive bibliography belonging to the Galactic Central bibliographic series of science fiction writers.

Additional coverage of Pohl's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 37;...

(The entire section is 97 words.)