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."
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.
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."