The Way the Future Was Critical Context - Essay

Frederik Pohl

Critical Context

Pohl’s career calls to mind Georges Clemenceau’s remark, “A man who is not a communist at twenty has no heart; a man who is still a communist at forty has no head.” A member of the Young Communist League in his youth, he has remained a champion of social justice, but the German-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939 finished his infatuation with socialism. In his best work, Pohl is a subtle and effective critic of human foibles and society. Unfortunately, The Way the Future Was is far from his best. Ideas are sometimes treated superficially, and the book, which gives the impression of having been written in haste, degenerates into episodic reminiscences of prominent authors whom Pohl knew and the failure of his several marriages. Given Pohl’s place in the growth of science fiction, he was in a position to provide a much more valuable account of its development.

Pohl also glosses over his own work. He describes the development of ideas for a satire about the advertising industry which became The Space Merchants, but other influential works are ignored. For example, neither Drunkard’s Walk (1961) nor A Plague of Pythons (1965) is mentioned. Certainly a memoir is a personal document, but the more personal information is set into the context of the author’s times and the more his accomplishments are explicated the more valuable it becomes. Although Pohl did the former well in the first half of the book, context is lost in the second. He did not handle the latter well at any point.

The book is at its best both in style and in content when the author is describing the 1930’s and 1940’s. Pohl is able to convey the excitement of the young men— there were few women, at least within the group of fans and authors with whom Pohl was acquainted before World War II—who felt themselves to be part of a new movement. Although the first volume of Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green (1979), covers some of the same ground, Pohl’s work provides different insights, particularly into the commercialization of the genre and into the work of an editor.