Science Fiction's Hidden Hero
Frederik Pohl Did It All, First
Dec 1 2008
Pohl, who’s now 89 years old, was one of the younger writers in the Golden Age of science fiction, and he’s now the last one alive. He has a number of physical issues (his right hand’s basically paralyzed into a claw, for example, but let’s not get into it, mortality’s kind of depressing) and can barely get around his own roomy house in a Chicago suburb—which, upon last check, contained a massive pantry full of canned peaches, as well as a gajillion books and animal figurines—and yet the man still gallivants around the world. He’s been to every continent but Antarctica several times over. “This casts some doubt on my intelligence,” he says. “I can live anywhere in the world, and I’ve always lived in the northern part of the United States. And it gets cold, which I hate. I could’ve been living in Bermuda all the time.”
Vice: When did you decide you wanted to write?
Frederik Pohl: I was 12 years old, but at that time I never thought of it as a career. I always thought it would be something I’d have to do on the side because I didn’t see anyone giving me money for it, really.
It seems like you must’ve known it somehow. You wrote your first complete sci-fi story in eighth-grade English class when the teacher wasn’t looking. And then you dropped out permanently not too long after that.
I cofounded the Futurians first, which was a bunch of unpleasant kids in New York City in the 1930s. We were a pretty bright bunch, and the trouble is we all knew it—and we wanted everybody else to know it too. We were not widely popular.
Nowadays a gathering of social-outcast teenage boys interested in imaginary worlds is a Dungeons & Dragons pizza party, and the likelihood of them getting tail is less than rolling the number 13 on a dodecahedron die 86 times in a row. But you guys—Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Don Wollheim, and some others—you guys were studs.
People would have parties and there’d be a certain amount of drinking, but nothing terribly exciting.
Oh, come on.
Really. We met and talked and argued and frequently collaborated. None of us were very sure of our talent so we tried to improve our chances by working with other writers.
You guys used pseudonyms all the time. What’s a funny one?
Cyril Kornbluth and I used S.D. Gottesman, after a math teacher he hated.
That’s actually less funny than the name Cyril Kornbluth. You have more than a dozen pen names, and for about the first ten years nothing appeared under your own name.
When I first began writing I had a romantic idea that it was nice to write under a pen name. And I had a vision that someday I would be sitting down with a soda pop—I wasn’t thinking in terms of bars, I was only 14 or so—and next to me there would be a young lady reading a magazine. I would notice it was a story of mine and I would say to her, “Do you like the story?” And then I’d say, “Well that pen name is me.” I wasn’t really convinced that what I was writing was any good.
When did you start to have a clue?
My first letter of acceptance came at age 16 for a poem I’d written. It was printed when I was 17, and I was paid for it at 18. It was somewhere in there that I became a semiprofessional writer.
But you also decided to become a professional agent representing the Futurians.
Science-fiction magazines were starting to make money then, some at the expense of their quality. In the late 30s it began to look as though the future would be a lot different in some way, and maybe better. Things were happening that could never happen before.
There were more airplanes, and they were not only bigger but also flying people from one coast to the other. And General Motors had an exhibit in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair, which was entirely about the far future, how different and wonderful the world would be in 1960. I think this encouraged people to think in terms of what the future might be like. Science fiction capitalized on this. Or maybe it created it. I’m not sure which is cause and which is effect.
You were 21 when you started editing Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. How’d that happen?
I spent a lot of time talking to editors—well, the ones who would talk to me—and learning everything I could about it, doing some amateur editing of my own little magazines, so it wasn’t just luck. I happened to mention to one of the editors I knew that I would like a job and he said, “Well, I can’t help you.” But he suggested that I go down the street, where a new company was publishing some new magazines, to see if someone over there would give me my own publication. And I did and they did.
Meanwhile, Pohl had discovered the Young Communist League. As a gung-ho card-carrying member for four years, he persuaded a few Futurians to join as well. But in 1939, when the YCL changed their hard-ass, empty slogans from “Quarantine the Aggressor” and “Death to the Nazis” to “Keep America Out of the Imperialist War,” shit got a little too real. As he wrote in his 1978 autobiography, The Way the Future Was, “It was like being awakened from a pleasant dream by a kick in the gut.” He started missing meetings after that and soon stopped going altogether.
In 1943, when Pohl was 24, his first marriage had basically disintegrated (he’s been married five times, three of which he now considers “prolonged weekend dates”), and he decided enlisting in the army was easier than pursuing the crush he had at the time—though she joined the army too and he did eventually marry her. In a weird coincidence, he started his service as a weather observer alongside his friend sci-fi wild man Jack Williamson and ended up in Italy writing PR for the army, living on the side of Vesuvius, the volcano that decimated Pompeii. (Right now, he’s finishing up a draft of a novel about a future in which Pompeii’s archaeological site is being exploited as a theme park.)
Back in civilian life, Pohl decided to make a quick buck by copywriting ads, but he couldn’t stay away from the real geekery. After the 1947 World Convention in Philadelphia, he and Lester del Rey started a new science-fiction group, the Hydra Club, and Pohl acted as their agent.
He invented a system that coaxed stories out of writers by offering them an advance out of his own pocket. (No one would do such a thing now, when you basically have to pay to play.) The incentive to write gave Pohl a larger pile to pitch to editors, and as a result he was responsible for getting Isaac Asimov’s first book, A Pebble in the Sky, published, as well as I, Robot. In fact, he says, half the stories in the major science-fiction mags in the 1950s came from his agency.
You were more than just a swashbuckling lit agent, you were also a maniac writer.
It’s happened a number of times in my life that I’ve looked for a book on a subject and couldn’t find the one I wanted. Years ago I was kind of interested in early Roman imperial history. I looked for a good book on the emperor Tiberius, and there wasn’t one. So I wrote it, and in the long run I became the Encyclopedia Britannica’s authority on the subject.
You’ve also written books on politics [Practical Politics, 1971], ecology [Our Angry Earth, a collaboration with Isaac Asimov], North American Vikings [The Viking Settlements of North America, 1972], Prince Henry Sinclair [Prince Henry Sinclair: His Expedition to the New World in 1398, 1995], and the pleasures of visiting places where science is explained or made [Chasing Science, 2002]. This is on top of dozens of novels and short stories in which you’ve made some pretty freaky spot-on predictions. Like in Heechee Rendezvous when terrorists gain control of the collective unconscious and use it as a psychological weapon, controlling the masses by spreading fear into their minds. Then a ship docks and releases anthrax spores. Later, a spaceship crashes into a building, blowing it up. Sounds a lot like 2001.
To the extent that I’ve ever predicted anything, it’s been an accident. I’ve never intended to predict the future, only to describe some of the things that might happen. Science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future—it’s discussing what could happen.
But you were involved with the World Future Society, which tried to figure out how to predict the future.
We had some well-thought-out and interesting ideas, but none were successful. The reason for that, I believe, is that you can’t really predict the future. All you can do is invent it. You can do things that may have an effect on what the future will be, but you can’t say which is going to happen unless you know who’s inventing things and who’s making things happen. We would not have landed a man on the moon in 1969 if John Kennedy hadn’t decided to do it. It’s because he invented that event that it took place. It probably would’ve happened sooner or later under some other circumstances, but that’s why it happened. Same with atomic energy. So you can see how future events take place but what you can’t do is know who’s going to do something that will change it. You can’t really say what’s going to happen, but you can show a spectrum of possibilities.
Well, besides being a crystal ball, you’re also a romantic. Why are you like the only one who puts love stories in his sci-fi novels?
Romance isn’t a dominant theme in most science fiction. A lot of science fiction is what Kingsley Amis called “new maps of hell.” It’s ways of looking at future horrible societies and lives, and there’s not much room for romance in there. A lot of science fiction is really just adventure. If there’s romance it’s because there’s some girl who needs to be rescued. But there’s also everything else you can think of too.
So what’s science fiction and what’s fantasy?
The basic diagnostic definition is that if you’re reading a science-fiction story you should be able to convince yourself it could happen. Not that it will, but that it’s possible.
Let’s talk numbers for a minute: Pohl has won at least 16 high-profile awards for his writing, including six Hugos and three Nebulas. He’s edited or coauthored stories with all the sci-fi magis—Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson, Lester del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, Cyril Kornbluth, Donald Wolheim, Harry Dockweiler (aka Dirk Wylie)—and represented lots of them (and more) as a literary agent, most of this while he was still a teenager.
And he still writes. Just this past August, The Last Theorem, which he coauthored with Arthur C. Clarke, was published. It was the last book Clarke wrote before he died. That’s a pretty big deal.
But even when not behind the desk, Pohl’s always been an ass kicker. His house burned down in the early 1960s, so he became a volunteer fireman. His family begged him to quit doing that and support them, so he took the first real job offered to him, and that was collecting urine samples from racehorses. Around the same time, in 1962, Pohl first brought cryogenics to the light of day, and he was also an expert in crystal gazing.
What happened to you politically in the 70s?
I’ve been a Democrat my entire adult life. Nixon was a slimy little beast. So I became a Democratic County Committeeman, the absolute lowest elected office in America.
Your wife, Betty Anne Hull, ran on the Democratic ticket for House Representative in 1996 and lost to the incumbent Republican. Actually, Betty, can you tell us about that?
Betty Anne Hull: It was sort of like, who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? I like to think I prepared the way for his final ousting. It’s now solidly a Democratic district. Although I didn’t prevail, at least what we do when we’re candidates and we know we’re not going to win is get the voice to speak with reason and try to let the world know that not everybody thinks one way.
While Pohl was out romanticizing politics and signing up for whatever seemed like the most dumbass, dangerous thing to do, Bradbury decided as a teenager he was a pacifist and prayed he wouldn’t be drafted. Luckily for him, his army physical determined that without his glasses he was blinder than Helen Keller and thus unfit for service. In fact, the most outright politically bold thing Bradbury ever did was on paper. Eisenhower had just won 1951’s election; disappointed, Bradbury took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety denouncing Republicans and Senator McCarthy’s communist hoedown. “I have seen too much fear in a country that has no right to be afraid,” he wrote. “I do not want any more lies, any more prejudice, any more smears. I do not want intimations, hear-say [sic], or rumor. I do not want unsigned letters or nameless telephone calls from either side, or from anyone.” Wow, dude. You really told them.
Pohl started off a few steps ahead of the game: Months before Bradbury’s first story was published in Super Science Stories, Pohl had already quit editing that magazine. And later, both had long-term working relationships with an editor but Bradbury was selling him stories as an author and Pohl was selling him stories as an agent.
Did you and Ray Bradbury cross paths often?
Very little of Bradbury’s life involved any of mine. We did meet now and then but not very often. We ran into each other a couple of times at the Worldcon. Whenever I went out to Los Angeles we’d have lunch together. But he moved up the food chain and traded in his roller skates for a chauffeur.
You wrote in a review of Bradbury’s biography how a distinguished Soviet academic came to see you, a specialist in sci-fi. And when you offered to take him anywhere he wanted to visit in the Chicago area, he said he wanted to see the “boyhood home of the most famous science-fiction writer in the world, Mr. Ray Bradbury.” Ouch.
I don’t really care. We don’t have the same audience.
You’re awfully cool about all this. Don’t you get offended?
Not really. I went to talk to a MENSA group once years ago and before I gave my talk someone approached me with a copy of one of my books in his hand. I said, “Oh, you want me to sign that?” He said, “No, this is the worst book I’ve ever read in my whole life.”
Do you remember which book it was?
No. There are some books of mine that are out of print and will stay that way.
Pohl helped shape the world of sci-fi for Bradbury to live in—and then admonish. Eager for breadcrumbs anywhere else in the freelance world, Bradbury’s always denied a science-fiction pigeonhole, worried it’d hinder his career. When Doubleday published The Martian Chronicles, he was dismayed to see a science-fiction disclaimer emblazoned on the cover. When the house next published The Illustrated Man, Bradbury politely demanded that his editor omit the tag. And Pohl doesn’t have even one tiny sour grape.
No one remembers firsts. Seconds get all the attention. I had to call ten bookstores in New York to find The Last Theorem—and there was one copy left.
Betty Anne Hull: At the last Worldcon, there wasn’t one single copy to be found.
That’s crazy, and sad.
You can’t always account for why something didn’t work out.
It makes me angry that people still don’t seem to know who Fred is.
As he says, he’s famous among about a million people in the world, and out of seven billion that’s not that much. We travel all over the world and people recognize him and go into shock and want to kiss his ring or something, and then other people, people I tell that my husband writes, they go, “Oh yeah, what does he write?”
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