Passing of a Grandmaster
On September 2, 2013, the science fiction author Frederik Pohl passed away after a respiratory illness claimed his life at the age of 93. Frederik Pohl was one of the last living legends from the golden age of science fiction. His books combined impressive scientific detail with equally impressive examinations of the human condition. Man and civilization was always at the center of his works. His finest books tried to look at people and the way scientific advances could lead to both great bounty and greater horrors. Frederik Pohl left behind a legacy of superb novels and short stories that netted him four Hugo and three Nebula awards as well as his many contributions as editor on various publications and agent. He is probably best known for his novel "Gateway", which won both the Hugo and the Nebula in 1977.
I had read some of his short stories before I read any of his novels. "Gateway" and its sequels were the first novels of his that I read and they made a great impression on me. They told the story of a man who risked everything to "strike it rich" by a form of prospecting using technology left behind by a mysterious race called the Heechee. Really, it was more a game of Russian Roulette where people got into the alien spacecraft and hoped to make it go somewhere without killing them or leaving them stranded. Along the way, the man loses the love of his life, his self-respect, and perhaps even his sanity. Another of his books, "The Coming of the Quantum Cats", is one of the best alternative universe stories out there. Twenty years later I can still remember most of the plot, which shows how vivid were the story and characters. At his best, his books felt real and grounded, with believable people facing genuine problems. Although classed by some an an "anti-utopian", I credit it more to a skepticism about the ability of grand social experiements to deliver on their promises, a view borne probably from his early involvement with the Communist Party in his youth. He left the Party in 1939 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact soured him on Communism and never went back.
Although he left school at 17 and never got a degree, Frederik Pohl was noted for his use of science and excellent prose. He wrote some 65 books, almost half of them collaborations with other writers. The books he wrote with Cyril M. Kornbluth are especially noteworthy. Among them are his famous "The Space Merchants" and "Wolfsbane". His last book, "The Last Theorem", was a collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke and came out in 2008. His writing career spanned almost 75 years and had a great influence on many authors who came after him. Pohl also worked as an editor and agent. He is credited with launching the careers of James Blish and Larry Niven.
He will be missed.