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Frederik Pohl: On My Way to the Future
posted 28 January 2009
Frederik Pohl, born 1919 in New York City, was one of the earliest SF fans, attending the first SF conference in Philadelphia in 1936, and was one of the founders of the Futurians and the Hydra Club. He served in the Italian theaters of World War II and afterward became a literary agent, representing many of America's top SF writers. In the '50s he went back to writing and editing, producing his first novels in collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth, beginning with classic The Space Merchants (1953) and continuing with Search the Sky (1954), Gladiator-at-Law (1955), and Wolfbane (1959). He also collaborated with Jack Williamson and Lester del Rey.

Pohl's solo novels include Slave Ship (1957); Drunkard's Walk (1960); A Plague of Pythons (1965); The Age of the Pussyfoot (1969); Nebula winner Man Plus (1976); and Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial award winner Gateway (1977), which began his Heechee series and was followed by Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Heechee Rendezvous (1984), Annals of the Heechee (1987), The Gateway Trip (1990), and The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004).

Photo by Amelia Beamer

Biography - Frederik Pohl
Blog: The Way the Future Blogs

Later solo novels included JEM (1980); The Cool War (1981); Starburst (1982); Campbell Memorial winner The Years of the City (1984); the Eschaton trilogy, The Other End of Time (1996), The Siege of Eternity (1997), and The Far Shore of Time (1999); and O Pioneer! (1998). His most recent novel is The Last Theorem, written in collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke (2008).

A prolific story writer, Pohl's short fiction has been collected in more than 20 volumes, including Alternating Currents (1956), The Best of Frederik Pohl (1975), Pohlstars (1984) and, most recently Platinum Pohl (2005). "The Meeting" (1972), with C.M. Kornbluth, won a Hugo, as did solo story "Fermi and Frost" (1985). Other notable stories include "Day Million" (1966) and Hugo and Nebula finalist "The Gold at Starbow's End" (1972).

An influential editor, Pohl edited Ballantine's original anthology series Star Science Fiction in the ’50s. In the ’60s, he edited SF magazines Galaxy and If, and in the ’70s he was executive editor at Ace, then SF editor at Bantam. He won Hugo awards for editing in 1966, '67, and '68 and a Retro Hugo for best professional editor of 1953 in 2004.

Pohl wrote about his life in memoir The Way the Future Was (1978). He was president of SFWA from 1974-76. He was named a SFWA Grand Master in 1992; a living inductee in the SF Hall of Fame in 1998; won a Hubbard Award for life achievement in 2000; and received the Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented in 2009. He lives in Palatine IL with his fifth wife, Elizabeth Anne Hull.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I was ten years old when I discovered SF. Some visitor to our house left a magazine that was new to me, Wonder Stories Quarterly. I don't remember what any of the stories were, but the cover was a giant scaly monster knocking the top off one of the big gas tanks they used to have around the outskirts of the city. I had never seen anything like it, so I read every page (understanding a large fraction of them) and wished I had more, though I had no idea that there was any more.

“Then, some time later, someone else left one of the early copies of Astounding Stories around. That had 'Manape the Mighty' as the cover story: this King Kong-like creature doing something terrible to a girl. That led me to believe if there were two there had to be more, and I went to a second-hand magazine store and looked around and found lots of them. Then I discovered there were SF books in the public library -- not very many in the children's section, but there were some. And at 12 I discovered that one of my classmates also had one of those things, so we became fans.”

“In the early days, we science fiction readers were like cellar Christians: they didn't talk to anybody else because everybody else laughed at them, but they kept running into each other. Mostly they were writing letters to each other, all over the country -- all over the world, actually. I had pen pals in France and England, although I had hardly ever been out of Brooklyn.”


“I did a lot of traveling with Jack Williamson. On a trip through China with Suzy McKee Charnas and Charles Brown in the '80s, we went up to Inner Mongolia just to say we'd been there (because nobody else we knew had ever been). Once we got out of the city and onto the steppe, there was nothing to eat but boiled sheep. We got to thinking of whether we wanted to eat boiled sheep for the next three or four days or go back to the city. We had a vote: the three men voted to go back, and the two women voted to go on. They were outvoted, so we went back. One way or another, we've seen most of China, from the foothills of the Himalayas to Inner Mongolia, up into the Gobi (where most of the people were Turkomen). In the Gobi we got to an oasis around dark, and in the middle of the night I heard something that sounded like fog horns, though I knew there was no sea within hundreds of miles of us. When I woke up, I saw that it had been donkeys, braying all night long, because that was the principal means of transportation in the Gobi.”


“I loved being an editor. It's like being a boy with your first set of electric trains: you can do all these interesting things. And I liked working with writers, liked finding new writers.

"Larry Niven was one. I published all of his early stories, and suggested a couple of his best stories to him, because I knew they were perfect ideas for him and he hadn't thought of them himself. Once, years later, we were on a panel, and while someone else was talking he leaned over and said to me, 'You know, Fred, I owe you for at least half of my career.' I said, 'Does that mean half the money?', and he said 'No, just half of the career.'”


“For several weeks after I bought Delany's Dhalgren, every time I came into the office somebody would take me aside and say, 'Hey Fred, I'm not questioning your decision -- but why did you buy that book, exactly?' The only answer I could ever give them was, 'Because it's the first book that taught me anything I didn't know about sex since The Story of O.' But it did sell, and I take some credit for that.

"Most editors were not usually invited to the annual sales conference, because there were too many of them, but I told the boss I was going whether they liked it or not. Nobody else would be able to persuade them to deal with Dhalgren. When I got there I said to the salesmen, 'You're going to get a book called Dhalgren. You don't need to read it, don't need to know what it's about. The only thing you need to know is, it's the first book by Samuel R. Delany in many years. He considers it his masterpiece, and there are thousands of people out there who will buy it as soon as they see it. Just get it in the stores, and it will take care of itself.' It did. I think we did 16 printings in the first year, and he kept changing a line or two for every one. When the guy who took over from me as editor saw the sales figures on Dhalgren, he immediately signed three new contracts with Chip, with commensurate advances... and lost his shirt!”


“At the moment my new solo book is called Underneath the Mountain. Fifteen years ago on a trip to Italy, as we were coming out of Pompeii I said to my wife Betty Anne, 'Hey, I've got a great idea for a story.' And then, about three years ago, I began to write it. It's about Pompeii in the year 2079 (which is the 2,000th anniversary of when Mount Vesuvius obliterated the old city), turned into a theme park. I had it about half done when Arthur came along with his offer, so I put the book aside. Arthur's book The Last Theorem had a deadline, and mine didn't. I've recently established a policy of never signing a contract for a book until I've got it almost written, because I hate deadlines. I hate anybody pestering me for something I'm not finished with yet.

“I think my next project is going to be an expansion of my autobiography, The Way the Future Was, since it stops cold in 1980 or thereabouts, which means Betty Anne doesn't figure in it. And there are a lot of things I never published -- stories about Cordwainer Smith, stuff like that. I have a lot of it floating around in my head, and I haven't really organized it yet. I'm about to try an experiment with blogging. Partly as an experiment to see if I can write that book by blogging some of those writers. My blog is called ‘The Way the Future Blogs,' and I hope to have its beginnings on the web early next year.

“Betty Anne and I are free to do pretty much whatever we like, and what we've been doing a lot of is traveling. (I'm not sure how much longer I can keep on doing it, since walking gets to be a pain in the ass.) Last winter, Betty and I took a cruise through the Arctic, sailed right into the Arctic ice cap. Completely surrounded by ice for a while, and that was spectacular. Ice floes at the beginning of the cap, from a distance (at least from where we were) look like a tropical beach. You could see the little wavelets coming up. We went there because we'd been in Antarctica, and Betty Anne thought we needed to do the North Pole too. Antarctica was kind of fun. When we were up in Palmer Station on the peninsula, the outside air temperature was 47 degrees (when we left Chicago, it was -3). There were little floes of ice all over, and every one had a penguin sitting on top of it."

“Next is a longish cruise through the South Pacific, where we'll probably be when this comes out. Gosh, isn't the life of a writer just Hell?”

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