RIP Frederik Pohl, the man who transformed science fiction

One of the leading lights of the science fiction world, editor and author Frederik Pohl, passed away this weekend after a career that defined the genre for decades.

His granddaughter Emily Pohl Weary confirmed the news:

Pohl was known for his mind-bending, often satirical novels (many co-authored with longtime collaborator C.M. Kornbluth), his editing acumen, his science fiction criticism, and his witty, fascinating blog, which he was updating right up until his death.

Born in 1919, Pohl began work on his genre-transforming novel The Space Merchants during his service during World War II, and published it in 1953 after he'd spent a few years working in the advertising industry. A collaborative effort with Kornbluth, it was a scathing sendup of the future of the advertising world that he said "nobody wanted to publish." But it became an instant classic, and its dystopian corporate future, where advertising rules everything, presaged the work of Philip K. Dick and the cyberpunks.

Pohl was one of the founders of the influential, progressive group the Futurians in the 1930s. At a time when a lot of scifi was embracing its pulpiest tendencies, the Futurians argued that science fiction could be both literary and politically relevant. With The Space Merchants, he proved his point. And in later novels like Gladiator-at-Law (with Kornbluth) and Gateway, he continued to write dark, satiric tales of futures defined by class conflict and corporate greed.

In an interview with Vice, Pohl said:

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.

As an editor, Pohl was known for taking risks on science fiction that broke out of the Golden Age adventure mold. In the 1960s, while working at Bantam, he published Samuel Delany's classic Dhalgren, and Joanna Russ' foundational feminist work The Female Man. About Dhalgren, he told Locus magazine:

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 [Delany], with commensurate advances... and lost his shirt!

He wrote a memoir called The Way the Future Was, which also became the name for his long-running blog, The Way the Future Blogs.

We will miss Pohl, both for championing great works of science fiction and for writing some of the best works of the twentieth century. His career is a reminder that sometimes the greatest contributions to the genre came from collaboration and community-building, as well as the solitary work that's done at the keyboard.

If you'd like to explore the work of Pohl, we recommend starting with his blog, where you'll find both his ideas and a definitive list of his works.