Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some thoughts on Frederick Pohl's Memoir

        I finally managed to finish Frederick Pohl's memoir, The Way The Future Was a couple months ago, but was distracted by work.  I finally have a little time to write something up about the text now.  Pohl's memoir is one of many texts of science fiction history and criticism from the 1970's that remains unpublished, despite the boom in republishing.  Unlike some of those texts, such as the work of Darko Suvin during the same period, Pohl's memoir is still fairly reasonably priced in the used market, costing only a few dollars.  As a text, it provides a useful complement to Damon Knight's history of the Futurians produced around the same time (a text that is also out of print, but reasonably easy to find used at this point in time.)

        Within that context, it provides some well needed context about the political context of the group, working through Pohl's involvement in the Communist Party, and the idiosyncratic views of other members such as Donald Wollhelm and James Blish.  Some of these points are dealt with by the Damon Knight text, but Pohl deals with the questions of politics with a great deal more substance, discussing his relationship with the party as its positions dramatically shifted with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.  Unlike a lot of ex-communists, Pohl still maintains that the part was right in its fight for workers' rights, civil rights and other domestic issues.  He focuses his critique of the party on the apologism for the Soviet Union.  Additionally, Pohl gestures towards some of his limitations in regards to his treatment of women throughout the text, but doesn't ever deal substantially with his relationship with fellow author, Judith Merril in the text.

       However, the most valuable aspect of the text is Pohl's discussion of his role as an agent within the genre, a role he played during the period of time when the genre moved from a pulp magazine based genre to a primarily novel based genre.  Because of those contingent circumstances, he is able to offer a unique perspective on how authors such as Isaac Asimov became respected figures.  It also provides an interesting perspective on the messy process of turning the genre into something commercially viable.   He maps out the shift to more establishment publishers, the formation of a number of science fiction writers' associations, as well as the publication as a number of important novels.  It's also the point in the text where it is most evident that Pohl is trying to offer an explanation for the collapse in his own business, despite it's immense success.  Pohl not only went bankrupt, but wound up not paying a number of writers for many years, an error he claims to have corrected.

      Beyond that, Pohl is pretty enjoyable memoirist.  If he doesn't offer the kind of experimental writing provided by Judith Merril and Samuel Delany, he provides an entertaining set of vignettes about the formation of the genre, and the role the Futurians played in that formation.  A lot of this material isn't terribly shocking.  At this point, most people who study the genre know that Hugo Gernsbeck was a bit of a charlatan, and that  John Campbell had some problematic political views, but Pohl's description certainly adds color to the understanding of those figures.  Probably more significantly, he captures the sense of science fiction as a genre working within a commercial market, while being run by people who were either uninterested or unable to operate within the terms of those markets.  Pohl continually exemplifies this himself, as he both contributes to the commercial and critical success of the genre, while remaining unable to translate that success into anything that vaguely looks like a profit. 

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