Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Frederik Pohl: Nov. 26, 1919—Sept. 2, 2013

Frederik Pohl: Nov. 26, 1919 - Sept. 2, 2013

I grew up reading him.

No, that doesn't quite describe how it went. I grew into what I am reading him. What science can do, what its consequences; how man can use--and misuse--science, how this affects him; how one can write about science, in ways both creative and psychologically incisive. Pohl showed many of the possibilities, and showed an effortless mastery of them in the process. 

Kingsley Amis called him "the most consistently able writer science fiction, in its modern form, has yet produced." Not perhaps high praise--he doesn't call him a genius, a producer of great work--but when you see the breadth, variety and depth of that work, perhaps it's accurate: he's consistent, he's prolific, and across that range he's incredibly able.

The Locus article I linked to above will give an idea of the size of that career--not just writer but editor and blogger and all-around man of letters. All I knew when I first read his classic short story "The Midas Plague" was that I'd found a writer capable of evoking a near-unimaginable world, of unlimited wealth and almost ceaseless consuming to the point of nausea, where cheap and tasty products rolled down conveyor belts at an unimaginable rate and you're constantly pressured to use, watch, enjoy, eat, eat, eat.

Then again, maybe that world isn't so unimaginable anymore.

"The Midas Plague" is a broad cartoon, if an unsettlingly convincing one; "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" showed a subtler Pohl, demonstrating how even as momentous an event as an alien encounter will inevitably be reduced (consumed?) by human culture into a series of racist (specist?) jokes, into banal contempt and condescension. 

Try as much as I can, I can't remember much of The Space Merchants, Pohl and longtime collaborator C.M. Kornbluth's classic satire where corporate advertisers and not governments run the world. Advertising is deceitful (imagine that!) and omnipresent, corporate espionage a game as dangerous as any cold war. I know it's an important novel, but it failed to make an emotional connection; I suppose I need to read it again.

I do remember the lesser-known Gladiator-at-Law--not just an eerily prescient treatise on Law and Big Business but a frighteningly vivid depiction of poverty. As when he describes an old woman working a makeshift restaurant in the devastated area of Belly Rave (nee Belle Reve):

Outside, Norvell asked shyly what in the world the old woman thought she was doing for a living.

"It's simple," said Shep. "She gets her rations and trades them for
firewood. She uses the wood to heat water—for coffee, or bouillon, or tea, or whatever. She trades the water for rations. She keeps hoping that some day she'll come out ahead on the deal. She never has."


Shep didn't speak for a long minute as they sauntered along in the
afternoon sun. At last he said, "No offense. But it's easy to see you're a come-lately, Bligh- Why does she do it? Because it makes her feel like a human being."


"But hell. It makes her feel as though she were master of her fate,
captain of her soul. It's hard to starve to death in Belly Rave, but in a bad week she comes close to it. She thinks she's a Rockefeller or a Weeks in miniature. Risking her capital in the hope, of gain. Well, she is! What if she always loses? She's doing something—not just sitting and waiting for the ration day to roll around again. You've heard of hell?"

Norvell nodded. Like practically everybody else he was a member of the Reformed Rationalist Church of the Inchoate Principle, but hell had been mentioned in sermons now and then.

"Well, if a man who said that hell is a perpetual holiday was right, then this is it. Belly Rave, mister. Belly Rave."

Hope in the face of despair, and a kind of urban poetry. That was pretty much it; I was hooked on Pohl.

Most people who've heard of Pohl (if they have heard of Pohl; nowadays people read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and any number of Star Wars novels) would have heard of Gateway, his Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel about enterprising prospectors who climb aboard unknown alien ships and risk life and limb and more, taking these ships to unknown destinations for possible profit, or death, or worse. 

Even more fascinating than the premise was the way the novel was written, as a series of short episodes, bulletins, announcements, price lists--

Direct from the Lost Tunnels of Venus!
Rare Religious Objects
Priceless Gems Once Worn by the Secret Race
Astounding Scientific Discoveries
Special Discount for
Scientific Parties and Students
Now for the first time at popular prices
Adults, $2.50
Children, $1.00
Delbert Guyne, Ph.D., D.D., Proprietor

--letters, even computer source code, giving us a fragmentary view of the world that eventually comes together into a fascinatingly complex whole. The first line of the book: "My name is Robinette Broadhead, in spite of which I am male" not just introduces the protagonist but puts front and center his sexual ambivalence; the often funny bouts with his computer analyst Sigfried explore not just aspects of his persona but also the plot, which revolves around a traumatic event in Robin's past.

A sample:

Sigfrid is a pretty smart machine, but sometimes I can't figure out what's wrong with him. He's always asking me to tell him my dreams. Then sometimes I come in all aglow with some dream I'm positive he's going to love, a big-red-apple-for-the-teacher kind of dream, full of penis symbols and fetishism and guilt hang-ups, and he disappoints me. He takes off on some crazy track that has nothing at all to do with it. I tell him the whole thing, and then he sits and clicks and whirs and buzzes for a while -- he doesn't really, but I fantasize that while I'm waiting -- and then he says:

"Let's go back to something different, Rob. I'm interested in some of the things you've said about the woman, Gelle-Klara Moynlin."

I say, "Sigfrid, you're off on a wild-goose chase again."

"I don't think so, Rob."

"But that dream! My God, don't you see how important it is? What about the mother figure in it?"

"What about letting me do my job, Rob?"

"Do I have a choice?" I say, feeling sulky.

"You always have a choice, Rob, but I would like very much to quote to you something you said a while ago." And he stops, and I hear my own voice coming out of somewhere in his tapes. I am saying:

"Sigfrid, there's an intensity of pain and guilt and misery there that I just can't handle."

He waits for me to say something.

After a moment I do. "That's a nice recording," I acknowledge, "but I'd rather talk about the way my mother fixation comes out in my dream."

"I think it would be more productive to explore this other matter, Rob. It is possible they're related."

"Really?" I am all warmed up to discuss this theoretical possibility in a detached and philosophical way, but he beats me to the punch:

"The last conversation you had with Klara, Rob. Please tell me what you feel about it."

"I've told you." I am not enjoying this at all, it is such a waste of time, and I make sure he knows it by the tone of my voice and the tenseness of my body against the restraining straps. "It was even worse than with my mother."

"I know you'd rather switch to talking about your mother, Rob, but please don't, right now. Tell me about that time with Klara. What are you feeling about it at this minute?"

I try to think it out honestly. After all, I can do that much. I don't actually have to say it. But all I can find to say is, "Not much."

After a little wait he says, "Is that all, 'not much'?"

"That's it. Not much." Not much on the surface, anyway. I do remember how I was feeling at the time. I open up that memory, very cautiously, to see what it was like. Going down into that blue mist. Seeing the dim ghost star for the first time. Talking to Klara on the radio, while Dane is whispering in my ear. . . . I close it up again.

"It all hurts, a lot, Sigfrid," I say conversationally. Sometimes I try to fool him by saying emotionally loaded things in the tone you might use to order a cup of coffee, but I don't think it works. Sigfrid listens to volume and overtones, but he also listens to breathing and pauses, as well as the sense of the words. He is extremely smart, considering how stupid he is.

A cat and mouse game they're playing; Pohl points up the chase-and-be-chased element with a repetitive, even circular motif, Robin's contemptuous assessment of Sigfrid's intelligence. He teases us with vague hints of the nature of the trauma (going down; blue mist; dim ghost star) but mostly we're dealing with Robin's feelings of hostility at having his insides probed, like an exposed nerve in a decayed tooth or (more pertinently I think) a rectum shivering in the chill clinic air. Sigfrid is blandly soothing in the best HAL 9000 manner but unlike Kubrick's computer (arguably the best, wittiest character the filmmaker ever put onscreen) he is not to be deterred; he parries and fences with Robin relentlessly until he has coaxed the patient into giving up yet another painfully won nugget of detail (of course Sigfried already knows what happened; the trick is getting Robin to talk about it). You get the sense that when Sigfrid finally uncovers the trauma is when the novel arrives at its (possibly harrowing) climax. 

Of all cyborg films, TV shows and stories, arguably the most convincing I know is Pohl's Man Plus, not just for the sheer wealth of scientific detail about the chemical, biological and technological elements that go into the making of a cyborg fit for survival on Mars, but the at times horrific physiological and psychological changes wrought on Roger Torroway, the man being transformed, possibly the most chilling of which is reflected in this excerpt:

“I was worried about sex," he went on. "But you know what, Sulie? It's like being told I can't have any caviar for the next couple years. I don't even like caviar. And when you come right down to it, I don't want sex right now. I supposed you punched that into the computer? 'Cut down sex drive, increase euphoria'? Anyway, it finally penetrated my little brain that I was just making trouble for myself, worrying about whether I could get along without something I really didn't want. It's a reflection of what I think other people think I should want.”

A perfectly reasoned-out, totally mature rationale for chastity? God forbid! And yet Pohl manages to make it a natural development, even a happy one for Roger...

Arguably the most fascinating aspect of the whole operation are the mediation circuits being developed for Roger. His previous incarnation died of a stroke; the stress of TMI (too much information) burst a blood vessel in his brain. Roger has computer circuits simplifying the flow of images and data to him, and this creates bias in his view of the world; Pohl ultimately pulls back to demonstrate that this--the introduction of bias--is a meta thing, not just a problem specific to Roger, and we're left shuddering, wondering: who might be interpreting our data for us? And why?

Gateway is generally considered Pohl's masterpiece and it's an intense, moving work, but in Man Plus--as in all of the very best science fiction--Pohl seems to have asked the most interesting questions: what makes us human? More than human? More, is the need for bias in the information flow inevitable, even desirable? Who creates bias for us, and who creates bias for them in turn? Pohl probes into the nature of not just art (of an individual's creative introduction of bias) but communication itself, which apparently is every bit as slippery and relativistic as the rest of space and time. 

As for that most fascinating element in science fiction, the human response in the face of technological change--what does Roger Torroway do when he finds control of his senses suddenly and catastrophically taken away from him? He struggles to regain control; that, and he yells for help. It's the best he can do, feeble as it may sound, the best anyone can do when you come to think about it.


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