TT: Fred Pohl — Team Player

ALAN: As we mentioned last time, Pohl was a great collaborator. He wrote some short stories with Isaac Asimov (published as by “James MacCreigh”). He wrote a novel with Lester Del Rey (Preferred Risk by “Edson McCann” in 1955). He also collaborated with the oddly symmetrical Thomas T. Thomas on Mars Plus! (1994), a sequel to his own 1976 novel Man Plus!  He wrote a lot of first class novels with Jack Williamson. And of course there are the famous novels that he wrote in the 1950s with his close friend Cyril Kornbluth. Despite being more than fifty years old now, these last can still be read with pleasure today. They are genuine classics.

Two To Carry the Book

I suppose everybody has to have a hobby…

JANE: From what I’ve gathered, Fred Pohl’s participation in the SF world was rich and multi-faceted.  He was a member of the Futurians, a group dedicated to “radical politics and the conviction that sf should be forward-looking and constructive” according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Pohl was also an editor for various magazines, including Astonishing Stories, Super Science Stories, Galaxy, and If, among others.  He also edited original anthologies.

ALAN: And when he was sitting in the editorial chair, he would sometimes buy stories from his writer self and then publish them under a pseudonym so as to conceal what he was doing! How’s that for having your cake and eating it too?

JANE: Gee…  I guess self-publishing has a more noble pedigree than I’d ever realized.

For a period following World War II, Pohl was also an agent.  I suspect that his roles as author, SF think tank member, editor, and agent put him in a position to find people who had a great idea that they couldn’t quite bring to fruition.  At the very least, there were probably some marvelous brainstorming sessions.

ALAN: Cyril Kornbluth and Isaac Asimov, with both of whom Pohl collaborated, were also Futurians.  So there may well be something to what you’re saying. And certainly in his book about the history of the Futurians (The Futurians ,1977), Damon Knight makes it very clear that one thing they all really loved to do was talk about anything and everything.

JANE:  Let’s move from generalizations to specific cases.   You seem very fond of Pohl’s collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth.  Was there something special or unique in these that the books would not have had if they had been written by either Pohl or Kornbluth alone?

ALAN: That’s difficult to answer because Kornbluth died quite young (he was only thirty-five), and so his output was small. He only wrote three novels under his own name and all, with the possible exception of The Syndic, are minor works

However his short stories often exhibit the same sardonic cynicism that is used to great satirical effect in his collaborations with Frederik Pohl.  We also see a similar emphasis in the novel Gunner Cade (1952) by “Cyril Judd”, another collaboration, this time between Kornbluth and Judith Merril.

Pohl, in his solo works, exhibited many of these same traits, and so I suspect that the Pohl / Kornbluth collaborations do not really showcase anything special that the other collaborator did not have, rather the two of them were so similar in their views (and their talents) that they struck sparks off each other and somehow the whole was far greater than the sum of the parts.

JANE:  That sounds like a reasonable conclusion.

Jack Williamson had a long relationship with Fred Pohl as a collaborator.  Interestingly, the collaborative partnership grew directly out of the fact that Pohl was Williamson’s agent.  Let me quote directly from Seventy-Five, a Jack Williamson tribute anthology.

“…when a story called ‘The Bottom of the Abyss’ failed to work, he turned to his then-agent Frederik Pohl, and together they turned out three juvenile stories about Jim Eden and his undersea adventures.  Later, when a story about ‘The Iron Hand’ stalled, working with Pohl again resulted in the ‘Starchild Trilogy.’  All subsequent books co-written with Fred Pohl were planned at the outset as collaborations.”

ALAN: That’s interesting. I wasn’t aware that the ‘Starchild Trilogy’ came about because Williamson got stuck. It was one of my favourite stories when I was a teenager and I read it multiple times. So naturally I’m very pleased that he and Pohl got together and finished it.

JANE: What about Pohl’s other collaborators?  Anything special there?

ALAN: The Asimov collaborations (just a couple of short stories) are of no great interest.

The 1955 collaboration with Lester del Rey (Preferred Risk) is interesting, but for all the wrong reasons! One of the great strengths of the Pohl/Kornbluth collaborations was the biting satire that they applied to various institutions. Pohl returned to this satirical theme with Lester del Rey and together they attempted to do for the insurance industry what Pohl and Kornbluth had done for advertising (The Space Merchants), corrupt business practices, corporate law and propaganda (Gladiator-At-Law), and sociology and politics (Search The Sky). Unfortunately Pohl and del Rey did not strike sparks off each other in the way that Pohl and Kornbluth had done and Preferred Risk reads like a very pale imitation of the much more sucessful collaborations with Kornbluth.

JANE: What about Mars Plus?

ALAN: Pohl’s original book Man Plus! was such a hugely successful, award winning novel that the last thing it really needed was a sequel. So while there’s nothing about Mars Plus! that you can really complain about, it nevertheless feels a bit wishy-washy in comparison.

JANE: Of course, the hugely successful award-winning novels are the ones publishers want sequels to…

So, which collaborative author or pair do we look at next?  Whisper in my ear so we won’t have any spoilers!

ALAN: Whisper whisper.

JANE: Ah!  That might be very interesting indeed!


4 Responses to “TT: Fred Pohl — Team Player”

  1. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    Looking forward to it!

    • janelindskold Says:

      Thanks! Alan and I also take hints as to what people might want to hear us natter about. If we’ve already talked about it, we’ll give you a link to where you can find that chat.

  2. futurespastsite Says:

    Fred Pohl seems to have been one of those SF people who have done it all: fan, pro, author, agent, collaborator, magazine and books editor, etc. Highly recommend his autobiographical “How the Future Was.”

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