Monday, September 02, 2013

Remembering Frederick Pohl, and a walk in the mist.

I just heard that Fred Pohl has died.

He was, for me, the last of the Golden Age greats, the first generation of Science Fiction Writers who created the genre. His collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, his later solo work, were wonderful things: always witty, smart, interested in how people worked and how the stuff of the future would change the people who inhabited it. (I started with The Space Merchants, a book about advertising in a 1950s future. It's still my favourite.)

He was a literary agent too, and a whip-sharp editor of magazines and books. He stayed smart and he stayed relevant. Samuel R. Delany's groundbreaking Dhalgren was published as a Fred Pohl selection, and became a bestseller. And Fred kept on writing, and even blogging, giving us his memories of his past in science fiction. (Here's his blog entry on Dhalgren.)

I met him briefly at conventions, but never really knew him (I know his wife, Betty, Elizabeth Anne Hull, much better -- we spent time together in China, for a start). I told him how much I owed him, and how much the world of Science Fiction owed him, and I'm glad I did. I told him I saw him interviewed, when I was a boy, in a BBC documentary on SF writers, and it helped make it real that the things I loved were actually being made by real human beings.

The world is emptier without him, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction really has passed away.


This is a poem I wrote for Gateways, an anthology tribute to Fred, published a few years ago, about the futures that he and his Golden Age friends had promised us or threatened us with, about the future we seemed to have received instead:

The  [Backspace] Merchants

The [backspace] merchants sell deletions and removals,
masters of the world (or so they claim)
they go by many hundred different names 
and live inside a giant block of Spam.

It quivers, as if alive, is fed 
by tubes and tendrils, and is inhabited.
Portions are cut from it continually to feed the people.
Insidious, invidious, 
(occasionally in videos),
the [backspace] merchants seek to sell you:
V1agRa and all its magical cousins
(If you had a larger thing in your pants your life would have been better!!)
(She'll love the new growth!)
(Make nights turbulent.)
Also, designer watches, diplomas, 
diplomats who will entrust you with their missing millions.
There are girls in your town who want to 
meet you.

The [backspace] merchants want so to delete you.

The [backspace] merchants click and they erase
our faces, so we keep on losing face.
The [backspace] merchants
offer relief from their own excesses:
The products will not work as advertised
The Spam is vast and must be satisfied.

In the old days of the future
our freedom fighters lived deep inside the chicken meat
Their coffee was the coffiest, their dreams the dreamiest.
The rest of us craved and grazed our lives away
and wondered if we should emigrate to Venus.

These are the poles we navigate between:
Yesterday's futures now reshape our days
into futures past, somewhere between last week and day million
as ancient as a black and white TV show, watched so late
and all the names we conjured with appeared to us in monochrome
with their faces, such young faces, 
to those of us who would learn to be plugged in at all times,
they told us of the future, that it was what they saw
a Game of If when they opened wide their eyes.

So we avoided all their awful warnings,
ignored the minefields as the klaxons sounded
played “Cheat the Prophet” just as Gilbert said,
we sidestepped cacotopias unbounded
and built ourselves this gorgeous mess instead

I wish we could still emigrate to Venus.

Sometimes I wonder what the Spam makes of us:
does it define us by our base desires,
or hope we can transcend them? Like small gods,
the [backspace] merchants offer us all choices
and each day
we can be tempted 
or  delete.
They lay their traps ineptly at our feet.

The present moves so quick we can't describe it,
so Science Fiction limns the recent past.
We future folk are just another tribe who 
hyperlinked our colours to the mast,
When now is always then and never soon
Our freak flags will not fly upon the moon.

Our prophets opened gateways, showed us pitfalls
gave us worlds of if and galaxies uncountable.
They made us think then take the other road.
But future yesterdays are growing cold.
The [backspace] merchants huddle in their meat
while we demand a finer, nobler future:
It waits for us beyond the blue horizon.
Our future will be glorious and gold.

If it lasts more than four hours
consult your physician.

For Fred Pohl, with infinite admiration.


I'm still hiding out, still recovering from the three months on tour, still writing. Today I mostly went for a walk in the mist, cooked in the Aga, and wrote.

The world looked like this on the walk. (There are predictions that the sun will come out on Thursday, but I'm in no hurry. I'm good with the mist and the drizzle.)

(I can email photos like this over to WhoSay, which autoposts them to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Expect more of them.)

And I found myself on the TV News today (people phoned and told me). I talked about the role of libraries in the world in a piece on the opening of the new Birmingham Library - the largest lending library in Europe. You may (or may not, depending on where you live) be able to watch it here: and

Okay. I should go to sleep.

(Oh. I nearly forgot. A wonderful diary piece by Philip Pullman in the Financial Times about many things, including our time on stage. Yes, buy his wonderful Grimm Tales, out now in paperback.)

(And if you've ever wanted to hear Stephen Colbert read a chilling Ray Bradbury story and Leonard Nimoy read my favourite hilarious James Thurber short story, go to Selected Shorts I host this episode.) 

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