Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Passings: Frederik Pohl, Bruce Murray and Iain Banks

IainBanksLast month, I lamented - as a science fiction writer and friend - the loss (amid his most productive and creative years) of the brilliant British author Iain Banks -- who wrote books such as Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games in his best-selling Culture Universe.

This month it is a double whammy, with the passing of my colleagues Frederik Pohl and Bruce Murray.

== Bruce Murray, Planetary scientist ==

BruceMurrayBruce Murray was not only a titan of planetary science and technological innovation, but also one of the most agile members of an agile generation. Under his leadership, Jet Propulsion Lab teams extended humanity's reach and vision to distant worlds. More important, he kept the lab alive and vital at a time when every political wind seemed bent on destroying the American mission of deep-space exploration.

A brilliant scientist, he also served his civilization in realms of policy, and even art. He authored 130 scientific papers, as well as books such as Journey into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration. Bruce was among the first to grasp the potential of the World Wide Web to improve human conversation and his early "hyperforum" experiments (I was a founding member) still have not been matched. Above all, his legacy is found in generations of students and others who benefited from his guidance and example. The lesson that I draw from his life is that we are capable of being "many."

Bruce Murray was the truest citizen of our renaissance.

==Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction great ==

PohlScience Fiction Grand Master Fred Pohl passed away on September 2, at age 93.

Beyond a personal sense of loss of a friend and colleague, I must note how tremendous was Fred's influence on our field. He spent his long career both creating new worlds and helping others to do the same.  Both as a prolifically creative author and as an agent/editor who coaxed other authorial visions into life, Fred Pohl may be responsible for more new "universes" coming into being than any other mortal... a point we'll return to, later.

Space-merchantsSure, they were all universes of the imagination -- many of them so ephemeral that they only endured in human thought for the duration of a single monthly issue of Galaxy or If. Others, like The Space Merchants  and Jem and Man Plus may actually divert the path of human destiny, as we modify our policies and creative ambitions, diverting them a little, because of warnings and thought-experiments erected by Frederik Pohl.

I called Fred the "essential" science fiction author. In much the same way that the other "pole" of science fiction -- Poul Anderson -- was the greatest natural storyteller I ever knew, Fred Pohl was the SF writer who cared most about the gedankenexperiment or what-if thought experiment. Fred would start with a question: "what if ____?" and fill in some fascinating possibility. Only then the magic would ensue as he fleshed out a vivid world of possible consequences from that one whatif -- consequences that might be good, bad, and weird, but always strikingly plausible.

gateway-PohlFred won the Hugo Award six times including the 1978 Hugo for Best Novel - "Gateway" - (the first Hugo I ever voted for). He tied for 1973 Best Short Story Hugo for "The Meeting;" and the 1986 Best Short Story Hugo for "Fermi and Frost." Both can be found in his excellent anthology, Platinum Pohl.

Wolfbane was one of the earliest SF novels I read, and at the time it certainly seemed the creepiest!  In contrast, some of his other works with Cyril M. Kornbluth, such as Gladiator at Law, though fun adventures, also helped spur  my lifelong habit of doubting all ends of the silly, nonsensical, so-called "left-right political axis."  Provoking people to rethink their own assumptions -- now that's writing.

AgeOfPussyfootOne nearly forgotten Pohl book ought to tower high on any shrine of modern techno-visionary prophecy.  The Age of the Pussyfoot was one of the only science fiction stories of the fifties through seventies that envisioned computers becoming common household tools, owned and used, avidly, by nearly everybody.  In fact, to my knowledge it is just about the only work of prophetic fiction to foresee citizens carrying about portable, computerized assistants that would fulfill all the functions we now see gathering together in our futuristic cell phones. And you can bet I salivate for the even-better versions he foresaw.  Pohl's "joymaker" device is as marvelous an on-target prediction as Jules Verne predicting submarines or trips to the Moon.

CoolWarIn The Cool War, Frederik Pohl showed a chillingly plausible failure mode for human civilization, one in which our nations and factions do not dare to wage open conflict, and so they settle upon tit-for-tat patterns of reciprocal sabotage, ruining each other's infrastructures and economies, propelling our shared planet on a gradual death-spiral of lowered expectations and degraded hopes.  It is a cautionary tale that I cite often, and recommended reading for those at the top of our social order.

I could go on and on, but let me just make a central point about a man who I am proud to call a colleague, in what may be the highest of all human professions....

Wait a minute. Brin said what? Oh, sure, readers of this book probably like science fiction. But isn't that taking things a bit too far, calling sci fi writing the highest profession? Well, in a profound irony that ought to amuse -- or perhaps grate -- the many atheists and agnostics who write SF, let me suggest that no other calling, not even that of monk or priest, has a greater claim to sacred status.

9780765301451_p0_v1_s260x420After all, what was purportedly God's greatest act, other than creating the universe? And what do science fiction authors do, almost every day, but erect new worlds, and characters to inhabit them?

If a Father is proud of children who precociously try to pick up the parent's tools and apprentice in His craft, then whose play is more likely to rouse a smile from the Big Creator?

Oh, sure, Fred Pohl could not parse Maxwell's Equations very well and when he said "let there be light!" the incantation only flashed briefly, inside the heads of a few hundred thousand readers -- a blaring supernova here, a slicing laser flash there, or else a brilliant insight into some small part of the human soul.  Sure, that's small potatoes, on the cosmic scale of things. On the other hand, it is a step.  And no human ever did it better.

BeyondBlueEventHorizonI suppose that is why I urged the great asteroid-hunter, Dr. Eleanor Helin, to pick a couple of her discoveries and name them after two of the greatest... those two "poles" of sci fi... Frederik Pohl (12284 Pohl) and Poul Anderson (7758 PoulAnderson).  They are out there now... glittering hunks of rock and metal and precious frozen vapors.  Just waiting for our heirs to go out and - perhaps - mine those riches and turn them into wondrous things.  And when they do, I am sure they'll hold another festschrifft in honor of the dreamers who helped to make it all so. Dreamers like Fred.

Fred is survived by his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull, who is a past president of the Science Fiction Research Association and a noted scholar in the field (she recently edited a Gateways anthology to honor Fred for his 90th birthday, with stories by Bear, Brin, Benford, Bova, Haldeman, Gaiman, Niven, Vinge, Wolfe, and Doctorow). His grandchildren include Canadian writer Emily Pohl-Weary and chef Tobias Pohl-Weary.

He will long be remembered.


Robert said...

It was really sad to hear about Frederik Pohl and Bruce Murray - I still remember the Planetary Atmospheres class at Caltech. We can at least be satisfied that that they had full, enormously beneficial lives.

I checked in to let you have this link (not related). http://http://reason.com/archives/2013/08/30/watched-cops-are-polite-cops It looks like judges are ordering sousveillance!

Bob Pfeiffer

Tom Dupree said...

Lovely piece on Frederik Pohl, David. You nailed it as only a colleague could.

locumranch said...

Frederik Pohl was an exceptional writer, humanist and social critic. He was also wicked funny, focusing on human strengths as well as human follies. I cut my baby teeth on his short story collections, progressed to his novels, then worked backwards through old issues Galaxy & Amazing.

His work, especially his early works, are humbling must reads: For the hopeless ideologue, the Space Merchants; for the animal rights activist, Slaveship; for the peaceful collectivist, Wolfsbane; for the pompous economist, the Midas Plague; for the evolutionists, the Starchild & Undersea series; and, for the empire builders, Age of the Pussyfoot, The Cool War, Narabedla Ltd & World at the End of Time.

His humour & intellect will be sorely missed.


David Brin said...

Most eloquent. Thanks.

Rudy Behrens said...

When you speak of people such as this the best we can do is remember them and be grateful for that time they spent among us. Wishing for more time with them would be greedy and 'sorry' or 'good bye' are trivial.

Shawn Oueinsteen said...


Of course Fred's writing will live after him, and he was one of SF's giants. But what is most tragic is that we have lost one of the few who would actually expend his time and energy to help others. Most successful people do a touch of help; he did a lot. He fought for Chip Delaney. He hired Judy-Lynn del Rey, trained her, and promoted her to be the great editor she became. He rejected my novella, but he walked me from one room to another at DISCLAVE II to introduce me to Damon Knight; he then personally took my rewritten manuscript, read it on an airplane, and then handed it to "the best young agent in the business" and he told the agent to give it to Judy-Lynn and told her to publish it. Fred did such things for many others. He did not just give advice and allow someone to use his name; he took action to help others. He was a much kinder and better man than nearly anyone else I know. I loved his writing, but I'll remember him for his goodness, his willingness to put himself out, and for his warmth. Every day, I looked for his blog to see that he was okay. Tomorrow...

Mitchell J. Freedman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitchell J. Freedman said...

Fred Pohl was a member of the Young Communist League in the mid to late 1930s even becoming head of a local chapter in Brooklyn (Flatbush). I was once on a panel with Pohl (a great honor for me!) in 2004 at the Sci-Fi Convention, and I asked him if his experience as a member of the YCL in the 1930s informed his ability to see beyond Cold War hysteria with Cyril Kornbluth in writing "The Space Merchants," which posits the US wins the Cold War with its products, including those products that meet pleasures and desires, and market economies. He smiled and asked if we should clue in the audience as to what YCL stood for and I said it was up to him, and he smiled at the audience and said very slowly, "Young...Communist...League." He waited for the gasps and then said, and I paraphrase, that he enjoyed his time as a Young Communist, was never a spy for anyone, and that he still thought they were very good at the time about labor unions, which was and remained important for him. He said while his time in an ad agency was an obvious influence, it was indeed true that his time as a Communist, and his being still enamored with leftist oriented economic stances, played a role in how he perceived the Cold War hysteria of the early 1950s.

David may think the axis is silly, but we should not forget that Pohl saw himself as a man of the economic left. He simply had a sense of humor and was not dogmatic about it. And that is part of what made his a subtle and brilliant mind.

I agree with David about "TSM" and I would add that "The Merchant's War" (1985) is also brilliant as a sequel to TSM. I loved "The Coming of the Quantum Cats" from the 1980s as well as "Gladiator-at-law" and "Man Plus." RIP, Fred Pohl. Your work is for the ages.

David Brin said...

Great - and moving - contributions. Thanks....

Stefan Jones said...

Ever since word got out of Pohl's death the titles of novels and stories have been popping into my head. Some less memorable than others, but all well-reasoned and worth reading. Some, joyous and profound and unforgettable.

A personal favorite is a trifle of a short-short called "Day Million" (1967), which looks at how very different the future might be, given the accelerating rate of change. Decades before talk of posthumanism, "Day Million" showed the beginnings of a romance -- which would be carried out entirely in what we would call virtual reality -- between a metal skinned cyborg and a transgendered otter-like woman. Pohl makes it clear while these are humans, the quotidian details of their lives would be so strange as to be more bewildering to us -- living a mere thousand years in their past -- as our lives would be to a protohuman.

Compare that to the many SF futures which settle for a replay of ancient Earth history.

Anne Lunde said...

Frederick Pohl put science fiction into perspective for me. Girls in the 1960s were not supposed to enjoy science fiction, but my brother and I were in our own sort of space race as readers -- he the kid who read science and I the kid who read fairy tales, who found common ground with “Space Cat” and “The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree” and started swapping volumes of more adult sci fi and fantasy which became our shared reading enthusiasm. But nearly all the sci fi authors available in our book stores seemed to be lofty males -- Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein, magically endowed and in print. Frederick Pohl's "The Way the Future Was" put the genre into perspective because he helped to build it, as a fan, a writer, an editor, and a historian. He gave me a new appreciation for the nuances of the stories, in his own work and in others'. He and the generations of writers he nurtured made scientific thinking and dreaming accessible for our space race generations that followed.

Roger Kent said...

Frederick Pohl was a great science fiction author. "Gateway" was beautifully written. Thanks David Brin for remembering him.

Frederick Pohl, R.I.P.

Jumper said...

And he could scare the hell out of you with A Plague of Pythons.

matthew said...

Jumping off the subject of goodbyes and back into the neo-environmentalism / modernism article of a few weeks ago. After all,I think that all three of these men would thank us for the farewell and then tell us to get back to work on the process of coming up with a better world...
Here is a fairly thoughtful interview with Naomi Klein, author of "No Label," in which she argues that modernist environmentalists are really doing a disservice to the movement, especially in the context of climate change. She argues that grassroots movements like Idle No More are much more important in the big scheme of things. Naomi Klein in Salon .
Note that I most definitely do not agree with her stance here, but I think that the article is an important one, and that her book / documentary that is coming out will be worth keeping track of.

Unknown said...

Living in Chicago I felt I knew Fred and have always admired him. When I heard of his passing I started doing online searches for his name, hoping that I would find myriad articles about him. Imagine my chagrin when I found relatively little written about his life and death. Thank you for this beautiful remembrance.