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Thursday 17 April 2014

Frederik Pohl

Publisher who launched Isaac Asimov's career, then became a respected sci-fi writer himself

Frederik Pohl, who has died aged 93, was a renowned science fiction writer, editor and lecturer. He was born in New York City on November 26, 1919. A nomadic early life took him to Panama, Texas and New Mexico as his father pursued a career as a machinist.

Plagued by illness, Frederik was educated at home by his mother, who instilled in him an early appreciation of literature. Back in New York in 1931, he entered Brooklyn Technical High School, but left aged 17.

After discovering science fiction stories through the American pulp magazines prevalent at the time, Pohl joined the Futurians, a science fiction fan organisation noted for the radical views of its members. Many of his earliest stories were written in collaboration with others in the group, notably CM Kornbluth.

By the age of 20 Pohl was editing the pulp science fiction magazines Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories; much of his early work he sold to himself as editor.

During the war he joined the US Army Air Force, serving as a sergeant in Italy and France. After the conflict he returned to New York, where he used his contacts to establish himself as a science fiction literary agent, helping to make the names of many writers in the field during the late Forties. He was instrumental, for example, in getting Isaac Asimov's first book published by Doubleday, and he also oversaw the development of Robert Sheckly into a major writer.

In 1952 Pohl renewed his collaboration with Kornbluth, this time on a series entitled The Gravy Planet, which ran in Galaxy magazine. Retitled The Space Merchants when it was published in book form in 1953, it proved one of the most significant sci-fi novels of its time – a rich satirical blockbuster which was to influence a generation of writers.

In it, as in many of his works, Pohl presents a future that is anything but utopian. Corporate power has replaced democracy, with the public duped into consumerism stimulated by powerful withdrawal symptoms.

From then on Pohl concentrated on writing and disbanded his literary agency. He collaborated with numerous other writers, notably Jack Williamson, and also edited Galaxy and If magazines from 1961 to 1969, introducing many new writers to the field.

It was not until the Seventies that his own solo writing career blossomed. Two novellas – The Gold at the Starbow's End and The Merchants of Venus (both 1971) – were well received. Then his novel Man Plus (1976), which focused on the adaptation of a man for life on Mars, won him a Nebula award.

Pohl considered his next novel, Gateway (1977), to be his best work. It describes human attempts to understand and harness technology abandoned on an asteroid by an alien race known as the Heechee. By trial and error, man gradually learns to use some alien spaceships, so discovering distant and profitable corners of the galaxy; the risks are high, however, and the novel's hero sees his lover dragged into a black hole.

From 1974 to 1976 Pohl served as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, becoming a sought-after speaker and lecturer on science-fiction issues. Later, companies would invite him to prognosticate on future technology trends, though he tended to warn that predictions, even in the short term, were all but useless.

A stickler for detail, Pohl was determined to get as much science correct as possible in his books. His research took him all over the world and he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2004, when he published the final novel in the Heechee saga, he apologised to his readers for having suggested, in Gateway, that aliens might have taken refuge in a black hole. With the physics of black holes having been more fully understood in the intervening years, Pohl acknowledged that nothing and no one could exist within a black hole. In 2000 he published a series of essays recounting his research trips: Chasing Science: Science as a Spectator Sport.

In all, he published more than 60 novels. His most lauded effort was Jem: The Making of a Utopia (1979), which remains the only science fiction title to have won the National Book Award.

Frederik Pohl, who died at the beginning of last month, was married five times.

He is survived by three daughters and a son; by two stepdaughters; and by his wife, Elizabeth.

Sunday Independent

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