A Life in Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I’ve always known that science fiction was an important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know how important until I read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, a memoir he wrote back in 1977 about his life in science fiction. This book isn’t in print, you’ll have to order it used, but the first three chapters are available online at Baen Books.

I got to spend a couple hours with Fred Pohl in the early 1970s. I wish I had known everything that was in his book then because I would have pestered him with a thousand questions. At the time I only knew him as the co-author of The Space Merchants with C. M. Kornbluth. I knew he had written several novels with Kornbluth and also with Jack Williamson. This was well before his famous books Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I think I had read his solo novel The Age of the Pussyfoot and owned a copy of A Plague of Pythons. I probably knew he had once edited Galaxy and If, a couple of my favorite magazines. Back when I met Pohl, along with James Gunn and John Brunner after they appeared at a conference at my university, my college roommate Greg Bridges and I got to sit with them at lunch. I knew Fred Pohl was fairly famous in science fiction, but I had no idea just how famous. I now understand why Brunner and Gunn question Pohl so intently. Years later, I was more impressed with Pohl for Gateway and his later novels, but he was never a big favorite of mine. He is now.

After reading The Way the Future Was I realized he was one of the major figures in the history of science fiction, at least or maybe more important than Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov or even John W. Campbell. Explaining why I now believe that will take some time. I will have to give a quick history of my own relationship with science fiction to connect the dots.

I started reading science fiction in 1962. My father was in the Air Force and I changed schools often. I generally always made a new best friend, but what kept me sane was science fiction. My parents were alcoholics, and I had rejected religion at age 12, so I used science fiction as my guide to life. The fiction part of SF was my mythology, and the genre’s history became my family history. Science fiction writers were the rock stars and founding fathers of my world. Over almost sixty years I’ve put together a rather detail history of science fiction in my head. It’s still constantly growing and expanding. Reading The Way the Future Was showed me that Fred Pohl was intimately active in most of it, almost as if he was a time traveler intentionally trying to experience it all.

Wonder-Stories-Quarterly-Summer-1930Hugo Gernsback began the science fiction genre by publishing Amazing Stories in April 1926, but soon lost control of the magazine, and started another magazine Science Wonder Stories in June 1929. Astounding Stories of Super-Science began it’s run in January 1930. The earliest science fiction fans, sometimes called First Fandom, all began reading science fiction about this time. Fred Pohl discovered science fiction in the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Pohl wrote, “I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.”

Over the decades I have read many memoirs and autobiographies of science fiction writers recounting the same experience of discovering science fiction in the 1930s. I discovered the science fiction magazine in the 1960s, and they often included short histories or biographies that recounted this knowledge. For almost sixty years I’ve been reading these chronicles, and The Way the Future Was is one of the best. Pohl begins with his discovery of science fiction and goes on to explain his adventures in the Science Fiction League (the first effort to organize SF fandom), of publishing fanzines in their earliest days, to starting the legendary science fiction club The Futurians, and the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939.

By the time Pohl was nineteen, he was editing Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and just before WWII, he became an assistant editor for Popular Publications, the largest publisher of pulp magazines. After the war, Pohl became a literary agent for most of the famous science fiction writers of the early 1950s. He was also one of the co-founders of the Hydra Club, another legendary SF club. His third wife was Judith Merril. That chapter also tells about his connections all the early book publishers of science fiction, including Doubleday, Gnome Press, and Ballantine Books. The in 1960 he became the editor of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, and International Science Fiction until 1969, buying some of the best science fiction of the decade and discovering many new writers that have since become famous. I don’t know why John W. Campbell gets all the attention as the great SF magazine editor of the genre, someone needs to write Pohl’s biography.

The Way the Future Was explores many territories, but actually stops before Pohl became really successful as an SF novelist. It’s a shame he didn’t update it before he died in 2013. However, Pohl was close friends and good friends with all the major and minor writers of science fiction and has tons of wonderful anecdotes to tell. He was also a successful lecturer and often appeared on TV and radio, which provided other great stories. All-in-all, Frederik Pohl was very close to most of the significant events and people in science fiction from 1930-1977.

One reason I liked The Way the Future Was is because I have met many of the people Pohl wrote about. Of course, just barely. In nearly all cases I saw these people at science fiction conventions. Sometimes I’d get to chat a few words with them and shake their hands after a lecture. One time I was selling books at a convention and Donald Wollheim stopped to look over my dealer’s table, even bought a book, and we chatted. I forgot what book he bought. I was always on the distant periphery of science fiction, but I still felt a kinship with these people. They were the clan I identified with most, and Pohl’s book reminded me how I felt about that kinship. I always daydreamed of becoming a science fiction writer and getting closer to the clan. I never did. The Way the Future Was has reminded me of what I missed. It made me sad but in a wistful kind of way.



29 thoughts on “A Life in Science Fiction”

  1. Hi Jim

    A very nice rememberance. I started his memoir but obviously need to pull it off the shelves and finish it. It is a pity he did not cover the years of his greatest success as a writer. That said, the work he did with C. M. Kornbluth was excellent.

    I always like to see what issue of a pulp magazine it was that sparked the interest of a buddding SF writer. I have that issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, how could I resist with that cover.

    All the best

    1. Do you have the actual issue Guy? All I have are the digital scans. But I’m very thankful for them. It’s great to read the old magazines along with all these history books.

      1. Hi James

        Yes I have the actual issue. I have put together a small collection of pulps, but I don’t add to it, I am out of space. I did buy some DVDs from ebay of a number of the pulps and digests, Wonder Stories, Astounding, Weird Tales, Planet Stories, New Worlds etc. sadly they don’t contain all the issues for a given year but they are still fun.


  2. If it hadn’t been for the early pulp magazines,science fiction as a book publishing genre,wouldn’t have come into being.As you know,any SF published outside of the magazines before this happened,would still have been found within general fiction.It was vastly different of course to what was appearing in the other realm and comparisons couldn’t be made.The creation of SF as a paperback genre though,meant that the two realms would gradually start to merge,with less distinction between pulp and literary SF.

    Without the old magazines,modern SF wouldn’t have become what it is.Would it have been better if it had never have become a genre? The magazines would obviously have become obsolete.Any SF still published within general fiction, would probably have been closed to some readers.It would never have contained the riches found in the modern genre.I suppose I have to be glad it developed as it did.

    1. I’m not sure I would have cared about the history of science fiction as much if it hadn’t been for the magazines. And I’m not sure fandom would have developed in the same way either.

  3. It seems hard to overstate Pohl’s influence on SF, all things considered. He might very well have been more important than Campbell in the long run but where Campbell was considered revolutionary, Pohl is seen as more evolutionary. Or maybe it’s just that Campbell spent a lot of time speaking from the pulpit while Pohl was quietly working behind the scenes to shape the course of the field.

      1. I wasn’t a big fan of Rosheim’s book, which is somewhat similar to Alva Rogers’s book about ASTOUNDING. The best books on as well as drawing from GALAXY and IF are the two annotated anthologies Frederik Pohl, MH Greenberg and Joseph Olander put together for Playboy Press (the first) and Bluejay Books (the second).


        1. I rea;;u like the Rosheim book. I love that it’s going issue by issue. Since I have all the issues on my computer/tablet, I can just call up the stories as he writes about them.

  4. I highly recommend GALAXY MAGAZINE: THE DARK AND THE LIGHT YEARS by David L. Rosheim. Like you, I was a big fan of GALAXY in the 1960s and 1970s. I went back and bought all the issues of GALAXY from the 1950s and read them. I read THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS when it was first published. I probably need to reread it after reading your excellent review!

    1. Too many books get written about Astounding and John W. Campbell. We need more books about Galaxy, F&SF, and even Asimov’s. I’d also love to read a book about Ballantine Books and Ace Books, and their impact on science fiction. Another publishing history that would be fun to read would be the history of the Science Fiction Book Club. I’d also like to read about Cele Goldsmith and Ted White and their efforts at Amazing and Fantastic.

        1. I’ve read that post before about Cele Goldsmith, but it was nice to see it again. When I first started collecting the SF digests in the 1960s, she had just left Amazing/Fantastic but most of the used copies I found were from her era. I wish I still had all those old magazines I once collected.

  5. Wow

    Now I am going to have to find Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years. But I am happy to know it exists. I agree, I have read lots about Astounding, but I would like to know more about the paperbacks and the digests.


    1. Thanks, that series is something I find very useful at the moment. Both Pohl and Knight mentioned at one time there were 38 SF magazines on the newsstand. I want to make a list of them. Can you confirm that number?

    1. You’re trying to make me go broke Todd! However, I bought the two-volume history of New Worlds just now on Kindle. Have you read Vultures of the Void: The Legacy by Philip Harbottle? It’s another history of British SF magazines. And you haven’t mentioned Mike Ashley’s 4-volume history of the SF magazines. I’ve got three of them. The 4th volume is too expensive.

  6. I’m reading this book right now! It’s available as ebook from Baen. Anyway, I’m really enjoying it. It’s such a special time, as fandom was being born. Pohl, apart from being a great SF writer, did all and lived through all, as a professional and as a fan. I’d be interested to know if you have other recommendations about the history of SF and of fandom. I have also read I, Asimov, which I loved, and I’m not sure if it’s worth looking for his older books of memories or if it’s all included in I, Asimov.

    1. Right after I read the Pohl book I read The Futurians by Damon Knight. If you just want fan histories, there is also All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner Jr. and The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz. If you want author biographies there are tons of them. The latest is Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee which is a kind of bestseller about John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard. There are also histories of science fiction magazines. A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers, Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke, which gives a lot of Clarke bio info too, and The Dark and the Light Years about Galaxy Magazine. However, I highly recommend reading The Futurians next because you get to see other people’s side of the stories Pohl tells.

      1. The Ashley books are indeed very useful, and Liverpool University Press is doing their level best to make all their books Not Sell by pricing them exorbitantly. (I was lucky to be able to replace my borrowed/not-returned copy of Joanna Russ’s THE COUNTRY YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN for a reasonable price used, also a useful book among those we discuss here, as is her MAGIC MOMMAS, TREMBLING SISTERS, PURITANS AND PERVERTS, which has one of the first essays exploring the “slash”/fannish erotica phenomenon that grew up, so to speak, around Kirk/Spock fiction originally.) I still need to Go Look for and at the Harboottle.

        I. ASIMOV is the update and continuation, with less detail and some slightly different takes on the earlier data, by a man who knew he was dying and was writing in part to deal with and ameliorate the fact he knew he was dying. There are certainly items of interest, including he differing takes on events, in reading the two-volume autobiography as well.

        There are so many books also to cite that I might’ve missed previous mention of, as I’ve been busy and offline, which at least touch on fandom, such as Ursula Le Guin’s essay collections, and Jack Williamson’s memoir WONDER’S CHILD…

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