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.

JWH