The Early Pohl by Frederick Pohl (book review).

Inspired by his fellow Futurian’s book ‘The Early Asimov’, Fred Pohl persuaded publisher Doubleday to let him do the same thing but more modestly. Asimov’s large tome runs to several hundred pages and had to be divided into three for paperback publication. ‘The Early Pohl’ is just over 180 pages but contains the same mix of old stories interspersed with autobiography which is better than the stories.

With the exception of a few collaborations, young Fred Pohl didn’t do well at getting his early work published but finally managed to get a job as editor of ‘Super Science Stories’ on a paltry salary. Then he could publish them himself. In effect, this is self-publishing but the stories are no worse than the other fillers in the bad magazines of that era. He published them under pseudonyms because it seemed romantic at the time. I’ll give the publication dates for the benefit of historians.

The stories aren’t great but they are entertaining. ‘The Dweller In The Ice’ which appeared under his usual pseudonym James MacCreigh (Super Science Stories, Jan 1941) is about a monster in a mine. I liked the Hormone Salts workers use to keep their body temperature high. The monster is interesting in a half-baked kind of way and the attitudes of the time shine through in the dialogue: ‘A woman is trained to cling to a man.

Those old favourites Venusian swamp men feature in ‘The King’s Eye’ (Astonishing Stories, Feb 1941). Chester Wing and Farrel Henderson crash-land on our neighbouring planet where humans are not welcome since outlaws stole a jewel. As the story opens, they are playing cards and Farrel’s skill at sleight of hand is introduced. It will crop up later. While not a masterpiece, this yarn does demonstrate basic construction skills such as introducing character names early.

Like young Silverberg, Pohl decided that hacking out filler material was not sufficiently ambitious and tried to write better stories. His first example of this is ‘It’s A Young World’ (Astonishing Stories, April 1941) in which primitive tribes compete and kill each other in a forest setting. When Keefe breaks the tribe’s rules to save a friend from a terrible death, he is exiled and chased. His escape route takes him to new places where he discovers the truth about his world. It’s an adventure yarn with a hint of the philosophy that underpins Robert Heinlein’s story ‘Universe’.

‘Daughters Of Eternity’ (Astonishing Stories, Feb 1942) is about a peace conference between the Earth-Mars-Venus alliance and the Oberonians. In an echo of the time it was written, the Oberonians regard themselves as a Master Race and are keen on war. Also at the conference are the Amonnia men of Jupiter and Saturn and metal delegates from the Robot Republic. It’s okay but technically flawed because the narrator is not the one who solves the crisis. As with all the previous stories in this volume, Pohl bought it off himself in his capacity as editor.

In ‘Earth, Farewell’ (Astonishing Stories, Feb. 1943) the rational, sane beings Others have taken control of Earth and ended international disputes, along with ‘the absurdity of democracy’. Once a year, they take a select group intelligent, healthy specimens of four best men and four best women to their home planet for training. Here the theme is cultural conditioning. Apart from some pulpish overtones: ‘He lipped a word to the pilot’, it’s a good story. At this stage, Pohl worked as a reader for ‘Astonishing’ but didn’t have any say over acceptance so the boss bought this. The rest of the stories here were also sold to someone other than himself.

There is pulp writing in ‘Conspiracy On Callisto’ which appeared in ‘Planet Stories’, Winter 1943: ‘Don’t be a fool,’ he grated. James Blish had not yet written his essay damning all said substitutes. The conspiracy of the title involves the crooked Governor of Callisto, a former penal colony and a dashing hero who loses his memory. As an adventure story, it’s fine.

I like corny old stories like these. The emphasis is on the adventure and the sense of wonder, not on character or literary style. The autobiographical pieces about the life of a struggling young writer in the early years of the burgeoning SF field are interesting, too, and probably the main reason for buying this kind of book. If like me, you loved ‘The Early Asimov’ and ‘In The Beginning’ by Robert Silverberg, then this will be your kind of thing. Hard to get but not impossible.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2018

(pub: Doubleday & Company, Inc. First American Edition, 1976. 183 page hardback. Price: around £ 0.01 for a second hand copy. ISBN: 978-0-38511-014-3)

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