According to an obituary a few days ago in the Washington Post, science fiction author Frederick Pohl died on 2 September, aged 93.
In junior high and high school, I read science fiction voraciously, and Frederick Pohl was one of my favorite authors (another was Frank Herbert, whom I have previously written about). The Post obituary describes his works as “sociological science fiction,” and that seems right. Although his books were what I would call “hard” SF, meaning they were real science-based rather than space opera, they were more concerned with the effects of space travel and future technology on human society and individuals than on the gee-whiz aspects of the technology itself.
His most famous books, which I read multiple times, were the Heechee saga. In these books, humans discover a hollowed-out asteroid where thousands of spaceships belonging to a long-dead alien race have been stored. After some tinkering, humans figure out how to make the ships fly, but are unable to interpret the controls to allow them to control the destinations. A few of the ships fly to resource-rich planets, but most end up at useless or dangerous spots. The adventurers who take these ships stand to earn vast fortunes, but only at the risk of death.
The first book in the saga, Gateway, concerns Robbie, a man who earned a great deal of money on a voyage on a Heechee ship, but at the cost of the life of his girlfriend, who was the love of his life. He escaped the ship only barely as it approached a black hole, while the other crew members didn’t make it. What makes it even more difficult is that he knows the other crew members aren’t dead yet–thanks to the odd (but true!) nature of extreme-gravity physics, time is ever-slowing for them as they approach the black hole, so while a decade has passed for him, only a few seconds have gone by for them. He worries that his girlfriend believes he betrayed them to escape, and the guilt from this haunts him. The book alternates chapters between his visits to a computer psychiatrist named Siegfrid and the action as it took place in the past. Over time, his psychiatric sessions help him come to terms with the tragedy.
As mind-blowing as his books were, the real reason I am writing about Frederick Pohl is that he once helped me with a school project! In the ninth grade (this would have been 1990), we had to write a long report on America. I forget the exact parameters of the report, but it was open-ended enough that for my topic I chose “America in the Year 2020.” As part of my research, I wrote to a number of people about what they thought America would be like in 30 years.
One of the people to whom I sent a letter was Frederick Pohl, who wrote back with a well-thought out response. His view was that the main challenge facing Americans in the future was the environment, and the stress the American way of life placed on the natural ecology. What a thrill it was to hear from a man I much admired! I still have the letter to this day. I might also add, I received an “A” on the paper.
Good-bye to a fine author, and one who was admirably generous with his time for a fan who asked for his help. Though it’s been twenty years since I’ve read a book by Frederick Pohl, his works have been a huge influence on me. I can only hope some bit of his classiness has rubbed off on me as well.