On Monday, September 2nd, 2013, one of the last remaining great figures in the science fiction genre passed away. Frederik Pohl was 93 years old, with a long and distinguished career writing, selling and editing science-fiction stories. Last year, the Library of America honored Pohl by republishing one of his best-known novels, The Space Merchants, in their American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956. First released in 1953, Pohl and co-author C.M. Kornbluth’s first collaborative novel holds up just as well today as in the middle of the 20th century.
Frederik Pohl had been a founding member of the Futurian Society in Queens, N.Y., along with Donald Wollheim and other notable figures in the genre. The members of the society worked closely with one another, and it was here that Pohl met Cyril M. Kornbluth, a young author and fellow New Yorker with whom he would collaborate with closely over the coming years. The Futurians wrote, discussed and steadily improved their craft at the dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and many found work in the growing publishing industry in the city.
In the meantime, World War II loomed over Europe, and the United States found itself embroiled in the conflict. Pohl, working as an editor at the time, found that he was not allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army: His status included a dependency, and the quote for his area had been overfilled. Pohl felt guilty, but persisted, and eventually he was permitted to join the Army Air Corps in April of 1943. He completed basic training in Florida before being shipped to Illinois, where he then trained as a weatherman, and was surprised to find fellow science fiction author Jack Williamson stationed there. While in Illinois, Pohl maintained his contacts in the science fiction field, meeting Amazing Stories’ new editor, Raymond A. Palmer, and continued to write in his spare time. After several more transfers to Oklahoma and Colorado, Pohl was deployed to Italy, where he was assigned to the 456th Bombardment Group in December 1943. Arriving in a war zone, he was unprepared for the destruction that had devastated Italy, and almost immediately faced two major personal crises: His wife filed for divorce and his mother died shortly thereafter. To take his mind off of his homesickness for the U.S., Pohl began to write, settling on a plot about the advertising industry in his home city. The result was a self-described “long, complicated, and very bad novel,” titled For Some We Loved. He then set the work aside, and focused on his job during the duration of the war.
While Pohl joined the U.S. Air Corps, C.M. Kornbluth was drafted and put to work with an artillery unit as a machinist, in part due to his poor health. He then applied for the Army Specialized Training Program, a program that provided a college education to prospective officers. He studied until the program was canceled, whereupon he found himself assigned to the Infantry. In December 1944, Kornbluth found himself in the midst of a massive German counterattack in Belgium, the Battle of the Bulge, as a member of a .50 caliber machine gun crew. He was wounded during the battle, where he earned a Bronze Star Medal and a severe case of hypertension. When the war ended, Kornbluth returned to the United States, where he attended the University of Chicago, but quit to become a journalist with a local wire service.
At the end of the war, Pohl likewise returned to the United States, now married to Dorothy LesTina, a First Lieutenant who had been performing for the troops. He was discharged in November of 1945, and the pair found themselves in New York City. By 1946, Pohl found work as a copywriter and continued to write science fiction. He and Dorothy parted ways in 1947, and by 1948, he had married fellow science fiction author Judith Merrill and became a literary agent. Pohl introduced Merrill to his friend Cyril, and the two of them collaborated on a novel together, mailing sections of their story to one another and eventually selling it to H.L. Gold’s Galaxy Magazine. In the summer of 1950, Pohl and Merrill took a vacation to the Ashokan Reservoir, where Pohl decided to revisit the novel he wrote in Italy, For Some We Loved. As he read it, he burned the entire manuscript and decided to start again from scratch a year later. Starting from the same premise, but from a science-fiction angle, he retitled the manuscript Fall Campaign. He worked on the book sporadically, when he found the time. In 1951, he mentioned the work to Gold, who told him that once the story was finished, he would print in in the magazine right after he finished serializing Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man. Pohl turned to his friend C.M. Kornbluth, who had recently returned to New York City. He showed him the beginnings of the story and his ideas for the rest of the plot, along with some input he received from fellow author Phil Klass. Intrigued by Pohl’s ideas, Kornbluth took the manuscript and rewrote the first 20,000 word section, adding a middle part to it. Together, they completed the story, and Pohl retyped the entire book for a final pass before submitting it to Gold for publication.
The story appeared in the June, July and August 1952 issues of Galaxy Magazine, titled The Gravy Planet, and depicted a satirical world in which society is run by advertising firms. In this dystopian setting, the story’s protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, a well-known copywriter, is kidnapped and stripped of his identity. He’s soon sent off to a work camp, where he comes to understand the world that had once been beneath him. In his editorial, Gold described the story in passionate terms: “Starting this month, Gravy Planet, by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth should also be a landmark in science fiction – it’s brilliant as a blaze in a fireworks factory, suspenseful as crossing Niagara Falls on a tight wire… The literary philosophy behind Gravy Planet is one I’m fond of: what would happen if any given situation is carried to the upmost extremes we are capable of imagining?….Galaxy is proud to present Gravy Planet.”
While the story was popular with readers, Pohl and Kornbluth had trouble finding a home for it with a book publisher, even with Pohl’s connections as an agent. Eventually, he was introduced to Ian Ballantine, who had set up a dedicated paperback publishing house called Ballantine Books, which had a particular interest in science fiction. Pohl showed Ballantine the novel, and it was soon accepted, retitled The Space Merchants and sent off to the printers.
The Space Merchants was a huge success for the pair. Pohl later noted that it was published in 25 different languages and that he sold the film rights for $50,000. CBS broadcasted the story as part of its “CBS Radio Workshop” program. The story was notable for its slick critical view of politics and the crass commercialism that defined the 1950s. It was favorably reviewed by a number of critics: Albert I. Berger noted that it was “truly innovative in its focus on the necessary interaction between the process of industrial production, to which social and political critics have long devoted attention, and the then relatively unexamined cultural artifacts and institutions like advertising and mass communications, which teach people how to make sense of the world.” In 1960, Kingsley Amis described the novel as having “many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far” in his work New Maps of Hell. The Space Merchants has had lasting appeal, as seen by its selection in the Library of America’s collection of science fiction novels, who described the book as “one of the genre’s great patterning works of social satire.”
Both authors would continue to write following the release of The Space Merchants. Kornbluth continued a bright streak in publishing before an untimely death just a few years later. Stresses from the war caught up with him, and while rushing to catch a train on March 21st, 1958, Kornbluth suffered a heart attack. Pohl eventually acquired a number of Kornbluth’s manuscripts and completed them. Pohl’s reworking of one of Kornbluth’s stories resulted in a Hugo Award for short story in 1973. Pohl eventually returned to the world of The Space Merchants in 1984 with a new novel, The Merchants’ War.
With Pohl’s death earlier this week, the last of a great generation of authors has left us. It’s fitting that he described science fiction as a way of life: “When I was ten years old, I began to read science fiction, when I was twelve, to write it. Ever since then it has been what I have done with my life, in one form or another: writer, editor, lecturer, occasionally teacher, always reader.”