Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Best of Frederik Pohl

Prior to reading this collection of short stories (yet another in the delightful Ballantine/Del Rey "Best of" series from the mid-70s), I hadn't really thought of science fiction stories in categories based on the kind of plot they use. Of course, a lot of the sub-genres associated with science fiction, like space opera and planetary romance, are associated with specific plot developments, but what I'm talking about here is perhaps a different dimension. For instance, early science fiction often consisted of problem-solving stories: the protagonist finds himself in a dire situation which requires the use of both logic and outside-the-box thinking. This kind of story could fit into any sub-genre; one could see this taking place in a laboratory or on a spaceship, but the basic movement of the plot was the process by which the mystery/problem is solved. Think of John Campbell's classic "Who Goes There?" as an example. There's also the story of first contact, where one species first encounters another and tries to establish communication and/or survive. It could be argued that "Who Goes There?" is also a story of first contact, exemplifying how these story "types" can overlap.

What this collection of stories from the first half of Pohl's career exemplifies is the type of science fiction made famous by TV shows like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, what I've named in my mind "gotcha" stories. There's usually an air of suspense or mystery as something odd seems to be going on, and it all builds up to big reveal that is both shocking and astounding. To be sure, this kind of story exists in other genres (the delightful Flannery O'Connor comes to mind) but outside of Roald Dahl, who I really consider more a horror writer than a science fiction writer, I wasn't really aware of any authors who dealt so deeply with it (immediately as these words leave my fingertips, I am reminded of the wonderful Richard Matheson, who practically made a career out of writing for Rod Serling's TV shows but of whose actual short stories I have read not at all). Pohl's "gotchas" are delightful and often exhilarating.

Perhaps the best example is the first short story in the collection, "The Tunnel under the World," in which Guy Burckhardt awakens on June 15th, has a fairly typical day, goes to bed, and wakes up the next day, also June 15th. Immediately the reader knows something is wrong and part of the thrill is determining how the protagonist is going to figure that out as well. And when Burckhardt does figure out that something is wrong, hand-in-hand with the reader he tries to figure out what it is and resolve it. It just turns out that the issue at hand is much bigger than he could expect, and the story ends with three dramatic twists in short succession, with the last signifying a situation from which there is absolutely no recovery. As I finished "The Tunnel under the World" I fully expected Rod Serling to appear and soliloquize about someone's folly, and it turns out I am not the first to have such an idea. "The Tunnel under the World" was filmed by the BBC for a science fiction TV anthology of their own in the mid-60s, and if you're interested, it is even available on youtube. In many ways, this story is an archetypal science fiction short story—an extrapolation of technology, a short study of that technology's effects on society, social commentary on current society, and a suspenseful twisted ending that makes the reader consider more deeply all that went before. The Best of Frederik Pohl is worth reading for this story alone.

This is not to say that there aren't other strong stories in the collection as well. "The Midas Plague" has been long established as a classic tale of science fiction, and its simple conceit reveals itself fairly quickly to the reader: with the advent of robots, there is no longer a dearth of manufactured good, but a surplus, and it is the citizens' responsibility to consume rather than to conserve. "The Midas Plague" has more humor than "Tunnel" and yet the social commentary remains a potent component of the story, causing the reader to evaluate his or her own ideas of wealth and poverty before ending up with a solution that, it could be argued, is a trifle too tidy. Less science fictiony but with a similar theme is "Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus," which is a scathing commentary on the ever-lengthening Christmas season and how one family fights against it. The lesson in the story is still poignant today, which I find to be simultaneously ironic and uplifting since I had thought/hoped that the extension of Christmas shopping days into the fall (and even so far as September) was a fairly recent phenomenon.

Another "gotcha" story in the collection is the short-short "Punch." In it, Pohl muses upon the shortsightedness of human greed with morbid twists of black humor. In fact, if I had to distill a common theme for the short stories, that would be it—how greed, at least in the hands of a gifted storyteller, often turns back to bite its owner. These little moral lessons sometimes feel folksy, as in "The Richest Man in Levittown," or somewhat urbane, as in "The Martian in the Attic," but they all relieve what could otherwise be moralism with ironic humor.

One fascinating non-fiction piece included in the collection is "How to Count on Your Fingers," an introduction to the idea of binary and an elaboration on its ease of use, underscored by hints that it is how computers work so we should best learn to adapt, especially since it is so much easier than decimal. The two points that fascinated me is that I learned a great deal about binary arithmetic—things I was never taught in school when I was introduced to the idea of binary—and that the article was written in 1956, offering a fascinating view of computer science in the fifties.

Two other stories stand out for not falling into the pattern that I have described: "Day Million" imagines life in the very far future (the one millionth day AD, as it turns out) and offers a mainstream point of view on the New Wave of science fiction from the late 60s. To the uninitiated, seeing that the story was published in 1966, it should feel "out there" and reflective of the reputedly lax sexual mores of the time. But it really is a singular expression of many of the ideas of the new writers hitting the market in the mid- to late 60s, and is so different from the rest of the stories included that it would stand out anyway. Also of interest is "The Day the Icicle Works Closed," another story with a decidedly different "feel" than the rest because of its fairly serious subject matter and lack of humor. The story feels much more like noir detective fiction, with a down on his luck investigator taking on a hopeless case with dismal undertones. Once again human greed is somewhat the focus of the crime being investigated, but there is a serious science fiction bent that underlies the story, again asking questions about the potential use for technology.

All in all, The Best of Frederik Pohl is a fascinating study of science fiction and the works of the author. As one would hope, the anthology offers up a good may reasons to go looking for the longer work of Pohl, even if thematically, those longer works don't all focus on the same issues as this collection. But it is well worth finding and using as a signpost for where science fiction has been and where it thought it was going in the middle of the 20th century.

(Note--I'm trying a different font size; I fear that the small font may be too difficult to read for long periods)

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