Passings: Frederik Pohl, Bruce Murray and Iain Banks

IainBanksLast month, I lamented – as a science fiction writer and friend – the loss (amid his most productive and creative years) of the brilliant British author Iain Banks —  who wrote books such as Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games in his Culture Universe.

This month it is a double whammy, with the passing of my colleagues Frederik Pohl and Bruce Murray.

== Bruce Murray, Planetary scientist ==

BruceMurrayBruce Murray was not only a titan of planetary science and technological innovation, but also one of the most agile members of an agile generation. Under his leadership, Jet Propulsion Lab teams extended humanity’s reach and vision to distant worlds. More important, he kept the lab alive and vital at a time when every political wind seemed bent on destroying the American mission of deep-space exploration.

A brilliant scientist, he also served his civilization in realms of policy, and even art. He authored books such as Journey into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration. Bruce was among the first to grasp the potential of the World Wide Web to improve human conversation and his early “hyperforum” experiments (I was a founding member) still have not been matched. Above all, his legacy is found in generations of students and others who benefited from his guidance and example. The lesson that I draw from his life is that we are capable of being “many.”

Bruce Murray was the truest citizen of our renaissance.

==Frederik Pohl, Science Fiction great ==

PohlScience Fiction Grand Master Fred Pohl passed away on September 2, at age 93.

Beyond a personal sense of loss of a friend and colleague, I must note how tremendous was Fred’s influence on our field. He spent his long career both creating new worlds and helping others to do the same.  Both as a prolifically creative author and as an agent/editor who coaxed other authorial visions into life, Fred Pohl may be responsible for more new “universes” coming into being than any other mortal… a point we’ll return to, later.

Sure, they were all universes of the imagination — many of them so ephemeral that they only endured in human thought for the duration of a single monthly issue of Galaxy or If.  Others, like The Space Merchants  and Jem and Man Plus may actually divert the path of human destiny, as we modify our policies and creative ambitions, diverting them a little, because of warnings and thought-experiments erected by Frederik Pohl.

Space-merchantsI called Fred the “essential” science fiction author. In much the same way that the other “pole” of science fiction — Poul Anderson — was the greatest natural storyteller I ever knew, Fred Pohl was the SF writer who cared most about the gedankenexperiment or what-if thought experiment. Fred would start with a question: “what if ____?” and fill in some fascinating possibility. Only then the magic would ensue as he fleshed out a vivid world of possible consequences from that one whatif — consequences that might be good, bad, and weird, but always strikingly plausible.

gateway-PohlFred won the Hugo Award six times including the 1978 Hugo for Best Novel – “Gateway” – (the first Hugo I ever voted for). He tied for 1973 Best Short Story Hugo for “The Meeting;” and the 1986 Best Short Story Hugo for “Fermi and Frost.” Both can be found in his anthology, Platinum Pohl.

Wolfbane was one of the earliest SF novels I read, and at the time it certainly seemed the creepiest!  In contrast, some of his other works with Cyril Kornbluth, such as Gladiator at Law, though fun adventures, also helped spur  my lifelong habit of doubting all ends of the silly, nonsensical, so-called “left-right political axis.”  Provoking people to rethink their own assumptions — now that’s writing.

AgeOfPussyfootOne nearly forgotten Pohl book ought to tower high on any shrine of modern techno-visionary prophecy.  The Age of the Pussyfoot was one of the only science fiction stories of the fifties through seventies that envisioned computers becoming common household tools, owned and used, avidly, by nearly everybody.  In fact, to my knowledge it is just about the only work of prophetic fiction to foresee citizens carrying about portable, computerized assistants that would fulfill all the functions we now see gathering together in our futuristic cell phones. And you can bet I salivate for the even-better versions he foresaw.   Pohl’s “joymaker” device is as marvelous an on-target prediction as Jules Verne predicting submarines or trips to the Moon.

In The Cool War, Frederik Pohl showed a chillingly plausible failure mode for human civilization, one in which our nations and factions do not dare to wage open conflict, and so they settle upon tit-for-tat patterns of reciprocal sabotage, ruining each other’s infrastructures and economies, propelling our shared planet on a gradual death-spiral of lowered expectations and degraded hopes.  It is a cautionary tale that I cite often, and recommended reading for those at the top of our social order.

CoolWarI could go on and on, but let me just make a central point about a man who I am proud to call a colleague, in what may be the highest of all human professions….

Wait a minute.  Brin said what?  Oh, sure, readers of this book probably like science fiction.  But isn’t that taking things a bit too far, calling sci fi writing the highest profession? Well, in a profound irony that ought to amuse — or perhaps grate — the many atheists and agnostics who write SF, let me suggest that no other calling, not even that of monk or priest, has a greater claim to sacred status.

9780765301451_p0_v1_s260x420After all, what was purportedly God’s greatest act, other than creating the universe? And what do science fiction authors do, almost every day, but erect new worlds, and characters to inhabit them?

If a Father is proud of children who precociously try to pick up the parent’s tools and apprentice in His craft, then whose play is more likely to rouse a smile from the Big Creator?

Oh, sure, Fred Pohl could not parse Maxwell’s Equations very well and when he said “let there be light!” the incantation only flashed briefly, inside the heads of a few hundred thousand readers — a blaring supernova here, a slicing laser flash there, or else a brilliant insight into some small part of the human soul.  Sure, that’s small potatoes, on the cosmic scale of things.  On the other hand, it is a step.   And no human ever did it better.

BeyondBlueEventHorizonI suppose that is why I urged the great asteroid-hunter, Dr. Eleanor Helin, to pick a couple of her discoveries and name them after two of the greatest… those two “poles” of sci fi… Frederik Pohl (12284 Pohl) and Poul Anderson (7758 Poulanderson).  They are out there now… glittering hunks of rock and metal and precious frozen vapors.  Just waiting for our heirs to go out and – perhaps – mine those riches and turn them into wondrous things.  And when they do, I am sure they’ll hold another festschrifft in honor of the dreamers who helped to make it all so. Dreamers like Fred.

Fred is survived by his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull, who is a past president of the Science Fiction Research Association and a noted scholar in the field. His grandchildren include Canadian writer Emily Pohl-Weary and chef Tobias Pohl-Weary.

He will long be remembered.



Filed under science fiction, space

2 responses to “Passings: Frederik Pohl, Bruce Murray and Iain Banks

  1. “After all, what was purportedly God’s greatest act, other than creating the universe? And what do science fiction authors do, almost every day, but erect new worlds, and characters to inhabit them?”

    See Tolkien’s remarkable essay On Fairy Stories
    He called this ‘sub-creation’.
    The essay covers a LOT more ground than the title suggests, and it should be required reading for anyone creating SF or Fantasy worlds.

  2. Pingback: R.I.P. Frederick Pohl, the Last of the First Sci-Fi Guys | Miles To Go

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