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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

The mind of a sci-fi master

Platinum Pohl The Collected Best Stories Frederik Pohl Tor Books: 464 pp. $27.95

August 11, 2006|James Sallis | Special to The Times

MUCH of science fiction's power derives from its great two-chambered heart. On one hand, it attempts a species of hyper-realism, grappling with the world as it is by exaggeration and anticipation. On the other, it taps directly into the hard-wiring of our brain, reaching down to that pool of shadow figures and archetypes from which our folk tales and fantasies issue.

It is also a genre with its feet in the mud of storytelling and its eyes on the stars (often quite literally). Science fiction yearns to tell a rip-roaring story while at the same time being visionary. This push-pull of commercialism and its pulp tradition with the literary, prophetic and fabulist has long defined, in some respects limited and yet continually re-energized the genre.

All literature builds on what came before but in science fiction, the legacy is far more patent. Readers turning the pages of, say, Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" will at some level recall Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles," Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey," perhaps even Robert A. Heinlein's "Red Planet"; all become the story's pedigree.

Frederik Pohl is an integral part of the scrim on which modern science fiction goes about its business.

Born in 1919, Pohl belongs to a generation of classic science fiction practitioners, an editor and writer who not only witnessed science fiction's maturation but also did his fair share in changing the baby's diapers and teaching it to ride that first bike. Committed to realism in form, to satire and speculative extrapolation in content, he has produced groundbreaking magazines and anthologies, served as book editor for major publishers and written several dozen novels, including such classics as "Gateway" and "Drunkard's Walk," along with hundreds of stories, 30 of which have been collected in the new book "Platinum Pohl."

Written in the years from 1949 to 1996, these tales of dull Martians needing a PR spin, carnivals dedicated to population reduction, alien invasions gone comically wrong and imaginings of a far distant future are a diorama of the interior of Pohl's mind.

Most of us first think of Pohl as a dark humorist and satirist in the Swiftian mode for such tales as "The Space Merchants" and "Gladiator-at-Law" (both written with the brilliant, too-little-appreciated C.M. Kornbluth). Pohl is equally at home, however, with a high comic tale about the guy who teaches spaceship pilots ("The High Test"), societal extrapolation on his native Brooklyn ("The Greening of Bed-Stuy"), portraits of futuristic prisons ("My Lady Green Sleeves"), politics ("Servant of the People"), meditations on the nature of genius ("To See Another Mountain") and stories tracking the impact of miraculous events upon small lives ("Some Joys Under the Star").

Readers would do well to start with one very long story about mankind's future, "The Gold at Starbow's End" -- there's nothing quite like it anywhere -- or a very short one, "Day Million," a beautiful and perfectly formed miniature. Then perhaps move on to "Waiting for the Olympians" to see strands from a writer's life twined into the barbed wire of alternate history.

Pohl's characters are people on the edge -- of society, of their world, of disaster, of time -- people shoved to the margins who then volunteer for the arena. His stories are well-crafted machines that do precisely -- with no waste of motion, and indeed with something very like elegance -- just what they were built for. As a fellow writer, I read him with a twofold reaction: admiration and despondency. He is, again and again, always and apparently effortlessly, that good.

James Sallis is the author of the Lew Griffin mysteries and of the novels "Cypress Grove," "Drive" and, most recently, "Cripple Creek."

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