Legendary science-fiction author Frederik Pohl is 91 years old and uses a wheelchair to get around his home in suburban Palatine. Degenerative nerve damage cost him the use of his right arm about six years ago, so he taught himself to type with just his left. In effect, he writes with one hand tied behind his back. But he writes.
Pohl’s latest novel came out this week. All the Lives He Led (Tor Books) is set in 2079, 17 years after a monstrous volcanic eruption in Yellowstone National Park has buried much of North America in ash and sent the U.S. reeling into third-world status. It’s also the 2,000th anniversary of the famous and destructive eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Having “realized that they could make a pot of money,” the Italian government is throwing L’Anno Giubileo della Citta de Pompeii, or the Pompeii Jubilee, among the ruins.
Pohl says he got the idea for the novel in 1991, when visiting Pompeii with his wife, Betty. He’s a self-taught expert on ancient Rome, having written a long-out-of-print biography—as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica entry—on Emperor Tiberius. (He says he was recently asked to rewrite the entry, but found the assignment “comical. Nothing much has changed.”) Replete with a forum and arena, slave-borne litter rides, gladiatorial spectacles, and dinner parties that end with the inevitable vomiting, the jubilee is staffed by “virts”—virtual-reality Romans and slaves—and “indentureds”: honest-to-god poor folk from Myanmar, Ghana, America, and other ruined parts of the world, who’ve sold themselves into bondage.
Among the latter is Brad Sheridan, a ratty little hustler from a refugee village on Staten Island. Sheridan’s grunt job reenacting ancient times puts him on a collision course with modernity in the form a terrorist group. But which one? The Crusaders for the True Bishop of Rome, who bombed the Sistine Chapel? Or the perpetrators of the Unborn Babies Are Worth More Than Living Sinners attack, which left the Empire State building a stump? Eh, there’s plenty of Islamist groups running around, too, like the Sudanese who pulled a doozy at the Siwa oasis in Egypt.
A theme park built around a catastrophe is the sort of satirical gesture that won Pohl his first fame in 1953, with the hardbound publication of The Space Merchants, one of several novels he wrote with longtime friend Cyril Kornbluth. In a 1960 study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis said The Space Merchants “has many claims to being the best science-fiction novel so far”—an endorsement that seems all the more significant when you consider the works Pohl and Kornbluth had to elbow out of the way to catch Amis’s attention. Sci-fi scholar Gary K. Wolfe, who teaches at Roosevelt University, points out via e-mail that 1953 was a boom year for the field, which saw the publication of “not only The Space Merchants, but Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, Bester’s The Demolished Man (which won the first Hugo Award), Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes . . . etc., etc.”
“The Space Merchants had a triple whammy,” Pohl says, also by e-mail. It was the “first novel for either of us, first fiction to bear my real name, and first big success for either of us. Good sales, would have been even better if the publisher hadn’t been having his own troubles; great reviews, and a lot of them; and we sold the film rights for $50,000, which seemed like all the money in the world at the time. . . . After that we were a good brand name, Cyril and I, but as a team. I wouldn’t say I developed a really significant following of my own until Gateway”—the first volume of Pohl’s series about the Heechee, a lost race of interstellar travelers. Published in 1977, it won him a slew of awards, including his own Hugo.
A native New Yorker, Pohl moved to Palatine in 1984, after marrying Betty—aka Elizabeth Anne Hull, emerita professor at Harper College, where she taught sci-fi. The couple met at the 1978 World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City. As Pohl tells it, “I was attracted to this great looking, very smart blonde, but I thought from looking at her that she was about 19 and I had a rule against robbing the cradle. Later, I found out that she had a 19-year-old daughter, so I could hit on her with a clear conscience.”
Since 2009 Pohl’s been cranking out a blog, thewaythefutureblogs.com, with the help of computer consultant Dick Smith (to whom All the Lives He Led is dedicated) and writer-editor Leah Zeldes. The name is a play on The Way the Future Was, the title of Pohl’s 1978 autobiography, and the content comprises a hodgepodge of reminiscences about sci-fi writers he’s known—and after 70 years in the business as writer, editor, and literary agent, he’s known them all—and the publishing business, along with oddball items on shrimp farming or whatever else he’s trained his mind on. Last year it brought Pohl a Hugo for best sci-fi blog.
For the past few weeks the blog has been reprinting the transcript of a talk Pohl and Alfred Bester gave in England 33 years ago. But it flamed up a bit in November 2010, when Pohl began writing about a new biography of Kornbluth by Mark Rich (whose other works include 100 Greatest Baby Boomer Toys), describing it as “a book I wholly and totally despise about a person I loved a lot.” Of C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, Pohl wrote, “For reasons not known to me, Mark Rich hates me. . . . According to Rich’s book, Cyril was the heavy lifter in our collaborations and indeed writing work of all kinds at every point. When, rarely, I was entrusted with an important task to do by myself, in Rich’s opinion, I really did serious harm to the work.”
In New Maps of Hell, Amis calls Kornbluth “a prolific and competent author,” praises Pohl more glowingly, and leaves to others “the final determination of which partner is responsible for which scenes.” Roosevelt’s Wolfe comments in his e-mail that “Rich published a very well documented biography of Kornbluth, which Fred thought portrayed him (Fred) in a very unfair and unfavorable light. He blogged about it quite a bit at the time, and it’s safe to say that the nature of that collaboration as portrayed in Rich’s book is quite different from the way Fred has written about it. . . . It’s likely to remain a question that no one wants to dig into too deeply.”
While he waits for the digging to begin, Pohl is still thinking about the past and the future simultaneously. He’s working on a sequel to his memoir—and also on another novel, tentatively titled Sweet Home and set 700 years in the future, when the effects of global warming have ravaged the planet. Pohl e-mails, “We human beings live on a knife edge of disaster, which people hear about and then manage to forget. I take to be my duty to remind them from time to time. Bests, fred.”