The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl

The Way the Future Was by Frederik PohlI’ve been sitting here trying to write a review for this book and I keep typing small inanities and facts about Frederik Pohl. The simple truth is that he was an amazing, flawed, powerful human being — much like all of us. If you want to know more about him the internet has more information than you probably want to know.

We have an interesting relationship with death and dying here in Western culture. When a famous person dies it can feel very personal to people who have never met the deceased. The recent death of Robin Williams is only one example of this where millions of people mourned for a man they did not know.

I have had this same experience on occasion where people who I admired or respected passed away and I found suddenly that they meant more to me than I had known. The passing or Robert Jordan — even though I had not read any of his books in nearly ten years because of sheer exasperation — left me feeling cold and saddened. I’ve documented here on this blog how I felt when Steve Jobs left the world.

These experiences are fascinating to me because of the depth of emotion tied to a person I have not met.

Frederik Pohl was one of these. I have only ever read two of his novel and none of his short fiction that I remember. I did not care for his writing, particularly. I read his blog a great deal a few years ago when he was writing about his experiences with other great legends of science fiction but stopped when he moved onto political commentary. Then in 2013, during the weekend of the Hugo Award announcements he passed away. It wasn’t particularly surprising — he was well over ninety and had smoked constantly for decades — but it left me wondering about this man who had such a profound effect on much of the science fiction that we take for granted now.

I actually felt saddened by his passing, like there was a hole in the universe.

People always become big fans of the work of deceased artist, it’s like a cultural reflex of respect. It doesn’t last, people have short memories. I’m still not a fan of Pohl’s fiction. I’m not even interested in reading much of it — though I admit some of it sounds interesting.

I am a fan of Pohl as an editor (he brought us so many authors who would be complete unknowns if not for him) and as a lifelong fan of a field that has changed so much since it’s inception that it is almost unrecognizable. When Pohl started editing science fiction stories iPads and ebook readers weren’t even imaginable devices and now they are almost ubiquitous with our society.

I read The Way the Future Was because Frederik Pohl had just passed away and I felt saddened by the fact that I had missed the opportunity to meet this powerful figure. I finished the book because Pohl tells an honest account of his past, the good and the bad, and he does it with such ease that he becomes an approachable councillor, a wizard explaining his mistakes and foibles and his powerful successes for a younger generation.

The book is a little outdated, it was written in the seventies when Pohl had only lived half of his life, but it feels relevant because he is writing about the past. At the end he says that the best place to end a story is with a wedding or a funeral but he doesn’t have either one; it feels almost bittersweet to know that he would live another forty years but also to know that now he is gone and his story is done.

This is a good book, if you can find it, for anybody who is interested in a tiny sub-culture of American history.

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