Reviews: Pohl, Frederik

Me, Myself and I

Farthest Star — Frederik Pohl & Jack Williamson
Cuckoo, book 1

Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson’s 1975 Farthest Star is the first novel in the Cuckoo duology, which was a fixup of the 1973 novella Doomship (1973) and the 1974 serial The Org’s Egg,

Farthest Star is an example of the Big Dumb Object school of science fiction. This makes it cousin to such classics as Ringworld, Rendezvous with Rama , and Orbitsville, as well as to books like The Wanderer .

By the late 21 st century, humans have made contact with a loose association of alien civilizations. These civilizations are linked, not by physical spacecraft, but by near-instantaneous tachyon communication. Tachyon beams carry information; they cannot transmit matter, but material objects can be scanned., That information can then be transmitted by the tachyon transporter, to be duplicated at a distant location 1. This tech has allowed humans to join the association and travel, as copies, to other worlds.

What if the traveller dies? Run off another copy. Or another dozen copies. Just ask the ill-fated Ben Pertin.

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Marge Menninger’s Brave New World

Jem — Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl’s 1979 standalone novel Jem was one of my favourite Pohl books. I think it still has its strengths. “Aging gracefully” is not one of them, but perhaps the thick drifts of zeerust that festoon the novel can serve as a warning to modern writers.

It’s … well, the year isn’t exactly clear but

Handsome, hoary old Carl Sagan [looked] like a spry octogenarian instead of whatever incredible age he really was

so it’s at least set in 2024, possibly later1.

In some ways the 21st century is surprisingly familiar. It is plagued with the same energy and population concerns as the 1970s, albeit on a much larger scale—enough to have forced the world to abandon ideological alliances in favour of resource-based blocs. In other ways it is dramatically different: this is a world with functioning, if extremely expensive, faster than light travel.

It is also a world where nuclear proliferation has continued without check, which is good, because the possibility of nuclear Armageddon means there is a limit to international aggression (despite the pressures of population bomb and resource depletion). Petty harassment like sabotage and assassinations is OK, but nobody is stupid enough to push past the limits of the endless cold war because to do so is to risk the end of everything.

At least, that’s the theory.


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Orogeny

Jupiter — Carol Pohl & Frederik Pohl

The 1960s and 1970s were an exciting time for science and SF. Robotic probes had given humanity its first close up look at the worlds of our solar system: Lunar farside in 1959, Venus in 1962, Mars in 1965, Jupiter in 1973, Mercury in 1974 and Saturn in 1979 (the other worlds would have to wait until the 1980s). The flood of increasingly detailed information about the worlds of our solar system gave rise to a short-lived genre, one that it existed in the tension between how SF had imagined the neighbour worlds to be and what our space probes were revealing.

Carol and Frederik Pohl’s 1973 anthology, Jupiter, is perhaps my favourite exemplar of that mayfly genre. It is filled with classic SF stories, most of which had been published between the 1930s and the 1950s (1971’s “A Meeting with Medusa” is the outlier). All these stories doomed to obsolescence thanks to human ingenuity [1]. However, they still make good reading, for the most part.



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Flawed but intriguing

The Starchild Trilogy — Jack Williamson & Frederik Pohl

1977’s The Starchild Trilogy collects the three short novels of the eponymous trilogy by Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. I cannot say the novels are actually any good—in fact, I will be devoting a certain amount of space to pointing out the ways that they aren’t—but they certainly are odd and they do offer a remarkable level of wacky fun.

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