Way the Future Was, The by Pohl, Frederik, 1978

Way the Future Was, The by Pohl, Frederik

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From writer to editor, publisher to agent, and serial matrimonialist to card-carrying communist, Frederik Pohl's life and career have waxed and waned with the same arcs of fate that have struck the fortunes of our genre. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Pohl was brought up with the genre, and more than any of the other architect's of SF, save maybe for John Campbell, he has done more to define the genre as we all know and love it today. His memoir The Way the Future Was is this week's selection. It tells Pohl's story from his early encounter with SF in the very late twenties up until the mid-1970's. This autobiography is to the history of SF editorship what Harry Warner, Jr's excellent All Our Yesterdays was to the history of fandom, but donít make the mistake of assuming that Pohl ignored fandom at all. Read together the two volumes tell almost a complete story of the building of the genre from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback began publishing Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine dedicated exclusively to SF. Pohl's portion this tale should not be missed. Four out of five stars.

I have heard that Pohl is a very polite and self-assuming man, and I must say that after reading his autobiography, it certainly seems that he was that way. Pohl is one of those odd men who does not seem very pushy, but worked so hard during his career at whatever he was up to that he seemed to make things happen for himself with some regularity. He was a boy-prodigy, having gotten his first editor-in-chief position at the tender young age of nineteen and for two publications no less.

I look at those old magazines now and my fingers itch; I want to pick up the telephone and dial 1-9-4-0 and tell that kid what to do. It was an easy time to be an editor. With what I know now I could have made those magazines sing.

That makes me long for the past, even if I was not alive in 1940. The bulk of the book is about the his swings in success as a pulp editor and the economic factors that took drastic tolls on the industry three or four times before he gave it up in the late seventies, including the Depression, WWII, paper shortages, government censorship, consolidation of periodical holding companies, and finally and most serious, the corporate raid of the largest magazine distributor in the country. Pohl has a few important insights on the other major editors of his time including Gernsback, Campbell, Donald A. Wollheim, Sam Moskowitz, and many others. Pohl also gives a good primer on the structure of east coast fandom in the thirties and forties, and explains well how it morphed into the professional groups that edited books and magazines for decades to come (according to Stableford Forest J. Ackerman in California and Sam Moskowitz may have had more to do with this than Pohl). Particularly interesting was Pohl's take on The Futurians, and its demise. That group, with quite a bit of controversy, put together the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City. According to James Gunn a controversy developed over The Futurians acceptance of communist and an almost open warfare developed between The Futurians and other fannish groups including the Newark and Flushing SF Leagues and others over who was to be invited and admitted. Oh! And for those of you who were wondering who the first convention cos-players were, it was Forest J. Ackerman and his companion, Morojo (and Esperanto acronym for her name "Myrtle R. Jones") who dressed as citizens of the 25th Century not at that convention, but at the competing one set up by The Futurians when the other groups usurped the con from them and threw them out.

Pohl does use the work as a platform to describe the ups and downs of his life and as interesting as they are, I think the real value of this work are the parts about he history of the genre. At the end of the day, I just do not care too much how many times Pohl was married, but I am very interested in how Asimov developed such a giant ego. His style is clear and easy to follow. Pohl made is very easy to follow and learn how the fan groups begat the fanzines, which begat the dedicated pulps, which strengthened the fan groups, which begat the conventions, which begat the paperback publishers, and so on and on until we have what we have today. And I'll probably be understating it here, but this genre has more than its fair share of characters. Communists and wife-swappers, drunks and the outspoken, The Futurians were ground zero for those who had writing skills back in the thirties and forties. Pohl brings these people to real-life in this book, and connects all the dots of those stories that you have heard over the years to paint a pretty complete picture of how these people put this genre on the map. And as polite and kind-hearted a man as Pohl comes off, he doesn't spare everyone the magnifying glass, especially several pulp hacks.

There are a number of fine writers who can't spell K-A-T cat, or punctuate the sentence, "Help!" But their lives are harder for that reason. A lot of writing is in bold strokes, and you can dictate that sort of thing into a machine if you like. But a lot is in nuance, too, ad if you don't know what is conventional you are clumsy and less effective at doing what is unconventional.

Pohl also really has an interesting take on being an editor, probably because he has done just about every other job under the sun.

An editor is a clearing house for pressures. The printers want their deadlines met. The publisher wants a profit. The writers want - oh, God, what do they not want? An audience. The perfect freedom to say whatever it is they want to say. Cosseting. Coddling. Respect. And money. The agents want money. (And their writers kept off their backs.) The distributors want a product that sells itself. The advertisers want customers. The readers want - well, everything; and no two of them want quite the same everything. The artists, the assistants, the space salesmen, the columnists, the local distributors, the convention committees, the pressure groupies - all of them want something, and there isn't enough of everything to go around, and it is usually the editor who has to grant this and withhold that, steal a day on a printing deadline so an author can finish his third installment, send a dollar more on a story and take it away from a cover artist, placate a reader who thinks there's too much smut in a story and calm down a writer who thinks too much of the smut has been edited out. I have said that all editors are crazy. Now you know why. The pressures precipitate psychosis, and any way, nobody but a crazy person would take a job like that in the first place, especially at pitiful money. Which is what most editors of science fiction magazines get.

But I loved it. I love it still.

Pohl's wide-eyed love for the whole of science fiction permeates this entire book. I love it, and I think you will too.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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