In honor of the memory of SciFi legend Frederik Pohl, we are rerunning the interview our contributor Bryan Camp conducted with Pohl and his wife Elizabeth Anne Hull.
Pohl passed away yesterday, September 2. More information on his passing can be found here. This interview was originally published in October 2011.
We are honored that SciFi writer Frederik Pohl and his equally talented wife Elizabeth Anne Hull stopped by for a brief chat. Any good SciFi fan worth his salt knows that Pohl is a legendary writer who has maintained a seventy-plus year career, spanning 1937’s “Elegy to a Dead Planet: Luna,” to his most recent novel, All the Lives He Led(2011). He won the National Book Award in 1980 for his novel Jem. Other well-known novels include The Space Merchants (written with Cyril M. Kornbluth) and Gateway. From about 1959 until 1969, Pohl edited Galaxy magazine and its sister magazine if, winning the Hugo Award for If three years in a row. His writing also won him four Hugos and multiple Nebula Awards. He became a Nebula Grand Master in 1993. Pohl won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer,based on his writing on his blog, “The Way the Future Blogs”.
Elizabeth Anne Hull served as president of the Science Fiction Research Association and editor of its newsletter. SFRA awarded her the Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service in 1997, and she has been a member of the panel for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel since 1986. For over ten years, she served as North American secretary for the World SF International Organization for Professionals. With Pohl, Hull Hull edited the international anthology Tales from the Planet Earth. She is editor of the 2010 anthology, Gateways: Original New Stories Inspired by Frederik Pohl.
Enjoy the review and be sure to check out our reviews of this dynamic pair’s most recent titles.
LS: There is a vast disparity between the bleak, terrorism-filled near future of and the space exploratory future of Man Plus. Is this simply a matter of a difference in tone between these two novels, or do you think your vision of our future has changed over time?
Pohl: The thing about science fiction is that we don’t write about THE future. Every story is about a possible future, exploring the things that MAY happen fifty, a hundred or a thousand years from now. I think the world described in Man Plus is possible, but if some events go one way rather than another we may be, equally possibly, stuck with the world written about in All the Lives He Lived.
LS: What innovation or discovery of the past hundred years do you consider to be the most beneficial to mankind?
Pohl: All the combined discoveries in the field of what some call biophysics—that is, the tremendous increase in our knowledge of how the human body works, so that we can intervene when necessary to correct things that have gone wrong in even the lowest and most obscure levels. Certainly we’ve got a long way still to go. But don’t forget, little over a hundred years ago our knowledge was so limited that patients were often better off to stay away from doctors, as the “cures” could be worse than the diseases.
EAH: Maybe the discovery of birth control methods that work effectively. The first, in the first half of the 20th century was the diaphragm and jelly method, (which worked very well when it was used), but it was certainly improved by the pills, IUDs, etc. of the sixties and beyond. When women could legally and effectively control their reproductivity, they benefited all humanity by being able to plan their lives and become truly productive to every part of the world’s economy. Women are just at the beginning of true global political power, and I see that as potentially a boon for all humanity.
LS: Many of our readers are interested in writing. Can you suggest a few under appreciated novels or writers that a burgeoning science-fiction writer ought to read?
Pohl: Read anything by Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, Ursula Le Guin. If current writers are too much of a culture shock to you, go back and read any of the stories in the volume, Seven Famous Novels, by H. G. Wells.
EAH: The whole body of work by Sheri Tepper is underappreciated. She is one of the women who are feminists, but not extremists. My favorite novel of hers is The Fresco (2000). Another often overlooked writer is the Kenyon College biologist, Joan Slonczewski, whose second novel The Door Into Ocean was called (by James Gunn) a mirror image of the far more famous Dune by Frank Herbert. Her latest, The Highest Frontier, is amazingly complex and thought-provoking.
LS: What scientific topic are you currently most interested in?
Pohl: Basically, I’m interested in all of them. We’re learning so much new stuff about the human body in all is manifestations, about the physical world we live in, about the great outside universe—or universes!—and about almost every other subject I can think of that we are approaching a useful understanding of how the world works in all its parts. Again, we’ve got a long way to go—and getting there isn’t helped by the people that want to keep students dumbed down about such fundamentally important concepts as evolution—but they can’t keep young people ignorant forever.
LS: You’ve had successful careers as a writer, an agent, and an editor. Can you discuss the unique difficulties and rewards of these different roles?
Pohl: Being an editor, I have compared to giving some one like me the world’s grooviest set of model trains. You get to find, and help along, previously unpublished writers, as I did with, for instance, Larry Niven and turn a struggling writer into a million-copy best-seller, as I did with Samuel R. Delany. That’s fun. But being a writer gives me more freedom to explore subjects other writers haven’t yet discovered . . . and I don’t have to go to an office!
LS: What question do you hope to hear in an interview, but are seldom — or never — asked?
Pohl: Oh, almost any question that I haven’t thought of before. A wonderful thing about an occasional interview is that once in a while I get asked a question I haven’t already thought of, and that—rarely, but sometimes—helps me think about matters that have never occurred to me before. That’s a good experience, and I treasure it.
EAH: If I knew what that question would be, I would be prescient. I always hope that I will be quoted accurately, which I’m sorry to say doesn’t always happen. The worst is when my words are so twisted or taken out of context that I appear to be saying something diametrically opposed to what I meant.
LS: Do you think your approach to science-fiction is, as an academic, different from that of a fiction writer?
EAH: Probably, at least, somewhat different, even though I occasionally have written some science fiction myself. But I do think if I have to make a choice between a well told story and a well written one, I would choose the former. Fortunately, there are plenty of stories and novels that are both well told and well written. Unlike teachers of K-12, as a college professor I always had the academic freedom (and responsibility as a Professor) to choose the material I judged worthy to teach. I believe writers and teachers share this: we write or teach as well as we know how to, no matter how much or little we are paid to do so.
LS: If you had to choose one or the other, would you say your vision of the future is ultimately hopeful, or pessimistic?
EAH: I’m ultimately an optimist. For years I’ve said that an overview of humanity from the beginnings of history, will show that we are becoming more civil and humane to one another, more aware of ourselves as social creatures who could not survive as individuals without other people. The human baby is born quite helpless, so we imprint preverbally on our dependence on others for a very long time compared to most other animals. I am happy to see Harvard University’s cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature confirms my opinion. He acknowledges that we have a dark side as well as a good side, but he feels that there is cause for hope, despite the sometimes bleak pictures we face in the world today. Science Fiction, better than almost any other simpler mainstream fiction, can help us “try on” future outcomes of our actions in the present, and it plays a large part in inspiring us toward our better natures.
LS: What is the greatest challenge currently facing humanity?
Pohl: The greatest challenge facing the human race is learning restraint. We can do tremendous things to this world we live in, and we’ve doing them for hundreds of thousands of years, since the first farmers learned ways of reshaping the earth, first in small ways and then in huge ones, to increase their crops. The current result is that our activities are turning important parts of our planet into territories that no longer generously support life. Our American Sun Belt states, for instance, from Texas to Southern California, are risking becoming pure desert, very like the Sahara. We know precisely what causes this. It is increasing amounts of such gases as carbon dioxide and methane, slowly—and now, not so slowly—warming the Earth’s atmosphere. But have you heard a single one of our would-be candidates for President even mention this problem, much less undertake to try to do something about it?