Frederik Pohl

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event HorizonBeyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl was first published in 1980. This novel is the second in the Heechee series that begins with the well-known novel Gateway (1977). I read Gateway in 2012 and I really did not like it. I loved the cover that John Picacio did for Gateway, but as for the novel itself I was disappointed because the novel went places I did not appreciate. It does not take too long into the novel to realize Pohl is writing rather euphemistically and this earned him an unflattering nickname in my household that I will not share here. Needless to say, I was in no hurry to read the next in the series. In fact, at that time I did not actually think I ever would. Lately, I’ve been trying to get through some of the old “hanging on” novels, particularly “book twos.”

Having read none of the secondary literature regarding Gateway and just judging on my reading of the two books, I do not think Pohl intended (in 1977) to write a sequel or series.  However, this book (Beyond the Blue Event Horizon) is not that book (Gateway).  By this I mean that I suspect some readers who truly enjoyed Gateway will find that this second book is lacking in most of the elements that Gateway exhibited.  Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is written with a different tone – one of the most notable aspects of Gateway is its eerie and dismal atmosphere. It approaches a sort of horror mood.  The main character, Robinette Broadhead is detestable. Often there is depiction of a helpless/hopelessness in the characters. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is far more accessible. Its readability is much higher. The characters are all, relatively, likeable, and the plot makes sense. There are more explanations and the story is good, nearly space opera-esque, science fiction.

But it does not read at all like Gateway.

The main character, Robin Broadhead, is not the Robin Broadhead of Gateway. This one is more like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) than the riddled-with-issues character of the previous novel.  Does Stark have issues – yes, of course. However, his writers frequently give him characteristics (and a persona as Iron Man) that allow him to overcome his personality (Tony Stark) and his psychological difficulties. In Gateway, Broadhead is just wretched.

Gateway was daring. Pohl did a lot with that novel. The unknown, the horror, the helplessness, the ugliness is well-written, I guess. Pohl’s usage of Freudian psychoanalysis also adds a snarled and uncomfortable feel to the novel. Finally, the homoerotic threads in the novel also make Gateway quite a bit different than standard science fiction fare.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon really does not contain any of the eerie-unknown that was so strong in Gateway. Instead, this really feels like space opera. So, it also feels like a sell-out. Perhaps it was.

All of that being said, these evaluations are because we are comparing the two novels. On its own, this sequel is actually a good read. It stays above the level of pulp and basic space opera. The characters are all interesting and face different challenges, which keeps them from being cardboard tools. I was rooting for them all, I guess. Pohl makes a strong effort to include what is referred to as “hard scifi” elements, which basically just means he tries to keep the science and mathematics realistic and heavy as opposed to hand-waving and just ignoring it for the sake of the plot. This novel is an engaging read with a lot of good things to be said for it. The varying points-of-view keeps this galactic-wide storyline manageable.

I believe that this novel can be read without having first read Gateway. Perhaps it is better to separate the two, anyway. I appreciate some of the elements of the former, but I really dislike it as a whole. This novel is good but is in no way as daring or provocative as the first. It comes down to what style the reader prefers when consuming their science fiction.

I enjoyed it because it had so much less of the sordid and unpleasantness of the first novel. However, I know that just because something is more accessible, it does not make it a better novel, per se. I did, in some sense, miss the eerie emptiness and psychologically-disturbed style of Gateway, so I can sympathize with readers who found this second novel to be too mundane/accessible. Lastly, the sex-stuff and Pohl… I would find it easy to believe if I learned he wrote soft-porn under some house-name.

4 stars

Search the Sky

search the skySearch the Sky is a jointly-authored novel by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl.  I am not a very big fan of Pohl’s writing, so at the outset, I  was probably not giving a totally fair shot to the novel.  It was published in 1954.  I read the paperback version with Richard Powers artwork. I bought my copy for a $1 at a local book hovel.

Well, overall I do not think this is a very good novel. The book really takes some time to get started; I feel like the first three chapters are very much spinning their wheels and not really directed anywhere specific. The reader is introduced to the main character, Ross, and his restlessness and struggle with living on Halsey’s Planet and working for Oldham Trading Company. Straightaway in the novel, we are told how disgruntled Ross is with his life and how the civilization on Halsey’s Planet is in “decay.”

Now, when I think of “in decay” I am thinking of some post-apocalyptic scene with weed-grasses growing in pavement, deserted buildings, mushrooms growing out of ex-living things, and nary a human in sight. I suppose some of that is sort of what is being described, but not to the same extent.  Basically, we are to understand that this planet’s civilization seems to have peaked and is now in a decline – how steep that decline is, is rather unclear.  Ross (who is melodramatic as all get out) seems to think it is very steep.

So the first 45 pages, or so, of this novel seem to not have a proper direction. We meet melodramatic Ross, but there are little scenes that take place that do not advance the storyline and sometimes seem to derail it. Several times I figured that a particular trajectory would be taken but it was ignored or forgotten. Penguin, Bantam, and Baen also republished this novel – though, one of the authors was deceased by then, the other author may have had the opportunity to edit it. Frankly, I would want to see this whole opening chunk edited and anything not truly related to the storyline should be excised.

Finally in chapter five, the storyline picks up and marches along what the reader has been expecting all along:  the faster-than-light spacecraft headed to exotic planets. Of course, not too exotic, this version of the kosmos seems to be populated mainly by humans. So, Ross and his ship head spaceward to visit a predetermined list of planets.  His mission is to discover the status of these planets – for the purposes of trade and for monitoring the “level of civilization” of humanity. We do not even get to see the first planet and join Ross as he lands on Gemser, the second planet on his list.

Everything the Internet says about the remainer of this novel is more or less true. Yes, the rest of it does seem like little, loosely-connected segments that show the reader interesting “infographics” of the planets that Ross visits. And if there is anything one reads on the Internet about this novel, it is that it is so very satirical.  Most of the people commenting on the novel online are people who have read the novel since 2000. So, there is a bit of a timeline scenario in that most reviewers did not read this when it was originally published. Living in the 1950s may have given this novel a different reader response; faster-than-light spacecraft, human civilizations stagnating, and gender equality all have a very different feel to them in 1955 versus 2016. Therefore, I think that this novel, being read nowadays, needs to be read with a sort of nuanced viewpoint.

The overarching premise is quite interesting to me. I like the idea of launching a character out into the galaxy to learn/re-learn about the status of human civilization on distant planets and to re-establish FTL science or jump-start their trading/commerce. Okay, this is a little ridiculous because this is a tall order for one fellow. And yes, it is a bit space opera-esque, zooming around the planets in this way. However, given a little tidying, this is not a horrific story-starter.

Instead, the authors approach these distant planets via Ross with a remarkably heavy-handed style. Certainly, we should all read this as satirical (Cp. Gulliver’s Travels or something), but I have never liked satire that was like a bludgeon.

So, the next two planets Ross visits are treated with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. In places, the writing is even cringe-worthy. There are, of course, some sections that are interesting and have potential for something more, but generally, this is heavy-handed direct satire that does not really pause to ever ask “what if?” or “how come, Hoss?”

One of the wretched things about this novel is that Ross, though he does not start off as a favored, honorable, awesome character, seems to degenerate into an impulsive, juvenile, melodramatic clown.  It is really wearying by the last few chapters and I rather wanted to punch his teeth out.

The last segment of the novel is not very good whatsoever and I had to muscle through it. It is confusing and disjointed throughout.  The “resolution” is really vague, idiotic, and also heavy-handed. The characters by the end are insufferable. And even if the reader considers some of the novel’s satirical points favorably, there still is not enough depth to make this a meaningful heavyweight of science fiction.

It has some good points. It has a lot of bad areas. Ultimately, it has not really aged well and does not give a lot of reason for recommendation. I blame it all on Pohl.

2 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

Gateway

"Gateway" - F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

“Gateway” – F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

Gateway was published in 1977 by Frederik Pohl.  It won a heap of awards including the 1978 Hugo Award for Best Novel,the 1978 Locus Award for Best Novel, the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1978 John W. Campbell Award.  The cover of the edition I read is an example of the awesome artwork created by John Picacio.  You should go visit his website and be on the lookout for books with his covers. His artwork is fantastic.

So, how does a novel that won all those awards (won more, was nominated for a bunch more) and have such a beautiful cover suck so much?  I am extremely disappointed in this novel.  For one thing, this was the first Pohl work I’ve read and disliking this work so much does not bode well for future forays into his writing.  Another thing is that I was really hyped to read Pohl since he is considered a “Grandmaster” of science fiction.  After all, look at all the awards this novel and it’s author have won? Surely, if there was a book that was going to rock the house – this has got to be it, right?

Well, and it was a ridiculous chore to acquire this book.  Bookstore did not have it (shock…) and I had to order it. I actually had to order it thrice, and it took about three months to get it shipped to the store.  I am not going to order books from that store location anymore.  Now, I know this has nothing to do with Pohl or Gateway – but it was a sure omen that I ignored.  And, well, it did not help that after finally getting the book in hand I was practically ravenous for reading it. And then WHAM! let down.

The structure of the book is pretty neat. I really like how there are three sections happening simultaneously.  One is the past (but told as if it is still present) which takes place on Gateway and involves all the coolest aspects of the storyline.  One part is the current time in which the main character visits his psychiatrist, Sigfrid. This is unique because the psychiatrist is a machine – a computer.  The third, and lesser, section is the miscellany from the explorations and studies related to Gateway.  These are cool and would be good fodder for the series.

The main character, Robinette Broadhead, is infinitely hateable. I do not mean that I dislike the character – I mean I pretty much despise him.  He’s a whiney, cowardly, selfish jerk.  He only goes to Gateway because (1.) he wins the lottery to do so; (2.) he’s looking for a get-rich-fast scheme to get out of his miserable life.  He has mommy issues, he has girlfriend issues, and he has money issues.  He’s consumed by guilt. Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why he sees a shrink.

Gateway is a planet that is a portal and space-dock that was constructed by the presumably extinct Heechee alien race.  They left their ships and their tunnels and cleaned up all the rest of the artefacts.  Basically, the Heechee are a big mystery, but the Corporation finances “prospectors” to get into completely uncontrollable Heechee ships and fly out into space.  The ships control themselves to whatever destinations the Heechee have programmed into them.  Most prospectors do not return alive. Some do. Some return with information or artefacts, which the Corporation buys and pays out royalties for. Hence, the prospectors’ get-rich dreams.

I have two problems with this plot. (1.)  it makes humans seem like they have lost all of their technological and scientific ingenuity. Sure, they are attempting to reverse-engineer Heechee things, but throughout the novel, humans seem woefully clueless. (2.)  the Corporation paying out huge sums based on a random rubric for the prospectors’ efforts seems off – humanity is supposedly struggling – hungry or impoverished in general (except for the ultra-rich).  So who is buying/selling the Heechee info and items? To whom? And why? There seems to be a supply/demand issue that isn’t really thought out perfectly. There are options that Pohl could have used, but he doesn’t get into it and it leaves a little bit of a blank there.

For the majority of the book, Robinette mopes around Gateway trying to trick himself into working up the courage to go out in a ship.  His friend Shicky makes the best point in the whole novel:

You don’t need so much courage. You only need courage for one day:  just to get in the ship and go.  Then you don’t have to have courage anymore, because you don’t anymore have a choice. – pg. 233, chapter 26

However, throughout the book in the sections where Robinette is seeing Sigfrid it is presented to the reader that Robinette has become very rich.  By chapter 26, the reader still does not get the how and where. While on Gateway, Robinette blows money left and right at the bar and the casino.

The worst part of the book, which makes it hover a bit closer to a one star rating, is the R-rated sex throughout the book. No, there are not graphic detailed scenes – this isn’t (thankfully) erotica.  However, Robinette confuses sex for love, uses sex to distract himself from his cowardice, taunts Sigfrid with Freudian Oedipal comments, continually is agitated by the character Dane Metchnikov, and, once off of Gateway, runs through girls like they are paper towels.  There is one scene where Robinette gets a bit physically violent with his supposed-girlfriend, and does so in front of a young child.  And there is the last paragraph of chapter 25, which is really horrendous and actually made me want to chuck the book into a wall. Dreck.  None of this wins any points for the novel.  In fact, I mention this here, because there are not too many people to whom I would recommend this novel because of these parts. Some reviewers have commented that this is typical of 1970s mentality – I don’t think so; I have read bunches of books from the 1970s and I don’t really feel like making excuses for this dreck. I suppose the title is supposed to be punny…..

None of the marvel, grand adventure, wonder, or awe that is found in the best science fiction space-going novels.

Two stars is kind of a gift.  This is science fiction. But if someone was looking for great reads in science fiction, I would not suggest this.  Why all the awards? Maybe 1977/1978 was just a really bad year for science fiction novels.

2 stars