Frederik Pohl: Keeps Upping The Tension In “The Merchants Of Venus”

Platinum PohlI’ve never read anything by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl until I recently chose him as my next read in my Self-Doctorate course.  Like pretty much every great short story author I’ve read, I find that most of his stories actually leave me underwhelmed, but then there are those few that are exceptionally good.  Is this just me?  Even my favorite writers only please me a minority of the time.

I wish there were a better way to get to the stories I like from authors.  I’ve wasted scores or hundreds of hours wading through so-so or even bad stories, prospecting for those gold nuggets which I find just often enough to keep me feverishly coming back for more.  Obviously, there are those “Best of” collections and such, but apparently my tastes are not those of the anthologists.

So far, and I’m still making my way through a collection entitled Platinum Pohl, my favorite stories are The Merchants Of Venus and The Middle Of Nowhere.

The Merchants of Venus is long story, but it is a structurally well-crafted one.  Its framework is much like that of a good Hollywood script— the obstacles coming at our hero just keep getting bigger and bigger and his situation more and more desperate.  The main character Audee Walthers, is a pilot-slash-guide on the planet Venus.  He is very much in the tradition of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett character, tough and cynical.  “Hard-boiled” I believe is the appropriate nomenclature.  Except, instead of being a private investigator coming up against a femme fatale, he is a pilot flying customers to where they want to go on the dangerous surface of the second planet from the Sun.

There are several situations that generate drama in the story.  Our main character, Audee, has a health condition that grows quickly worse on this trip.  Also, there is the cat-and-cat game Audee is playing with the man who has hired him—both of them keeping secrets from the other.  Additionally, there are the physical dangers of Venus, itself…  not to the mention (oh, I guess I am mentioning it) the nearby military base whose inhabitants are keeping an eye—and a  gun— trained on Audee’s little expedition.

The other story I liked, The Middle Of Nowhere, is less grand.  It takes place on Earth’s other neighbor, Mars.  Truth be told, this is basically a pretty standard sci fi story about a band of brave machos facing down a Martian threat.  But it’s told well enough.

I’m getting the impression that Pohl’s style never strays too far from the hard-boiled style  [CORRECTION 17dec 2012:  see that date’s post, “The Wit & Wisdom Of Frederik Pohl] , which is fine by me, since I think Chandler and Hammett are two of the most underrated writers of literature out there.  Hemingway has a tendency to snag all the credit for that muscular no-nonsense style, and even his star is falling in terms of respect, it seems.


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