The Wit And Wisdom Of Frederik Pohl: Philosopher & Funnyman

Platinum PohlWow, do I owe Frederik Pohl an apology.  Yesterday, after reading a few stories, I said that he always wrote in the hard-boiled style— and then I went forth to read another ten stories or so, and the hard-boiled style wasn’t employed at all.  Furthermore, I’ve come across stories from Pohl I liked even more than his Merchants Of Venus.  Basically, I’ve had to drastically re-appraise my view of Pohl’s stylistic range.  My most important discovery in the last twenty-four hours is that Pohl has a great sense of humor!

One story I thoroughly enjoyed was Some Joys Under The Star.  The style here approaches the witty philosophical zaniness of Tom Robbins or Douglas Adams.  The unifying construct of the plot is a comet that is passing through Earth’s sky, and we run madcap between several characters affected by the comet.

Now that I’ve read close to a score of Pohl stories, I will go out on a limb (that has broken on me once already!) and venture to say that no other story in Pohl’s work compares to this story in its rollicking tone (yes, I realize I’ll likely eat crow on this generalization, too).

Another story I very much liked from Pohl was Criticality.  This story was written in the early 1980s, but it’s commentary on society is even more valid now than it was thirty years ago.

The premise of Criticality is that the people of the U.S. have become passive critics instead of passionate creators.  Their lives are consumed with rating the people and events of their spectator lives.  Since this story was written before handheld computers (or even widely available cellphones) and before the World Wide Web, this constant rating of experiences takes the form of simple paper surveys that people fill out anywhere and everywhere— even about their dates!

The story struck me like a sledgehammer with its prescience.  Nowadays we have Facebook friending, and Pinterest pinnings, and all sorts of different “likings,” plus all the rating websites out there for everything from hotels to restaurants to teachers.  We are truly a nation where “everyone’s a critic.”

But how many of the same people who want to sit back in front of their computer and criticize the work of others are actually out there putting their own butts on the line and attempting to create something useful or beautiful for their neighbors?  We click our tongues and click our mouses and move on to the next titillating tidbit.  I wonder if Pohl, who is in his 90s now, ever thinks of this story and grins at just how right he got it?

But as much as I liked Some Joys Under The Star and Criticality, THE big tale from Pohl for me so far is Shaffery Among The Immortals.  This is one of those stories that pleases on every level.  The main character is well-drawn and memorable.  The plot is entertaining.  The writing is top notch.  The style perfectly fits the tone.  There’s even a nice twist ending which I didn’t see coming, and you won’t either, so subtle is the planting of the foreshadow.  Oddly enough, there is nothing particularly science fictiony about this story.  It’s just a good story, period.

The main character of the story is Shaffery.  He’s a smart physicist and astronomer who just wants everlasting fame.  Is that too much to ask?  “The big cancerous agony,” writes Pohl of his protagonist, “was that every year he got a year older and fame would not come.”

Shaffery just can’t seem to get things to go his way.  His model for immortality is Albert Einstein.  The “Einstein method” of obtaining fame was, according to Shaffery, “to make a pretty theory and then see if, by some chance, observations of events in the real world seemed to confirm it.”

Shaffery is perplexed and frustrated by the success of other theoretical physicists who are always “coming along with all sorts of new ideas that, if you looked at them objectively, weren’t any cleverer than his”—except for one detail:  “they seemed lucky enough to find supporting evidence from time to time.”

I wonder how many unappreciated creative types in any field have felt the same way as Shaffery!

Shaffery wonders why some scientists make out great, while he falls flat.  His wife says that his problem is simple:  he’s a “horse’s ass.”  But Shaffery doesn’t buy this.  After all, he muses, “who was to say Isaac Newton wasn’t a horse’s ass, too?”

As for Shaffery’s wife, we get a feeling for the relationship she and her husband share by comments such as this in the story:  “Shaffery had discovered the TV man occasionally laid Mrs. Shaffery; it wasn’t the morality of the thing that bothered him, it was the feeling of doubt it raised in Shaffery’s mind about the other’s sanity.”

The wacky side of Pohl’s sense of humor is displayed prominently throughout the story, such as with this passage:  “When he was really despairing he sometimes considered making his mark in industry rather than pure science, wherefore the sheaf of sketches for a nuclear-fueled car, the experiments on smellovision that had permanently destroyed the nerves of his left nostril, and the attempt to preserve some of Mr. Nuccio’s mushrooms by irradiation in his local dentist’s X-ray room.”

When Shaffery, at one point, believes he is about to be eaten by a shark, he thinks only, “what a shame for one who might have been Einstein to wind up, incomplete and unfulfilled, as shark shit.”

By the way, Shaffery does have at least one unsung brilliant idea; he comes up with the notion that “observations that don’t relate to anything don’t exist.”  I actually believe he was almost correct in this assertion.  His only mistake was calling the unrelated things “observations.”  That means that the events are not actualy isolated since someone has observed them.  If he had instead used the word “phenomena” for “observations,” I would have agreed with him on a certain level.  After all, if there is part of the Universe that is to –never, ever in all eternity– have any contact or affect on the rest of the Universe, then yes, it does not exist, does it?  Of course, the people living in that forever isolated pocket of the Universe may disagree with that view.

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