Tag Archives: Frederik Pohl

The Voices of Heaven, Frederik Pohl

Tor, 1994, 280 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-312-85643-1

Frederik Pohl hasn’t become the living embodiment of a science-fiction professional for nothing. When even his average efforts like The Voices of Heaven end up being more fun to read that most SF published that year, it’s a sign that the man knows what he’s doing.

It’s not as if this novel has any particularly original element. Bring together a maniaco-depressive protagonist, a love triangle, a suicidal cult, a far-away colony, barrels of anti-matter, musings about religion, mix well and… there you have The Voices of Heaven.

It’s not immune to some of the traditional Stupid Stuff that contaminates so much quickly-written SF, mind you: Pohl’s assertion that political parties would be eliminated in favor of religious voting blocs is so silly it’s hard to know where to begin. But given that this is Pohl’s Religion Novel, some slack must be cut.

He certainly knows how to bring us in the story, as an unnamed questioner interrogates our narrator about his life leading up to the “present”. Who is asking the questions? What is at stakes? The answers are ultimately disappointing, but it doesn’t matter when it comes to make us read the novel.

This narrator, Barry di Hoa, is a technical specialist, an antimatter loader living a hard but comfortable life on the Moon, working in the only antimatter production facility in the solar system. Everything seems to be going well for him. He’s even thinking about marriage when he’s drugged by a rival and put on a colony ship headed light-years away. When he wakes up, he finds himself shanghaied on a faraway solar system. Without his beloved. Without the medication that keeps him stable.

The colony is not only ill-prepared to receive him, but it’s also helpless against most things. Accidentally established in an earthquake-prone region, the colony has been so far unable to develop, stagnating at the same level for decades. It doesn’t help that fully a quarter of the colony’s population are Millenarists, a cult that openly encourages suicide as a way to atone for all past sins.

Yikes.

Well, if you actually find such a belief sustainable.

But stranger things have happened.

Barry, as a can-do type of guy, finds himself with precious little to do there. Naturally, it gets worse when he starts cycling through his manic-depressive roller-coaster again…

It’s a short book, and a fairly simple plot, but Pohl’s got too much professionalism to turn it into just another SF novel. He infuses his narrator with a gradual amount of empathy, making the book far more interesting than you’d expect. Barry, for all his faults and shortcomings, is someone we can really cheer for. Ironically, his greatest moment of triumph is related in an offhanded, almost embarrassed tone of voice, as he seems reluctant to take responsibility for actions committed when he was in the maniacal half of his cycle.

In short, The Voices of Heaven, despite unsubtle anti-religion shortcuts, predictable developments (oh, can’t you predict part of the conclusion whenever it’s obvious that our hero will remain virtuous?) and generally unexciting plotting, manages to be a worthwhile read. The writing is clear and enjoyable, the characters are well-defined and it ultimately amounts to a good time.

A true professional’s job.

Mining the Oort, Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 1992, 264 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-37199-2

The paths of science and science-fiction are sometimes surprisingly similar. For instance, it’s a well-observed fact that all of science builds upon itself: It took a few centuries of observed experiments and a genial mind to conceive of the Theory of Gravity, but after that, all scientists could use this breakthrough as a basis for their own theories. From Gravity to Relativity to -perhaps- Superstring Theory, the way is toward higher, better, more comprehensive models of reality.

Similarly, science-fiction is a genre that -some say- is often centred on itself. (In fact, that’s John Clute’s theory of First SF… but that’s neither here or now to discuss.) It took a few centuries of scientific understanding, a few decades of SF groundwork and one imaginative mind to create Ringworlds, but once that was done, every SF writer could use the concept or improve upon it, like Ian Banks and his orbitals. Which is why even SF romances can use hyperspace without having to re-explain the wheel -or the hyper-dimensional drive- again.

Theoretical scientists often simplify problems by defining black boxes (“If we could produce petawatts of energy at will…”), until other scientists break up the black boxes in further components (“If we could make fusion work…”) until the problem’s solved. Similarly, SF works often postulate grand ideas (“We can terraform Mars…”), work out a few theories (“…by obtaining water from comets…”) and then some (“…which can be brought down from the Oort Cloud.”)!

If the sub-problems are exciting enough, other SF writers can write a novel about the “niggling detail” of the bigger scheme. That’s exactly what Frederik Pohl did with Mining the Oort Cloud. (He said, bringing this long and tortuous introduction to an end, nearly halfway down this review.)

As might be inferred from the above, Mining the Oort is about comets slamming into Mars. The book begins as the young protagonist Dekker DeWoe sees the first comet strike, and the narrative move along with him through training until he becomes one of those who make it happen. Along the way are the typical Pohl predictions of a grim economic future, unpleasant romantic subplots and the odd last fifty pages where the novel has to find a plot to conclude on an action-adventure note.

Most of the time, it works. The first pages aren’t tremendously exciting, but the pace picks up when protagonist DeWoe enters Oort Miner School. Fans of such work as Space Cadet, Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers already have an idea of the possibilities of a “school”-type of novel, and if Mining the Oort isn’t as exciting, it kept this reviewer interested. This type of novel often lives or die with its characters, and it’s a relief to find that Pohl hasn’t lost his touch at creating interesting supporting actors.

A few details ring false to late-nineties readers, like blaming the Japanese for almost every economic problem, or the fascination of a few characters for ultra-violent porn movies… but Mining the Oort entertains as much as could be expected from Pohl. It also occurs to this reader that this might be the ultimate comet-harvesting novel, until a few new ideas make an update necessary. Certainly, Pohl has fashioned a decent, entertaining novel of hard SF, one that might even be considered as one of his best.

The Heechee Saga, Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 1977-1990, ??? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Gateway,1977, 278 pages
Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, 1982, 279 pages
Heechee Rendez-vous, 1984, 311 pages
The Annals of the Heechee, 1987, 278 pages
The Gateway Trip, 1990, 244

Frederik Pohl is a workmanlike SF writer, turning out novel after novel of decent -if not overly exciting- works. As a founding elder of modern SF, he’s been around a while and so there’s a large fan base for his works. Pohl’s writing career can be divided in two sections: The first took place before 1961, when he revolutionized the SF field by writing social satires (often in collaboration with C. M. Kornbluth; see the beloved classic The Space Merchants). After a lull in which he edited genre magazines, the second half of his writing career truly ignited in 1977 with Gateway.

Gateway (Best Novel Nebula and Hugo) was the story of one Robinette Broadhead, who spent most of the novel telling his hang-ups to a psychological computer program. The Gateway of the title is a vast asteroid, filled with alien ships who can travel across the galaxy. Problem is, they don’t always come back… and Humans can’t control the ship in any way. Gateway is a fun read, presenting intriguing idea and a suitably complex protagonist in a clean, compelling prose. Some call it one of the best SF novels ever, others just like it very much.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon takes place a few years later, when Robinette is even richer, and feeling far more guilty. Another alien Heechee artifact is discovered in this solar system, and Robinette must (as in “must advance the plot”) explore it. This sequel is a bit of a letdown, and isn’t resolved at the end.

Heechee Rendez-vous picks up another few years after the events in the sequel, and introduces even more plot threads only tied up at the end of the fourth volume. Said fourth volume offers less surprises than the previous three, and the ultimate conclusion is easily guessable by the sufficiently attentive reader.

The four-book cycle could have easily been compressed in a trilogy, mostly by forgoing extrataneous elements in the second and fourth volume. The inclusion of a few misunderstood kids in the fourth tome is especially grating.

But it’s an interesting series. Concepts are deftly introduced (not always, though: Lumps of ugly exposition are scattered here and there) and used in efficient ways. Pohl’s style is readable even at its worst. A sense of accomplishment is gained.

The Gateway Trip ends up the series on a high note. More of a collection of ideas about Gateway, it reprints the fascinating novella The Merchants of Venus (prequel to the whole series) and a bunch of short fictional-expositionnary texts about Gateway, the expeditions from Gateway, the Heechees and other stuff. It can be safely read by anyone who’s read the first two volumes, and could even be used as a substitute for the last three books. Lavishly illustrated by Frank Kelly Freas (the illustrations lose their potency in the paperback edition, though) it’s a lovely little book, well worth the effort and money for Gateway fans.

The Other End of Time, Frederik Pohl

Tor, 1996, 348 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-53519-7

Frederik Pohl is surely one of the most professional SF writer in the business today. He regularly turns out book after book of rarely great, but always competent fiction. His latest, The Other End of Time, won’t win him any awards, but will surely entertain legions of his fans.

The first hundred page of the novel are almost a remake of his previous novel The Cool War : An unpleasant future (2031), where people routinely carry an assortment of weapons, Florida is trying to separate and where inflation runs a 2-3% a day.

We meet the two principal characters: Dan Dannerman, secret agent sent to spy on his rich cousin Patricia Adcock. A few dozen pages of the usual urban SF later, five humans are abducted by aliens and the novel shifts tone entirely. The next hundred pages or so are a sort of prison drama, where our five -no, seven!- protagonists try to outwit their captors. This is the best part of the book, being focused in terms of action and characters.

The conclusion is a letdown, however, as things happen in random order and no real progress is made. The end comes so abruptly that one wonders if Pohl was just tired of the novel and decided to end it as quickly. as possible, while letting himself just enough leeway for a sequel.

Pohl’s style is what we have come to expect from him: Quick and efficient, but not without a certain streamlined elegance. The pace is uneven, but everything can be disposed of in a few hours.

Hard-SF fans and atheists will be displeased at the casual usage of a plot device that appears much more magical than anything else. The implication of the “duplicator” device is well thought-of, even if I feel that more could have been done with it.

Overall, The Other End of Time feels more than the first salvo in a series of galactic adventures than a particularly entertaining stand-alone. Aimed at Pohl fans, mostly.