REVIEW: Platinum Pohl by Frederik Pohl
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of thirty short fiction pieces from Frederik Pohl’s 50-plus-year career.
PROS: 23 stories good or better, 9 of them outstanding.
CONS: 7 stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good collection of entertaining fiction; a must-have for Pohl fans.
SFWA Grandmaster Frederik Pohl has been writing science fiction for over fifty years. If anyone was due for a career retrospective, it’s him. Platinum Pohl, edited by James Frenkel, collects thirty of Pohl’s short stories that span his entire career. Among the many award winning and nominated titles, there are other stories of note, including one collaboration with C.M. Kornbluth and the first-ever story set in the Gateway/Heechee universe. The stories are in no particular order but it might have been interesting to see a chronological ordering to see how Pohl changes as a writer over the decades. Or maybe not. A quick look through the nine standout stories shows no discernable rating trend that I can see which just means relatively consistent quality across several decades
Pohl’s style and choice of content in his stories is unique and, if I am to be truly honest, not always immediately appealing. Many of the stories concern themselves with political and/or social issues – and that’s fine – but my tastes tend more to the adventure side of the literary spectrum. To be sure, more often than not the stories do entertain and evoke wonder, and even those stories that seemed to have something to say were still enjoyable on some level. Needless to say, For Pohl fans this is a must-have volume.
There were nine standout stories in this collection: “The Merchants of Venus” (1972), “The Kindly Isle” (1984), “Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair” (1983), “Some Joys Under the Star” (1973), “The Day the Icicle Works Closed” (1959), “The Knights of Arthur” (1957), “The Meeting” (1972), “Let the Ants Try” (1949) and “Fermi and Frost” (1985).
One other thing about this collection that I wanted to mention concerns the readability of the book. I found it, at times, difficult to read; the type is relatively small which, on the one hand makes it possible to cram more stories between the covers and keep the price reasonable but, on the other hand, affected readability (for me at least). I’m not sure if my eyes are getting old (stupid eyes) or if it was a perception thing as the time between page turns was considerably longer than average for me. Anyway, it didn’t affect the rating but I just thought I’d mention it. (Not too long ago, I remember seeing some blog entry that compared type sizes side-by-side. It might be interesting to see if I could find that again.)
STORIES IN THIS ANTHOLOGY:
- “The Merchants of Venus” [Heechee universe] [1972 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 01/01/06]
- Synopsis: A Venusian huckster named Audee Walthers is hired by a millionaire to hopefully find unclaimed treasures in an undiscovered tunnel of the Heechee, the mysteriously absent aliens who often leave behind valuable artifacts.
- Review: Excellent story that not only introduces the reader to the Heechee, but also presents a tension-filled tale of the sympathetic con man who has one last chance to make a big score so he can afford to replace his failing liver. Much is learned about the background of the Venus settlement and the way of life there. Also, the mystique of the absentee aliens provides a colorful backdrop to deliver the sense of wonder. It helps a lot that the story itself nicely details the tension between Audee and the millionaire Cochenour, who might actually be the one who is calling the shots. Cochenour’s girlfriend, Dorrie, is a nice go-between character, at times unexpectedly knowledgeable and sympathetic to Audee. By the climax of the story, I couldn’t read the pages fast enough to soak in the story. Great stuff!
- Note: This is the first story in Pohl’s Heechee universe, even preceding the first Heechee novel, Gateway. This story has nothing to do with Pohl’s The Space Merchants or, despite the title pun, Shakespeare’s play.
- “The Things That Happen” [1985 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/04/06]
- Synopsis: A supposed psychic is discovered by a believer and tested by a skeptic.
- Review: An OK story but Pohl has done better. The story’s timeline alternates between the time Hans is mistakenly thought to be psychic and a pair of skeptics whose offer of fifty thousand dollars is too good for the con man to pass up. The get-what-you-ask-for ending was an improvement over the rest of the story and bumped it up half a star.
- “The High Test” [1983 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/08/06]
- Synopsis: A naive twenty-six-year-old driving instructor named James Paul Madigan teaches lessons to various students, including a spoiled brat named Tonda and a two-headed reptilian alien named Torklemiggen.
- Review: I liked how some tension was built in knowing what James did not. Obviously, Torklemiggen has some ulterior motives. The format of the story, a series of letters home to James’ mother, lent well to his initial cluelessness. A very good story.
- “My Lady Green Sleeves” [1957 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/08/06]
- Synopsis: The story of a near-future prison riot in a society where there is segregated social classes based on occupation.
- Review: Occupational segregation turns out to be an interesting and disturbing premise for a story. It’s an odd idea and getting a handle on it took some time. Can you imagine a physical laborer (a “wipe”) being arrested for asking a white collar worker (a “Pro”) to go out on a date? Cool, but weird. O’Leary, the prison guard, manages to stick to his beliefs, though, even when encountering Sue-Ann Bradley, a senator’s daughter who believes in equality to the point of setting fire to a segregated restroom – which of course strips her of her Civil Service profession and lands her in jail just before the riot. Even worse for her, her misunderstanding of each working profession’s lingo lands her in the O-block, where she is restrained with a green-colored straight jacket (thus the story’s title).
- “The Kindly Isle” [1984 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/10/06]
- Synopsis: A finance guy from a real estate development firm surveys a prospective hotel deal but cannot escape his past where he worked for the government at a biological warfare research facility.
- Review: Excellent story whose only drawback was the occasional lingering on descriptions of the island scenery. Widower Jerry Wenright gets an unexpected surprise when he sees a man from the research facility where he worked years before, a job he left when he discovered the true nature of their research. The foreshadowing of the story’s title made all too plain the Stepford Wives nature of the island’s residents, but all told, this was a fun read with a pleasingly steady rise of drama and a dash of the widower backstory poignancy.
- “The Middle of Nowhere” [1955 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/11/06]
- Synopsis: An adventure story of a Mars mining colony that encounters the previously undetected and menacing Martians
- Review: A good story that’s all plot but very little characterization.
- “I Remember a Winter” [1972 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/12/06]
- Synopsis: A piecemeal look at the life of a man.
- Review: Not entirely sure this qualifies as science fiction just because the narrator ruminates about possible causality and asks “What would have happened if…?” Even so, this was a good, but not great, story.
- “The Greening of Bed-Stuy” [1984 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 01/13/06]
- Synopsis: Marcus, a 10-year-old resident of a rapidly crumbling New York, gets involved in a prison escape while caring for an elderly blind man who has grand plans for rebuilding the city if he can cut a deal with gangster.
- Review: Even though there was a lot to like about this soft sf story – intricate character details; the wonderfully dark and depression depiction of the city; poignant moments like the death scene of the wealthy man’s wife – I found this to be a tough read and a bit hard to get into as much as I would have liked. The late night reading session was most likely the cause. I should note that the decaying New York setting reminded me of Thomas M. Disch’s 334.
- Note: Nominated for the 1985 Nebula Award.
- “To See Another Mountain” [1959 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/17/06]
- Synopsis: An aging genius named Noah Sidorenko undergoes treatment by “The Group”. But is he really insane?
- Review: Pohl’s writing is deeper than some novels here. The writing is filled with heart and emotion and the plot doesn’t kick in until the story’s last pages. When it does, you realize that things are not as they seem.
- “The Mapmakers” [1955 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/18/06]
- Synopsis: An exploration ship loses hyperdrive capability and must cope with the realities of long-term space travel. The mapmaker of the title is Lieutenant Groden, who has been enhanced to fully utilize the storage capacity of his brain as electrical equipment is catastrophic during hyperspace travel. Unfortunately, Groden has been left blind in an accident and the crew of the Terra II are running out of options.
- Review: Good premise but a little drawn out. Notable is the presence of women in significant roles in this 1950’s story.
- “Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair” [1983 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/18/06]
- Synopsis: In an overpopulated America, the Baxter family goes on an outing to the Lottery Fair where jobs are raffled and one of the attractions is the Hall of Life and Death.
- Review: Excellent story with a surprise twist in the vein of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. (I assume this story pays homage to that.) All is not what is seems and we see it through the eyes of two foreign tourists who do not understand the American philosophy towards life and death. Great stuff. This is Pohl on top of his game.
- “The Celebrated No-Hit Inning” [1956 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/18/06]
- Synopsis: A conceited baseball player travels to the future to learn that the rules of the game have drastically changed.
- Review: A humorous tale where the baseball of the future has robot players, in-game legal maneuvers and rules such as the hitter taking a base whenever the pitcher scares him. Sometimes silly, but overall a fun read.
- “Some Joys Under the Star” [1973 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/19/06]
- Synopsis: As a comet flies by Earth, the reader gets sneak peeks into the lives of several individuals including amorous teenagers, the man who stalks them, a suicidal plane passenger strapped with explosives, the President and Secretary of State and the occupants of the comet itself – the so-called “watchers” sent by the Arrogating Race to assess any potential threat of mankind.
- Review: I liked the way this story was constructed. With just a few sentences, each of the many characters gets a back story. I knocked off half a star for the too-sappy effect of the Watchers weapon when it is eventually fired upon the Earth.
- “Servant of the People” [1983 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/19/06]
- Synopsis: An aging congressman runs for re-election against a robot opponent.
- Review: Despite the political theme, I really enjoyed this one. It initially evoked memories of Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” since the robots (the advanced models, at least) have the right to vote. The story focuses on the campaign for re-election but spends much time in fleshing out the main characters. Congressman O’Hare excels at blazing the campaign trail but can he compete with a robot?
- Note: Nominated for the 1984 Hugo Award.
- “Waiting for the Olympians” [1988 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 01/19/06]
- Synopsis: In an alternate history where the Roman Empire still exists, the world awaits the arrival of the Olympians, an intelligent alien species. Against this backdrop, an author of scientific romance novels struggles to come up with an idea for his next novel which, a friend suggests, should be an alternate future novel.
- Review: Engaging for its first-contact backdrop and realistic cast. The author, a descendent of Julius Caesar who is himself named Julius, has a satiric novel rejected by censors because it depicts the Olympians in a negative way. Julius has thirty days to come up with a new novel. When his friend suggests writing an alternate future novel, Julius just doesn’t get it (as if “sci-rom” by definition is fact-based). When the friend’s idea starts to take hold (with the help the friend’s historian niece, Rachel), an interesting plot twist emerges for the central plot of the in-story book.
- “Criticality” [1984 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/20/06]
- Synopsis: The story of three people, Wilbert and Marian who meet for a date in a society where judging others on every little detail is the norm; and Arne, a foreigner in the service who does not understand American ways.
- Review: Meh. An interesting concept that failed to provide much kick. Seemed less concerned about story and more focused on social commentary.
- “Shaffery Among the Immortals” [1972 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/23/06]
- Synopsis: Jeremy Shaffery, an unremarkable scientist in a dead end job, longs for the one discovery that will make him famous. Unfortunately, his fame does come.
- Review: Overly heavy on the characterization and light on plot, this story offers an ultimately entertaining look at a man’s life.
- Note: Nominated for the 1973 Nebula Award.
- “The Day the Icicle Works Closed” [1959 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/26/06]
- Synopsis: On Altair Nine, a planet whose poor economy is due to the closing of the Icicle Works, public defender Milo Pulcher tries to clear the names of six young kidnappers.
- Review: A cool story that combines mystery, world-building and the ability to transfer into other people’s bodies. Renting is how people make ends meet since the jobs have all but disappeared, yet it is frowned upon because of the liberties the renting tourists take. The clues to the mystery nicely woven into a taut narrative.
- “Saucery” [1986 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/25/06]
- Synopsis: Two rival con men wonder how to increase their drop-off in income when their alien encounter scams take a back seat to the impending arrival of real-life Martians.
- Review: An interesting germ of an idea but this comes across more like the start of a longer story.
- “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” [1972 novella] (Rating: ) [Read 01/27/06]
- Synopsis: The purpose of an eight-man mission to the Alpha Centauri system may not be to find the Alpha-Aleph planet after all.
- Review: Very good story with a few surprises and some cool exposition. The astronauts, four couples sent with the purpose of populating the planet, bide their huge amounts of free time with learning the intricacies of science to a point that surpasses common human knowledge. Meanwhile, the scientist who organized the trip is grilled over the true purpose of the mission. The narrative remains engrossing as it swaps between reports from the spaceship and the latest happenings in Washington. Good stuff!
- Note: Nominated for the 1973 Hugo and Nebula Awards.
- “Growing Up in Edge City” [1975 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/27/06]
- Synopsis: Chandlie lives in the strictly controlled environment of Edge City, but when curiosity leads him to wander outside for the first time ever, he is punished.
- Review: Good story (with some similar controlled environment themes as The Inverted World) with an even better ending but I felt it needed more depth.
- Note: Nominated for the 1976 Nebula Award.
- “The Knights of Arthur” [1957 novelette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: A story of survival after a nuclear holocaust in a sparsely populated America.
- Review: Excellent story that follows three characters – Sam, Vern and Arthur – as they infiltrate the military group run by The Major in attempt to secure themselves a safe haven. The character of Arthur is, let’s just say, unique. The appeal of the story is that the state of affairs is told in puzzle pieces that keep you immersed, wondering what will happen next. Great stuff.
- “Creation Myths of the Recently Extinct” [1993 vignette] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: Aliens on a colonization mission consider how to rid the Earth of those pesky humans.
- Review: Very good tongue-in-cheek piece that uses a black monolith to advance mankind’s evolution. Slightly preachy with its environmentalist message, but still very good.
- “The Meeting” written with C.M. Kornbluth [1972 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: Harry Vladek attends a PTA meeting at a school for mentally challenged kids.
- Review: Excellent, smartly written story built around an awesome moral dilemma. Harry is attempting to assess the chances that his son, Tommy, can be cured. This will help Harry make an important decision regarding Tommy’s future. Poignant and thought-provoking is a great mix.
- Note: Winner of the 1973 Hugo Award.
- “Let the Ants Try” [1949 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: After a nuclear holocaust, a man goes back in time with mutated ants in the hopes that their evolution will unite mankind against the common foe, thus preventing the nuclear holocaust.
- Review: Another excellent story with only one minor, but glaring, fault. Why not go back slightly in time to warn mankind of the impending war? Why bother to go back to the far past where there is surely more room for plans to go amiss? OK, maybe I’m thinking about it too much but, as I said, this is only a minor nit and this is one excellent golden age story.
- “Speed Trap” [1967 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: Dr. Chip Grew spends most of his life working and most of his working life attending conferences and traveling between them. This gives him a bird’s eye “systems level” view of how one can become more productive and free up 75% of one’s time. Unfortunately, forces conspire to keep that view from being realized.
- Review: Meh. The idea of a “Systems approach to the transmission of technological information” is interesting in a meta kind of way, but ultimately, this marginally-sf story left something to be desired. Nice ending, though, where we find that aforementioned forces are not necessarily supernatural.
- “The Day the Martians Came“ [1967 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: An extended scene in a hotel lobby where waiting journalists cover the story of Martians hitching a ride back to Earth on a space probe.
- Review: Yikes! This story (which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s then-controversial anthology, Dangerous Visions under the title “The Day After the Martians Came”) is said to be the final chapter of The Day the Martians Came, a fix-up novel that shows the effect a Martian arrival has on different walks of life. Maybe in that grander scheme this story works well, but as a standalone story it just wasn’t doing anything for me. It was basically one long scene with random nameless characters (except for the hotel manager whose biggest worry was how to squeeze more money out of the info-hungry media) who sat around and made unfunny Martian jokes. Feh. Am I missing something?
- Note: Also available online at SciFiction.
- “Day Million” [1966 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: A far-future love story between Don and Dora, as told by a third party.
- Review: Meh. This was more like an essay on what humans could be like in the (go, go, gadget calculator!) 28th century.
- Note: Nominated for the 1966 Nebula Award.
- “The Mayor of Mare Tranq” [1996 short story] (Rating: ) [Read 01/28/06]
- Synopsis: Alternate history story in which SF author (and frequent Pohl collaborator) Jack Williamson is aboard the first manned flight to the moon.
- Review: Good story, though not for its alternate history elements (except maybe when Williamson prevents the Kennedy assassination). The cool part was when problems arise with the lunar lander and Williamson, back on the orbiter, refuses to give up hope.
- “Fermi and Frost” [1985 short story] (Rating: ) [Already read on 04/24/04. What follows is what I said then.]
- Synopsis: The story of a man and a boy trying to survive a nuclear holocaust.
- Review: Really good writing that gives some striking images of a nuclear aftermath. Several sad parts. A great read!
- Note: Winner of the 1986 Hugo Award.
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