Frederik Pohl, master of science fiction; at 93

Mr. Pohl’s  view of a high-tech tomorrow was darkened by doubts about the social consequences of progress.
Sam Falk/New York Times/File 1967
Mr. Pohl’s view of a high-tech tomorrow was darkened by doubts about the social consequences of progress.

NEW YORK — Frederik Pohl, whose passion for science fiction while growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., led to a distinguished career as one of its most literate and politically sophisticated practitioners, though one who was skeptical about attempts to perfect society through scientific means, died Monday at a hospital near his home in Palatine, Ill. He was 93.

His agent, Mitchell Waters, who confirmed the death, said Mr. Pohl was taken to the hospital in acute respiratory distress.

Mr. Pohl was involved in publishing science fiction from the time he was a teenager, when he served as a literary agent for his science fiction-writing young friends. He went on to edit magazines and books before finding renown as a writer, often with collaborators.


Perhaps the most famous of his anti-utopian novels was “The Space Merchants,” a prescient satire that Mr. Pohl wrote in the early 1950s with Cyril M. Kornbluth. More than a decade before the surgeon general’s report on smoking and health, the authors imagined a future dominated by advertising executives, who compete to hook consumers on interlocking chains of addictive products. One such chain is started by a few mouthfuls of Crunchies.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain,” the authors wrote. “And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr Cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies.”

“The Space Merchants” has been translated into more than 25 languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

Mr. Pohl’s grasp of science was impressive; although entirely self-taught, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1982. He was also in demand as a so-called futurist, speaking to business executives and other audiences about the shape of things to come in a science-dominated future — and about the unreliability of even short-range predictions.

His view of a high-tech tomorrow was always darkened by doubts about the social consequences of scientific advances. In his grim 1979 novel “Jem: The Making of a Utopia,” high-minded colonists to a distant planet make the same mistakes that have already doomed civilization on Earth. The novel won a National Book Award (then known as the American Book Award) in 1980.


Mr. Pohl was born in New York City. An early reader, he developed a taste for the science fiction magazines of the day. He dropped out of high school at 17 — “as soon as it was legal,” he said.

With a handful of like-minded young men, including Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Kornbluth, Mr. Pohl threw himself into the burgeoning phenomenon of science fiction fandom. In 1936 he and a dozen other enthusiasts gathered in the back room of a bar in Philadelphia for what many regard as the world’s first science fiction “convention.”

Mr. Pohl’s ambition, like that of his friends, was to be a professional writer. Toward this end he became a literary agent and an editor, both before his 20th birthday. As an agent he represented the work of his friends to the established science fiction magazines; he also published many of their stories, and some of his own, in two new pulp magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, which he edited from 1940 through the summer of 1941.

After serving as an Army weatherman in Italy during World War II, he wrote advertising copy for a mail-order publisher. Then he became a literary agent again. In the late 1940s science fiction was becoming respectable, and Mr. Pohl helped connect science fiction writers to mainstream publishers; he sold Asimov’s first novel, “Pebble in the Sky” to Doubleday.

In 1960, British novelist Kingsley Amis hailed Mr. Pohl as science fiction’s “most consistently able writer.” The next year Mr. Pohl began editing two magazines: Galaxy, the monthly that had serialized “The Space Merchants,” and If, in which he introduced a number of important new writers, including Larry Niven and Alexei Panshin. Under his leadership If won the Hugo — an award voted by science fiction fans — for best magazine in 1966, 1967, and 1968.


After 1969, Mr. Pohl devoted most of his energies to writing. Yet he also found time to serve as science fiction editor at Bantam Books in the mid-’70s. At Mr. Pohl’s urging, Bantam published two of the most important science fiction books of the era: “The Female Man,” by Joanna Russ, a feminist novel in which the war between the sexes is fought with real bullets; and “Dhalgren,” by Samuel R. Delany, a vast experimental work that owed as much to James Joyce as to H.G. Wells. “Dhalgren” went on to sell more than 1 million copies.

The ’70s also saw the blossoming of Mr. Pohl’s own writing career. In 1976 he won his first Nebula Award (given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) for “Man Plus,” about an astronaut whose body is surgically altered for life on Mars. He won another Nebula in 1977 (and a Hugo in 1978) for “Gateway,” which he considered his best novel. It told the story of a man who gains a fortune but loses the love of his life on a “prospecting” expedition aboard an alien spaceship — one of many left behind by the mysterious Heechee, who have taken refuge from even more mysterious aliens inside a black hole.

He published more than 65 novels and some 30 short-story collections, as well as nonfiction. Nearly half his novels were collaborations, his last with Arthur C. Clarke: “The Last Theorem,” in 2008. Mr. Pohl won his last Hugo in 2010 in the “best fan writer” category for his blog “The Way the Future Blogs.”

Mr. Pohl was married five times and had four children; his third wife was the noted science fiction writer and editor Judith Merril.