National Book Award winners, part 10: 1979’s Jem, by Frederick Pohl (and my favorite science fiction novels of all time, just for kicks).

14 Sep

1.

In 1979, Frederick Pohl’s Jem won the national book award, alongside seven other novelists.

The organization clearly wanted to spread accolades and attention to the lesser genres. A western, a pop novel, science fiction novel, a spy novel, two literary novels (one in paperback, the other hardcover), a crime novel and a fantasy were all given prizes. (I reviewed The Green Ripper here.)

Pohl is the only science fiction writer to win the top award.

Science fiction is the wildest of genres. Every other genre of writing—mystery, romance, melodrama, fantasy, horror, western and adventure—are products of the 19th century. Science fiction is a product of the 20th.

Sci fi is less a genre than an approach. It encompasses the dystopian prophecies of Brave New World and the late Gnostic rantings of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Science fiction has its poets (Delaney, Disch) its thinkers (Wells, Dick) and its madmen (um, almost all of them). It’s unpredictable, amorphous and a docking station for brilliant, but often unhinged, minds. It has a reputation for favoring ideas over character and prediction over plot. As it originated in a throw-away pulp tradition, it has a tendency to cultivate sloppy writing.

Cover of an early science fiction magazine. Looks amazing.

Cover of an early science fiction magazine. Looks amazing. I’m pretty sure that loin-clothed dude is lobbing a grenade at the naked woman hovering in electrical bliss.

But, as a genre, sci fi has proven sinuous and adaptable. In the 60s, much of science fiction became about drug-use, alien cultures, planets predicated on the ideals of the sex, drugs and rock and roll generation. Even Robert Heinlein, one of the genre’s more conservative dudes, jumped on the bandwagon when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. When the personal computer became widely available in the early 1980s, sci fi writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling cultivated a sub-genre, cyberpunk.

2.

There are four major strands of science fiction: dystopian, utopian, first contact, and for lack of a better term, technological. The through-line is a foundation in some sort of science of in some instances science-y approach.

Dystopian novels deal with civilization’s end, usually through environmental or military apocalypse (Try The Road, if you are interested in this sub-genre at its most heart-wrenching, and hopeless, form. Or The Purple Cloud, a compelling, crazy forgotten novel about the last man on earth and his demented quest to destroy every single human city.)

Utopian novels often deal with humankind’s attempts to perfect and/or transcend the human condition, and almost always detail the unraveling of the perfect society. (Check out We.)

First contact novels deal with the miscommunication, and often violent repercussions, between mankind’s interaction with an alien species. (Try Starship Troopers, Fiasco, The Mote in God’s Eye, Our Friends From Frolix Eight.)

Technological novels involve the extension of an existing technology, usually at humankind’s expense. (Cyberpunk—the cascading virtual worlds and their impact on the real one—would fall under this last category in my absurdly simplified system of classification. Try Snow Crash or Neuromancer. Steampunk is the futuristic technology existing in the past. Try The Difference Engine. Alternate history is just that, history with a crucial moment going the other way. Read The Man in the High Castle.)

3.

I was a science fiction junky through my teens. Sci fi and horror. Planet of the Apes, Star Trek II, and Star Wars were two of my favorite movies. My dad’s bookshelves were stuffed with mass market paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s[1]. I read The Puppet Masters when I was 12. I read Battlefield Earth when I was 13. At 18, I was ensconced in nerd culture, especially with my love of comics[2].

The switch came swiftly. I studied literature in college, and read Babbitt, Gravity’s Rainbow, All the Pretty Horses, Airships and Love Medicine. I couldn’t go back.

But, some authors have made the cut. I didn’t, for instance, start reading Philip K. Dick until I was 22, and he’s one of my favorite authors.

I know the genre well. So, just for the hell of it, here’s a brief list of my picks for the best science fiction novels of all time:

The Genocides by Thomas Disch—the last people of the world being exterminated like vermin by a superior race. Science as this is how the world ends.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem—three lonely scientists study a living planet that warps their perceptions and toys with their minds. Science as disorienting loneliness and existential despair.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick—a world rundown and awash with androids, the only test is how well a human can care for an animal. Only, there might not be any animals left. Science as miserable stand-in for religion.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick—reality itself is a social construct easily dismantled through widespread drug use. Science as reality-warping control construct.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester—a vicious murderer in the far future is given the technology to destroy the entirety of existence. Science as oppression and liberation.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman—faster than light travel leaves a marine fighting in a two thousand year war, which for him lasts only a few years. Every time he leaves hyperspace he finds his civilization vastly changed. Science as military bludgeon.

Eden by Stanislaw Lem—the great first contact novel about a group of stranded scientists befuddled then disgusted by an alien civilization that appears genocidal and evil. Science as a clash of civilizations.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells—the one that started it all, the lean, scary, bizarre vision of the industrial era amplified through thousands of years of evolution. Science as mouthpiece of depressing prophecy.

Dune by Frank Herbert—the cynical, epic, strange tale of court intrigue over a desert planet some ten thousand years in the future. Science as magic.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons—the Canterbury Tales in the far future, centered around a semi-mythical creature called the Shrike[3]. Science as folklore and fantasy.

Slaughterhouse Five—a man becomes unstuck in time, phasing in and out of his life from a World War II grunt to a human specimen in an alien zoo. Science as absurdist coping mechanism.

4.

Pohl was an early science fiction writers, one of John W. Campbell’s pupils, a futurist who early on wrote novels that celebrated human achievement. This was before the atom bomb and the specter of total annihilation suffused the genre with darkness, despair and death. Two world wars and the atom bomb changed everything. Science wasn’t going to save us; it was going to destroy not only us but every living thing. Science isn’t inherently good, it’s directionless, rudderless, and only as decent as the people who wield it. Progress is a lie. Extrapolating humanity’s future from the dismal present looked more and more futile, like Orwell’s famous quote: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

A man floats around with hydrogen creatures. Cheesy, but not as cheesy as it sounds.

A man floats around with hydrogen creatures. Cheesy, but not as cheesy as it sounds.

Jem is an odd book. It has a number of plots shuffling around inside of it. There’s a love story, a geopolitical thriller, a first contact story, a survival story. The various plotlines get jumbled up from time to time. It feels both too long and too short, overcooked in places and undercooked in others. I didn’t love it.

Here’s the basic story:

Humanity is fractured into different blocs—the food bloc; the people bloc; and the fuel bloc. Each bloc is an amalgamation of countries, competing internally for resources, money, and influence.

A life-sustaining planet is found, and each bloc sends emissaries. The planet is strange. It has one half perpetually illuminated by a dreary red star. The other side is eternal darkness. Three potentially sentient species live there—an underground burrowing creature, a pseudo-pod plant-type creature, and balloon beings that are skin, hydrogen and song.

Each bloc forms an alliance with one of the species and soon the same problems from earth are replaying themselves out again.

Pohl is not a great writer, but he’s clear, better writer than I expected. Here he has a character thinking on the power dynamic of earth:

But really, she reflected, the basic rules were unchanged. The equation of power was utterly clear. No nation could afford to fight any other nation in the whole world anymore. Food, Fuel, and People each owned enough muscle to smash both the others flat, and all of them knew it. Worse than that. Even the tiniest nation had a minute sliver of muscle of its own, gift of the breeder reactors and the waste reclaimers. Not enough to matter in a global sense, no. But Peru could enforce its decisions if driven to. Ecuador could kill Washington or Miami, Denmark could destroy Glasgow, Indonesia could obliterate Melbourne. Fire-bombings and riots—well, what did they matter? There was a permanent simmer of border incidents and small-scale violence. Each year, a few thousand injured, a few scores of hundred dead. But the lid never blew off, because everybody knew what would happen.

Direct, with enough easy chatter to feel like someone’s thoughts, a few interesting flourishes here and there. He’s capable and fun to read. But his ideas are thin. He falters when he writes from the point of view of each of the native races. The writing becomes oblique, trying to be comic and profound at the same time. Here’s a taste:

Suppose you are standing outside of time and space somehow, like an H.G. Wells god looking down from a cloud. You poke your finger into the infinitesimal. You touch Sharn-igon’s planet, and you uncover him. You look him over.

What do you see?

One might try to describe him to you by saying that Sharn-igon was politically conservative, deeply moral, and fundamentally honest.

Ugh and double ugh. These chapters following the sensations and experiences of the alien races ruin the book. It demystifies them, without providing intrigue or thrills. And the writerly voice he assumes when describing them is smug and distasteful. A weird choice that also moves the reader away from the intrigue between the various groups that forms the bulk of the book.

5.

1980 was a very fine year for literature.

In the realm of popular fiction, Stephen King published one of his better early novels, The Dead Zone. Peter Straub put out the very fine horror novel, Ghost Story. John Le Carre published Smiley’s People, a deeper exploration of his melancholic master-spy. Milan Kundera released The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a good novel, if a lightweight precursor to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Philip Roth put out The Ghost Writer.

Angela Carter (British, but she must be mentioned) published The Bloody Chamber. Douglass Adams (ditto) published the first volume of his hilarious, absurdist, and strangely moving science fiction opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. William Golding (um . . . ) released his odd misfire Darkness Visible. Norman Mailer published his epic non-fiction tome, The Executioner’s Song, while Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff, his epic, non-fiction account of the first Apollo spaceflight. V. S. Naipaul published A Bend in the River.

Pohl won the top award over Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Alan Dean Foster (not too difficult there), L. Sprague de Camp, Ursula Le Guin, Jerry Pournelle, and Jack Vance. He belongs with this group of interesting, if ultimately forgettable, science fiction writers. Old pros, all.

6.

But as Pohl’s the only science fiction writer to win the top writing award, his recognition becomes appallingly strange, and a sham. America has produced an enormous crop of science fiction, and it’s one of our great contributions to literature[4]. In a hundred years, the 20th century will probably be known in literary circles as the science fiction era. Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Herbert, Alfred Bester, J. G. Ballard (British but so good), William Gibson, John Crowley (a Canadian, but we’ll claim him), Joe Haldeman, Bruce Sterling, and James Blish, just to name a few, all wrote superb novels, dealing with the social issues of the time.

Plus lesser writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Sheckley, John Brunner, Ray Bradbury (not counting The Martian Chronicles, which is superb, and The Illustrated Man, which is entertaining as hell), Norman Spinrad, Richard Matheson, James E. Gunn, Roger Zelanzy (sacrilege in some circles but this is where I put him), Harlen Ellison (ditto), Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip Jose Farmer, Lester Del Ray, Gene Wolfe (one of Neil Gaiman’s favorite authors) and Larry Niven. Pohl belongs somewhere in here: readable, interesting, but forgettable. Don’t be fooled by Kingsley Amis’s blurb on the front of Jem.

And the old warhorses Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Gordon Dickson (the Dorsai series is really quite good), A.E. Van Vogt, Clifford Simak (soft spot for him, can’t remember why), Lin Carter, and Fritz Lieber.

Am impressive list, if mostly male and white[5].

7.

So Pohl won, time passed, most of his books are out of print. Delaney has cultivated an enormous cult following, Philip K. Dick has modern library editions of his work, and Alfred Bester is rediscovered, then forgotten again.

I won’t read another Frederick Pohl book, not without a sterling recommendation.

Time to move on.


[1] My mom’s were packed with Christian self-help books and Southern Baptist exegetical readings of the Bible.

[2] Most of Marvel’s superheroes are in fact science heroes. Most of DC’s are based in magic. Guess which universe I liked better.

[3] The one book on this list I haven’t read since. Don’t judge me too harshly if it’s mediocre.

[4] This assertion will drive some people nuts.

[5] An issue for a future blog post. There is a black tradition in science fiction, known as Afro-futurism, but I haven’t read enough of it to comment.

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