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Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories
Frederik Pohl
Orb paperback $16.95

review by Andrew Darlington

Frederik Pohl has been writing fiction across more decades than most of us have been alive. Yet his stories seldom betray their vintage, instead, they chameleon into some timeless Pohl-space that defies time. Sure, in the earliest of these tales - Let The Ants Try (1949), there's a three-hour nuclear war that destroyed civilisation in 1960, but so precise a date detracts nothing from the accelerating plot, which switches around through time altering the present with dizzying speed. While the plot of Waiting For The Olympians (1988) - which I'd not read before, vaguely mirrors Philip K. Dick's Man In A High Castle in which a sci-rom writer in an alternate present is (reluctantly) persuaded to concoct a fantasy alternate history of a world which sounds suspiciously like our own.

There, the resemblance ceases. In his time-stream, the Roman Empire persists, to become global. Here, it is Roman legions that clash with the Mayan civilisation, not Spanish conquistadors. Christianity never happened, Jesus was let off with a caution, there was no crucifixion, and hence the cult based on the cruciform icon never took off. Is that good? Pohl is morally equivocal. He provides no neat equation. In the global Roman Empire there is no war. But there is institutionalised slavery, the morality of which the characters never question. And such matters are incidental anyway. The narrative is mainly concerned with Julius' brainstorming deadline-haunted search for a plotline for his next novel, in which he's assisted by friend Flavius Samuelus who just might be a disguised version of Isaac Asimov, or perhaps not. While simultaneously threading his restless travels from the London backwaters, through the Imperial city itself and down to Alexandria, is a further plot thread - the impending arrival of a first-contact alien delegation. But that's of lesser importance. When the aliens inexplicably break off contact and return to the stars, it's of lesser consequence than the progress of his seduction of Rachel, and the success of his novel. Not the vital alternate history, but the rejected earlier novel that led to the imposition of his publisher's 30-day deadline in the first place. Pohl's morality can be quirky, if not downright perverse. Why have the aliens chosen not to make contact? Again, you draw your own conclusions. Because Earth still practises slavery? Possibly, but Pohl stays schtum.

Elsewhere, Day Million (1966) - which I'd already read several times before, is still a stunning foray into head-spinning future-sex. It originally appeared in Rogue - a soft-porn mag... or maybe that's too strong a term for the time, perhaps a 'girlie pin-up' title would be a more accurate description. But what must have made a puzzling read for its sensation-seeking readership retains the potential to amaze as its multi-sexual hyper-evolved protagonists pursue their convoluted but effortlessly inventive courtship. And if Pohl seems unfeasibly pleased that a now-forgotten Liverpool indie-band took their name from his story-title The Day The Icicle Works Closed (1959), then the story is way-better than anything that minor-league band ever produced. The most recent of the 30 titles in this fine collection - The Mayor Of Mare Tranq, rescued from a 1996 anthology, is a playfully affectionate tribute portraying fellow-writer and sometime-collaborator Jack Williamson as the man who saved JFK from the Dallas assassination, and as a reward gets to crew the Apollo moonshot alongside Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Consistent with his four decades-plus of stories, it shows that to Pohl, all of time and all of space are tinker-toys to make and re-shape at whim. Always have been. These are stories that creatively crumple reality into imaginative paper-shapes, and seldom give their age away.
Platinum Pohl

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