Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Way the Future Was

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 19, 2001

“The only thing I can find to object to in my grammar-school career was that I don’t remember learning anything in it.”

Frederik Pohl makes me want to pack up my belongings and head out from Michigan to New York City to make my living as a science fiction writer in the community of science fiction writers at the birth of the genre.

AuthorFrederik Pohl
Length318 pages
Book Rating7

At the San Diego Writers’ Guild meeting last night, the speaker told us that memoirs are in the pits. That might explain why this book is out of print, which is too bad. Some writers really do live in interesting times. Reading “The Way the Future Was” is like reading a Tom Wolfe novel of the sixties: it makes me wish I’d lived during those times. Even though, chances are, I’d never have been involved in “the sixties” or the “futurists”, and will never have been involved in whatever’s going on right now. I feel the same say watching rave movies, but I feel no compelling urge to truly go out, get stoned, and dance. But now that I write about it and remember movies like “Groove”, I’m changing my mind.

Need a drink of water.

Pohl began his affair with Science Fiction in 1930 and has worked in the field as fan, writer, editor, and agent since he was ten years old. He has known, in some capacity, most of the other great science fiction writers, fans, and editors. This is a story about growing up as a writer at the same time that science fiction was carving a place for itself in the literary world.

Pohl has been many things over his career in science fiction: fan, futurist, writer, editor, agent. About being an editor for Rogers Terrill at Popular Publications before he was twenty:

I wasn’t really a very good editor. I was learning as fast as I could. But being an editor requires kinds of maturity and resourcefulness you do not find in your average nineteen-year-old. An editor doesn’t have to be always wise and authoritative. But he has to make most of his writers think he is, most of the time, and that is not easy when you don’t yet need to shave more than once a week.

He was editing two magazines, Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories.

I look at those old magazines now and my fingers itch; I want to pick up the telephone and dial 1-9-4-0 and tell that kid what to do. It was an easy time to be an editor. With what I know now I could have made those magazines sing...

Pohl knew everybody then; if he didn’t know them as an editor to a writer, he knew them as writer to editor, or to publisher, or, as was often the case, as a fellow “Futurian”. The Futurians were a science fiction club in New York City: Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Isaac Asimov, Richard Wilson, David A. Kyle, Jack Gillespie, Wlater Kubilius.

The year 1940 was a pretty heady time for everybody, not just nineteen-year-olds with their first editing job. That was the spring that Paris fell; the writing was on the wall. The army had begun the draft. In the summer of 1941, Germany invaded Russia, and all of a sudden Josef Stalin was our friend. And Pohl lost his job as editor and became a freelance writer.

At twenty-one I was far less well organized than I am now. Writing was scary. The stakes were high, my confidence was shakey, I put it off when I could. When I wrote it was in bursts: an eighteen-thousand-word novelette all one night long, taking the last page out of the typewriter at noon and falling exhausted to sleep. To produce so much so quickly and so exhaustingly makes it that much harder to produce again. The experience gives you the confidence that a great deal can be done in a short time, which encourages delay. the memory of the exhaustion gives you the knowledge that it won’t be any fun, which discourages getting started.

He was later rehired, but by then it didn’t matter much: April 1, 1943, he was drafted into the army. He even got married during the war, claiming it was to procure a trip to Paris with a friend, who became his second wife. He talks about his life as a literary agent, as an advertising copywriter.

Pohl was around, if not for the very beginnings of science fiction, for the beginnings of most of what mattered: the “good” magazines, the greatest writers, the fan clubs, the science fiction convention. The beginning of entire lines of science fiction novels instead of monthly fixes through science fiction magazines. Isaac Asimov’s first book (“Pebble in the Sky”) and his role in getting it published with Doubleday. Mimeographed fanzines.

Among all of this, what makes the book fascinating are all the tales about the people, and all the little stories he remembers, all the people he remembers. About the 1950 New York City Metrocon:

It even attracted media coverage. Life sent a crew around, and published a group photograph of the banquet. The saddening thing about the photo, looking at it now, is that so many of the people are dead: Willy Ley, Murray Leinster... the other saddening thing, or at least the sort of rueful thing, is to observe how many of the couples there are couples no longer, or are coupled with different partners. My wife, Carol, is in the picture, but not only were we not yet married, we had barely met.

If you’re a writer, the stories about what goes on (or at least, what went on) among editors, publishers, and literary agents is fascinating and eye-opening. How Pohl claims to have squeeze-played an increase of the prevailing rate of two cents a word for writers to three cents a word. The start of Ballantine Books, Inc. The great practical joke they played on Horace Gold.

Being an agent is almost like being an editor. It satisfies the god complex. John Campbell once told me that if he hadn’t been an editor he would have been either teacher or preacher, and I guess so would I. Problem-solving is always a great high.

Frederik Pohl is a fascinating writer, and I recommend this book for anyone who likes reading about people in a new situation. It will be especially fascinating, however, for science fiction fans.

The Way the Future Was

Frederik Pohl

Recommendation: Purchase

If you enjoyed The Way the Future Was…

For more about Frederik Pohl, you might also be interested in Power Play 2020.