Frederik Pohl is a science-fiction grandmaster – an incisive and engaging writer who probably would be an internationally celebrated name author if he didn’t work in such a down-market genre. His irresistible 1976 novel Gateway stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game on my personal list of all-time great science-fiction novels. The new collection Platinum Pohl is a showcase for some of his best stories, and would make a splendid Christmas gift for anybody who wants to read top-drawer imaginative fiction and isn’t afraid to look past the officially sanctioned corral occupied by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and other writers who’ve managed to evade the career-killing SCI-FI GUY label. It also includes a three-decade-old story that, remarkably and unintentionally, gives us a glimpse into the soul of George W. Bush, and a warning of what may lie ahead.
The Pohl book couldn’t have come at a better time. We certainly need the help of good science-fiction and fantasy writers in coming to terms with our predicament – an era in which a professional sycophant like David Brooks can go on the Sunday squawk shows to say the Bush Administration still holds the promise of greatness and not be summarily ejected from the studio.
It’s hard not to shudder when reading about this president who is so insulated from reality by delusions and ambitions, wandering around the White House and measuring himself against the men who have gone before him in this awesome job his buddies managed to land for him. Can he equal Lincoln? Probably not, and who’d want to do favors for all those yucky black people, anyway? But there has to be somebody he can outdo. There has to be more to this presidency thing than just funneling public money to your buddies. What is to be his legacy? Transforming the Middle East? Destroying Social Security? Turning New Orleans into a theme park? He’s tried so many different things, and each time the result has been a fiasco. Bush wants to leave his mark on history so badly, he’s like a kid carving his initials into every tree he sees. That’s what’s so scary about this situation. God protect us from a powerful but inadequate man who wants to make history.
Which brings us back to Frederik Pohl and “Shaffery Among the Immortals,” one of the stories in Platinum Pohl. Shaffery, like Bush, is a career mediocrity obsessed with finding his place in the pantheon of history – in Shaffery’s case, scientists like Einstein, Heisenberg and Isaac Newton. After a career of following blind alleys of gimmicky research and making grandstanding predictions that come to nothing, Shaffery finds himself in late middle age with no academic prospects and a barrel-bottom job running an antiquated observatory in the Caribbean. His daily life is a drone of alcohol and desultory experiments – bombarding canned mushrooms with X-rays to see if it prolongs their shelf life is his current project – punctuated by abuse from his patron, a gangster who expects Shaffery to discover a comet or constellation that can be named after him.
And yet, Shaffery attains his dream and becomes a household name, though not in the way he would have liked. The X-ray bombardment turns out to have produced a mutant strain of botulism – the deadly bacterium that thrives in improperly canned food – that can survive in the open air. The new plague travels around the world in jig time, producing more deaths than the Black Plague and the great infLuenza pandemic combined. It goes down in the history books bearing the name of its creator and first victim: Shaffery’s Syndrome.
When I see the Bushies vowing to “stay the course” as they transform Iraq into a training ground for international terrorists, or proclaiming that democracy is just around the corner as they oversee Iraq’s transformation into a Shi’a-dominated puppet state of Iran, I can’t help but think of Shaffery and his bid for immortality, achieved in the worst possible way. We’ll be dealing with the consequences of Bush’s gnarled dreams for generations to come. What’s awful is the realization that he has another three years to pursue those dreams of greatness even further.
May God help us all, and Merry Christmas.
Originally published in The Opinion Mill.