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Frederik Pohl: The Science-Fiction Master Who Foresaw George W. Bush

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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.

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About Steven Hart

  • mildewedandsmoldering

    Mr. Hart, I’ve just perused your homepage and some of your links. I’m curious, and humour me if you will, is personal comfort or personal freedom more important to you?

  • Aaman

    pizza with olives, actually

  • When I think of what this country has become since the smirking chimp first had the right to occupy the White House bestowed upon him through the machinations of his brother, his Florida campaign manager, and his fellow ideological thugs on the Supreme Court, Shaffery’s Syndrome sounds like a comparatively easy way out.

    You’re spot-on in your assessment of Iraq. However, I don’t believe that the formation of a training ground for Mujahadeen is an accident. To the contrary, conservatives and neo-cons are only capable of defining themselves – and by extension, America – when they’re against something. Women’s rights, gay right’s, Social Security, Affirmative Action, the First Amendment, the list goes on and on. Show me something the modern Republican Party stands for that doesn’t involve denying or taking away something from someone, and I’ll pull a winged monkey from my backside.

    Without the “threat” of the Soviet Union to serve as a counterpoint against which to define itself, conservative ideology and those holding it were as bankrupt as the Savings and Loans the Bush family raided during the 1980s. That’s why Bill Clinton won two terms and the Republican capture of Congress was all but over before Tom DeLay funded a legislative coup d’tat in Texas with dirty money to ensure a neo-con majority in the House. If it hadn’t been for 9/11 the Republicans would have been in the Congressional minority again by 2002; without a Muslim boogeyman to keep us all “safe” from, the public had as little use for the shrub then as they do now.

    Dumb-ya has already earned his place in history – as the head of the most inept and corrupt Republican administration since U.S. Grant’s. Let’s hope the public doesn’t give his party the same free pass in the wake of the Iraq Invasion that they gave the Republicans after the Civil War.

  • It’s a shame that Pohl isn’t better known these days. I wouldn’t quite put him up there with Miller, Card (and Brunner), but pretty close. Of course you can find the foreshadowing of almost everything political and cultural in science fiction.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Because science fiction is the source for so many of my ideas, I’m happy to see a deserving writer like Frederick Pohl praised so highly for a short story.

    Nice job.

  • Baronius

    This is frustrating. I’d forgotten about Pohl, an author I’d always wanted to read. But the intellectual laziness of the above (Race! Jeb!) reflects poorly on Pohl indirectly.

  • Bennett

    I thought it was a fine bit of writing to meld current events with the writings of a great author. Good job Steven!

    For a while there I thought we were heading into a theocratic dictatorship on Bush’s watch (a la Heinlein), but he seems to have sold that path out to the business interests who value the status quo in the short term, over anything in the long term.

    Make hay while the sun shines, nothing matters but the current quarter’s profit.

  • JR

    Three words: The Space Merchants.