Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What I Learned from Frederik Pohl

My day, like it must have been for most members of the science fiction community at every level, was thrown off by the news of the death of Frederik Pohl, one of the most distinguished and accomplished practitioners in this field. Many have described their sense of loss. Many have tried to outline his accomplishments. Many have recounted personal anecdotes and memories of a complex, brilliant and beautiful (for all his rough and gruff exterior) man. Anything I would attempt to say of that sort would be a repetition of what someone has already said or will say better.
So let me tell you something that I learned from him. Not everything – too much to go through just what I learned reading his stories and novels – but just a little thing.
Some years ago, he was doing a presentation at a con – I don’t remember which one and I don’t remember when. I think it may have been a Q&A session after a reading. One question came from someone in the audience who was very impressed with Pohl’s expertise on a number of topics, especially scientific topics. The audience member asked where Pohl received his doctorate. He assumed, it seemed, that anyone who knew so much about anything must have a doctorate.
Fred said, without any particular pride or embarrassment, just answering the question as honestly and forthrightly as possible, that he was high school dropout. Not only did he not have a “higher” degree, he didn’t have the basic “twelve years of agony” one – though a few years ago, when he was 89, his old alma mater did award him his diploma, an honorary one, but a diploma at last.
The questioner was a little surprised, as I presume many other members in the audience were. I had read Fred’s autobiography, so I knew about his educational background, or lack thereof, if you chose to see it that way.
Which I didn’t.
The thought occurred to me: Never let schooling get in the way of a good education.
Fred Pohl was one of the best educated human beings I knew of. And his education crossed all boundaries. Literature. History. Politics. Science. Technology. It didn’t matter. If he was interested in something, he sought out the answers to his questions in any way available to him.
In our culture, terms like “autodidact” and “polymath” get thrown around. In academic culture, these terms get tossed around with more skepticism and not very much respect, even contempt. The perception is that the self-taught are not up to the real snuff, as if they haven’t “paid their dues.” In some ways I can understand that attitude. In some cases I might share it, since I’m sure some autodidacts are lousy teachers. But I can’t really condone it, because it seems to rate the taking of classes and the following of a curriculum over what you learn in the course of your studies – that the latter isn’t “valid” without the former. Or, to put it more simply, how you learn is more important than what you learn.
I don’t think that sort of value judgment ever got in the way of what Fred Pohl wanted to do. He pursued his interests with passion, enthusiasm and determination. He was open to new ideas and willing to take them to what Theodore Sturgeon called “the next question.” And what he learned, he shared.
It’s not that degrees or programs are bad things. Quite the contrary. But they’re not the only things. We tend to forget that. A lot.
Fred Pohl’s passion for knowledge and his desire to share what he learned embodied what is best in the field of science fiction, and what I love most about it.
There may have never been a time when the field wasn’t divided into camps and cadres of folks who knew, or at least suspected, what everyone else was doing wrong with science fiction. Hell, as a Futurian, Fred Pohl hung out with a gang who did their share of that. But the “beauty thing,” in the current parlance, about Pohl was how often he looked out and beyond all that internecine criticism.
And it’s probably one of the things we should remember about Frederik Pohl now, as many will eulogize him in the next few days, and as we’ll remember him from here on. That science fiction, like humanity, is a work in progress, and it doesn’t help to worry about what does or doesn’t fit within the boundaries, for the boundaries are ever-expanding.
May we do half as good a job of not letting our schooling get in the way of our education.
My deepest condolences to Betty Anne Hull and the rest of the Pohl family. 


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. A degree is not necessarily proof of how intelligent a person is. There are many levels of intelligence. And sadly, many people are not being given a chance because they lack a degree.