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Fred Pohl

May 17, 2012


The Campbell list has led me to reflect on the past winners of this award, in particular Fred Pohl, who won for Gateway in 1978 and for The Years of the City in 1985.

Much has been written about Gateway; I recommend Jo Walton’s reflections on Tor blog. What impresses me most is the complexity of the protagonist and his relationship with people and machines. Pohl was way ahead of his time in foreseeing the problematic effects of humans outsourcing themselves–and the services of fellow humans. Looking back on Gateway also reminds me of a time when, despite all our human problems, people still flung themselves out into space. What has become of that spirit today?

  1. May 17, 2012 8:20 pm

    What indeed, Joan. The probability that solar system colonization will be the only answer to our conflicts between our tech and our ecology makes space-flunging a near-proven necessity–I think people are disappointed with the realities of the actual flunging, not to mention the staying-there–what were once dreams are now realizable projects requiring enormous commitment and investment.

  2. paws4thot permalink
    May 18, 2012 5:57 am

    All kinds of things, like the creeping “elvin* safety culture” which demands that going into space becomes less hazardous than going out to get your newspaper.

    The misplaced belief that NASA is a major cash sink. Other than a few years during Apollo when it was as high as 4%, NASA’s typical budget has been 05..1.0% of the US federal budget. I’ll bet that a straw poll in your lunch room will find at least one person tho thinks it’s more like 20% though.

    * ‘health and’ pronounced with some SE English accents sounds more like ‘elvin’.

    • paws4thot permalink
      May 18, 2012 5:58 am

      typo correction “…has been zero point five to 1 point zero per cent…”

  3. heteromeles permalink
    May 18, 2012 11:57 am

    For me, it was a bunch of things, starting with reading the early Scientific American story about the effects of zero-gee on human bodies, and pretty much ending with Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, coupled with the long discussions on Charlie Stross’ blog about how to make a starship.

    My basic feeling is that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation running around about space, and ease of human space travel is part of it.

    According to Mullane (who lost close personal friends in both shuttle explosions), NASA isn’t risk averse. Rather, it is readily swayed by politics, and in the name of politics, they’ll take some amazingly stupid risks. He’s ridden into space multiple times, and while he devoted his life to the pursuit of space, he pulls no punches about how dangerous the shuttle was, especially when Congress was pulling strings and NASA administrators wanted things to look shiny and non-threatening for the media. I highly recommend reading it if you think NASA is risk averse.

    There are two big issues here. One is that safe space travel depends on a bunch of technologies that we don’t have yet, including reliable techniques for keeping people healthy in free-fall, cheap, light, effective radiation shielding, cheap, light, effective debris shielding, good psychological methods for keeping people caged with each other for months to years, or good knowledge about how to make a dinky-ass, closed biosphere in freefall that can reliably support humans for years. And that doesn’t even touch the propulsion issues.

    Interplanetary human travel is on the list with power from fusion, humanoid robots, and cheap alternative energy as one of those problems that’s turned out to be much harder to solve than most people thought.

    The second issue is that we have already colonized space, to the point where decolonization of space will be seriously inconvenient for everyone reading this blog. I’m talking, of course, about our ubiquitous use of satellites for communications, GPS, and monitoring the planet. Commerce, especially international commerce and airline travel, depends on satellites for everything from precise location information to detailed weather forecasts. Our use of satellites effectively uses the resources of space, whereas human colonization of space will always be an extremely marginal proposition. It is orders of magnitude easier to build a self-sufficient city under a dome on the Antarctic ice cap or on the abyssal plain than it is to build it on an asteroid, after all, and I don’t see much interest in either venture.

    One deep irony is that all these cries for manned spaceflight divert necessary funds from our satellite fleet. We’re running short of weather satellites, for example, and there have been calls to divert money from replacing them to fund the next generation manned spaceflight. Need I point out how many people will die if we lose our ability to, say, forecast where hurricanes will make landfall?

    The other deep irony is the looming problem of debris in low orbit. And there’s the looming issue of space war. One thing I’m comfortable predicting is that humans will lose most or all of our satellites if the US gets into a shooting war with another space power, and it will be extremely difficult to replace them all, due in part to the debris generated from the space powers exploding each others’ satellites. It’s a grim picture, but it’s worth realizing how much we have to lose if we go to war with the wrong country. Think: no GPS, no weather satellites, no telecommunications satellites.

    Anyway, that’s where our dream of space travel has gone. We have colonized space to the point where we’re planning battles for it, and no one noticed because it wasn’t what SFF conditioned us to expect..

    • May 19, 2012 9:26 am

      All you say is reasonable–and would have been just as reasonable at the time of Vespucci and Columbus, and all the Pacific islanders. Zero-g sickness is a problem–but look at scurvy. Nobody back then imagined oceanic travel would become routine, let alone jet travel.

      What was foolish is putting an elementary school teacher on a space ship, instead of hard-core astronaut adventurers like Sally Ride. Today’s commercial venturers know better. Wait and see what SpaceX does.

      I’m inclined to agree that, most probably, inorganic humanoids will be the ones to reach thet stars. But by then they’ll be “humans” with constitutional rights. So let’s keep flinging. 🙂

      • May 19, 2012 3:38 pm

        I puzzled by your opposition to schoolteachers on shuttles–it was unfortunate that Christa McAuliffe was on board the Challenger in 1986–but the same could be said for the whole crew. I presume her participation was voluntary.
        Even if the educational value of her plans to broadcast lessons from space was minimal, it has always been true that NASA’s continued funding required popular support and that many of NASA’s victories have been PR victories.
        Besides, wasn’t your latest book about students in space? What’s with the double-standard, Teach?

        • May 19, 2012 8:42 pm

          *Elementary* school is beyond the line. Her whole class of children watched the launch–and they all saw it explode. Too much trauma IMHO.

          In my book, actually, it was controversial having a college in a spacehab that might explode. That’s why the college president wonders in the end, if it was worth it. But they’re adults–as the dean of students reminds them. College is a magic age: young enough to feel immortal, yet grownup enough to change the world.

  4. paws4thot permalink
    May 21, 2012 7:36 am

    I’m a bit confused by your May 19th at 8:42PM Joan. If you’re arguing that this class (and possibly the 2 or 3 previous years she taught) were “particularly traumatised because someone they knew just died” should we:-
    1) Ban all active astronauts from PR activities involving children?
    2) Ban all elementary school teachers from “dangerous sports”?

    Every so often a roll of the dice means that a schoolteacher does something and dies as a result.

    • May 21, 2012 10:39 am

      Yes, you’re right; and at Frontera, there were plenty of children.

      In the case of Challenger, sending an elementary school teacher with such huge publicity had the effect of implying the mission was safer than it was. Also, the way it was done–all the children were in class watching on TV, and actually saw the explosion. Then all the reporters rushing in. It was horrible.

      It is a big question, how much children should be protected. On the one hand, Americans are hyperprotective of where children go, what side effects of vaccines etc. On the other hand, nobody seems to care how much pollution we expose them to–and how much their environment will be degraded for their future.

      • paws4thot permalink
        May 21, 2012 3:04 pm

        Para 2, sentence 3 describes an aspect of medern “reporting” that I particularly object to; as soon as $thing happens, there’s a mad scramble to be the first to stick a microphone up the nose of the participants, and as many of their friends and relatives as possible. Give us time to process $thing people!!

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