Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories by Frederik Pohl
Platinum Pohl is a career-spanning collection of Frederik Pohl’s best short fiction. Almost every collection of short fiction contains weak stories but I was absolutely blown away by editor James Frenkel’s selection of Pohl’s work. It is one of the best collections of short fiction I have ever read.
Platinum Pohl contains a total of thirty stories, too many to comment on each of them but I’ll name a number of the highlights. The opening story is “The Merchants of Venus,” a novella-length work and the first work than mentions the Heechee, which he would later write a number of novels about. The story deals with the dangers of exploring Venus and how to stay alive on a reasonable income in a high-cost environment. I thought Pohl’s description of Venus very interesting, the way Pohl imagines transport in particular. The story also has a very nice twist at the end, as do many of the other stories in this collection.
“My Lady in Green Sleeves” is set in a world where classes are strictly separated by profession. It has gone so far that one person will not even attempt to do part of another’s job in the absence of a worker from that particular class, believing himself or herself too incompetent to even try. They even have trouble understanding each other’s jargon. There is one environment where all these classes meet and that is in prison. This explosive mixture of talents is bound to be trouble and Captain of the Guard Liam O’Leary can feel the storm coming. Some very interesting social commentary here, especially the ending of the story, but I am not going to give that away. There are a number of these alternate societies in this collection and each of them makes you think about how different it really is from our own. Or how alike.
The next story I want to mention is “The Kindly Isle.” The main character is on a touristic island to check out a half-built hotel his company considers buying. He is somewhat distracted from this task when he sees a former colleague from his days in a top-secret research facility — a colleague who left his job in quite a hurry years ago. This story has a dash of science fiction in it; in a way it deals with biological warfare, but that is not the core of the story. What really makes it a great story is the character development. There are no big explosions or steamy sex scenes even though the author could very well have fitted that in. The story doesn’t need it. The gradual realization of what the main character must do and how events unfold after that decision is brilliant. Structurally it is probably the best story in the collection.
Science fiction and horror can go together very well. George R.R. Martin has proven that more than once with his science fiction/horror hybrids. “Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair” is also a story that could be considered both. What could be better than spending a day with your family at the fair? Well, in this future world, I’d think again. The conclusion is chilling, not only because of what happens at the fair, but also because of how it is justified.
“Servant of the People” is another of my favourites. It is a story dealing with artificial intelligence and if and at what point, they should have the same rights as a human being. In this story they have the right to vote. It deals with the election campaign of a veteran politician. He has beaten all candidates for years but now he has to go up against a non-human opponent. What I particularly liked about this story is that it is not a naked grab for power by evil machines. The sincerity of the robot candidate is so credible that one would not hesitate to vote for him. On the other hand, are we really comfortable with that idea?
The last story is want to mention is “Saucery.” It’s a humorous story about two men who have done very well for themselves in the time UFOs were vastly popular. They each claim to be in contact with alien entities and are not afraid to make money that way. Now they have fallen on hard times, though. A recent expedition to Mars has found life and is bringing back real aliens. Who is going to buy their stories now, when the real thing is about to arrive on Earth? Their businessman-like attitude in facing the crisis while never quite admitting they are frauds is hilarious. A subtle kind of humour is present in many of the stories in Platinum Pohl but it is most outspoken in this one.
Platinum Pohl is a remarkable collection of stories, especially if you take into account that the oldest was published in 1949 and the newest in 1996. The quality remains very high over the years and even the oldest stories have aged well. There is a bit more smoking than we’re used to, the USSR shows up once or twice, and Pohl has had to make up some interesting details about Mars in absence of scientific data, but none of that really bothered me. The author relies on his skill as a writer rather than fast-paced plotting or stunning alien settings. Perhaps that has made some of these stories age more gracefully than a lot of other science fiction. It has certainly convinced me to try more of Pohl’s books.