Frederik Pohl, RIP. A nice write-up from Annalee Newitz, at i09. [UPDATE: Henry’s memorial post went up while I was writing this one!]
My friend’s dad was a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club, so his house looked about how you would expect, when someone offers you 12 for a dollar (I think it was) and then sends you another every time you forget to send in the card saying you don’t want it (was how I think it worked). So I borrowed some books. Gateway had an awesome Boris cover. The other one that really knocked my socks off was John Varley, Titan. And Stephen King, Firestarter. Wow! But that was a bit later. Gateway was my gateway drug. In the book, we humans have found Gateway: mysterious alien space station chock full of these ships. You can start one up and it will fly out and back. But no one can figure out where any given ship is going – whether it will take you to some fantastic place where you collect alien artifacts to make you rich; or dunk you into the heart of a star. Also, maybe your food runs out. Prospector potluck. Kind of a nifty premise.
That’s sort of what my life was like, pop culture-wise. My parents had kids late and were very much not into anything describable as ‘pop culture’ while I was growing up. My dad grew up on a farm in the Depression, which limited his opportunities to have anything like the childhood he ended up providing for me in the ‘70’s. He just never related to that in the slightest. He became a historian, but his history and mine didn’t mesh. My mom took me to Star Wars and, she told me afterwards, she’d never seen anything like it in her life. She didn’t dislike it. She just wasn’t prepared for it and, in some sense, just couldn’t take it in – despite being a fairly culture-conscious college graduate in other ways. I didn’t have older brothers or sisters, or cousins or older kids I knew who could direct me to what was cool. We had a black and white TV, but that was grandma’s (she lived with us). We watched cartoons on Saturdays (we were always hoping for the good Bugs Bunny ones) and Wide World of Disney, after Lawrence Welk on Sunday nights. I also watched Star Trek. For music, I had a small transistor radio on which I would listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown.
I wanted to find cool stuff. But I was reduced to pushing buttons and spinning dials a bit randomly, whenever I found something new and alien. I hadn’t learned how to learn, so for sure I hadn’t learned how to find someone to ask how to learn how to learn.
When I got to 7th grade I met the friend whose dad had the science fiction shelf – or floor, as it were. (My dad had shelves of academic books on US history and foreign relations, none of which I wanted to read in 7th grade. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even regard all that stuff lining the hallway as reading material. It was just the wall.)
I remember being astonished that you were allowed to publish a novel with the word ‘shit’ in it. That’s amazing! This discovery, for me, was like one of those Gateway trips where you go out and bring back something genuinely valuable. I had seldom before read something for pleasure that was not approved by the Comics Code of America. I read Marvel comics, not DC. (Sure I had been privileged to see a few issues of Playboy. But it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the articles. Duh.)
Pohl’s Gateway was, in some ways, my introduction to thinking about adulthood. Just in the sense that it was a book with adults in it, being adult-ish. Alien beings! I think I had never really met an adult – not to talk to. (I had known my parents all my life. They don’t count.) There’s some sex n’ stuff in there alongside all the spaceships. Pohl’s protagonist is being psychoanalyzed by a robot. Ain’t that a thing? I had no idea what psychoanalysis was. Wow! Just imagine it. A robot trying to mess with your mind, to make you better.
I didn’t like Gateway better than my X-Men comics. It didn’t affect me more, but it affected me a bit differently.
Pohl’s death is being marked as the end of an era. I’m thinking of the end of a different era. I was so … isolated, culturally. I’m not asking for your pity, damnit! I’m telling you a funny story! I had a fine childhood, really. Good friends. I walked a lot. My parents left me to my own devices without any of this ‘hey, let’s watch Adventure Time together’ nonsense I share with my girls. They mildly disapproved, uncomprehendingly, of everything I liked as it came along – comics, Star Trek, D&D, science fiction, rock music – but they didn’t try to stop me. I think mine was only a relatively extreme case of something more common back then: a generation gap. We don’t have them anymore. Kids are kids and grown-ups are kids. And the kids grow up quicker.
I was totally unplugged in but I wanted to plug in but I didn’t even know what that meant. Then I found Gateway, almost totally at random. Score! No kid today grows up in such a peculiar state of semi-starvation, media-wise. A world in which you might be almost a teenager and literally not know where to go to get someone a bit older to tell you what’s cool. Just imagine it!
I’m not saying I was normal for the time. Literally all my friends’ parents were divorced. Their homes were chaotic, which made them fun for me. Mine was this calm, safe place – so calm I never thought about it. My friends liked my house. My friend whose divorced dad loaned me Gateway became a fundamentalist Christian. I think he doesn’t let his kids even read Harry Potter now. (I’m not sure about that. I haven’t seen him for years.)