by John Holbo on September 3, 2013

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!]

A personal story. I read my first Pohl book, Gateway [amazon], in 1978. I was 11. Wikipedia will spoil the plot for you, if you’re into that sort of stuff.

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.)



Horvendile 09.03.13 at 11:53 pm

I’m so glad you mentioned Gateway. The Times Obit didn’t give it a not though it mentioned “the Heechee Series.” I always called it the Gateway Series. It was the best thing he wrote and it isn’t getting the attention.,


Harry 09.04.13 at 12:31 am

My parents are very close in age to me (I’m a bit older than you — they were 20, and 23, when I was born), but their attitude to my cultural up-pickings was very much like what you describe. And they were pretty hip, I think. One of the things, though, was that it was harder for them to share anything cultural with me than it is for me to with my kids (I was 33, 37, 43 when they were born) because the stuff just wasn’t around. My dad loved Norman and Henry Bones, and Dan Dare, and Journey Into Space (David Jacobs just died) and the Goons, and none of that was reprinted or repeated. (Really, was Dan Dare so different from the Marvel comics I read). He would talk about Hutton and Washbrook (especially Washbrook) — but I could only read about them (and did), not see them. By contrast — well, see my previous post, I suppose, but all three kids know and love Round the Horne, and Just A Minute, and the Beano, and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, and Catweazle, and Dr Who — and we live on a different continent to the one I grew up in. Oh, and the girls and I all know and love Journey Into Space and The Goons, and my dad doesn’t even really know it.


John Quiggin 09.04.13 at 1:55 am

I’ve got 10+ years on John H, but my experience was pretty much the same. My parents grew up in the Depression and the War. Politically, there’s a fair bit of continuity – the contrast between the Depression and postwar social democracy was and remains a big deal for me, as it was for them – but culturally the Generation Gap was complete.


John Holbo 09.04.13 at 5:02 am

I should probably clarify that my friend, who – so I hear – later decided this stuff was a bad influence, was way into sf and D&D just like I was. So it wasn’t that I was reading his dad’s sf and he wasn’t. He thought Gateway was totally cool, too.

That’s a good point, Harry, about how old media wasn’t sharable with the next generation, unless you happened to have that complete run of Dan Dare or whatever.

I am struck by how conservative pop culture is, in a way. How established and stable and accumulative and canonical, over the past half century. Belle just introduced Zoe to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. That’s totally cool, man. But wait. It’s 40 years old. In 1979 no one was going to introduce me to something from 1939 and have it be totally cool and still ‘current’ the way that Ziggy Stardust is. Or the Beatles. I mean: someone could have introduced me to swing. But if I’d been listening to 30’s swing in 1979 I would have been one weird 12 year old. If Zoe turns out to be a 12 year old who likes early Bowie instead of One Direction, that won’t be weird in the least.


garymar 09.04.13 at 7:07 am

Well, 1939 gave us The Wizard of Oz, which we watched every Thanksgiving through the 1970s. From that era would be Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, all the Marx brothers movies. We religiously watched the Three Stooges every morning before school. And Shirley Temple Theater had a Shirley Temple movie on every Saturday morning.

So the movies section of pop culture does have a continuity reaching that far back. But no one listens to the Andrews Sisters on their own any more, only when they’re embedded in a movie.


Adam Roberts 09.04.13 at 7:17 am

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.

This is really interesting, I think (because, you’re right: I too sit down with my kids to watch Adventure Time and play Donkey Kong Country and my parents didn’t do anything like that with me. I’m a big kid.) It cuts both ways, though, doesn’t it? Because the point of being a kid when I was a kid was to be as different from your parents as possible. I really wouldn’t have wanted my Dad to sit down and watch 1975’s equivalent of Adventure Time with me, back then. I’m not sure we have the rebel-without-a-cause youth ethic any more, at least not in quite the way we used to.


Belle Waring 09.04.13 at 7:19 am

Well, my parents brung me up listening to old timey music from the ’30s and ’40s, but that’s because they were super into blues and country music. I wasn’t a weird kid in South Carolina for loving all the bands on our amazing 6-record set: “The History of Country Music,” which came out in 1963. I was weird for other reasons. I had the opposite thing of having very young, super-cool parents [too cool, sorry mom, mad props but you know I’m right!]. The result was that as a small child I listened to Never Mind the Bollocks–Here’s the Sex Pistols when it came out. I liked the song “Submission” because I thought it was actually about a submarine mission (I’m not asking for your pity either!). The difficulty for our family was often in trying to understand lyrics. The Clash? “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” was my favorite song when I was 13 but I only knew 60% of the words. Fucking “Stay Free,” Jesus, I couldn’t even start with that. Likewise some classic reggae–Desmond Dekker, the what now?

I never read Stargate till our books merged. Everybody should go run and read it, it’s so the best Frederick Pohl. He’s undergoing Freudian analysis by an AI, the main character. The (non-virtual) space in which they meet is endlessly mutable, and one day he comes in and there’s no furniture, everything’s just carpeted, and there’s a 10-foot-long bunny-costumed thing on the floor, that basically says, OK, our session is going to take place with you down here on the floor holding me. So, for that whole session he’s lying on the floor snuggling his AI analyst. In general, it’s much more like an Iain M. Banks novel than much pre-Iain M. Banks science fiction.


bad Jim 09.04.13 at 8:07 am

The first Gateway novel ends with two ships in route to, as usual, an unknown destination. The protagonist shares cramped quarters with his girlfriend and is affronted by the smell resulting from her copious consumption of asparagus (and by the antics of the gay crew of the other vessel).

This came to mind recently when a Latina friend got her results from 23andMe and asked what “asparagus metabolite detection” meant. Her genes suggest that she may not be able to smell it, and she didn’t remember that detail from the first chapter of “Love in the Time of Cholera”.

Europeans, who consider asparagus a strictly seasonal treat, need to understand that an American spacefarer might consider it completely reasonable to stock up for a trip.

One thing that Pohl did was to maintain a left-wing tendency in science fiction. We may take it for granted now, but it wasn’t a sure thing in the heyday of Heinlein.


guthrie 09.04.13 at 10:16 am

What struck me about Gateway was the dystopian future of it – the earth is overcrowded and under-resourced, so gambling on incomprehensible alien technology is a really good idea rather than one reserved for the terminally ill. It’s actually a kind of dystopia.

Since then I’ve noticed human unpleasantness and sad endings as a common thread in Pohl’s work, which is why I’ve not read many of them, although they aren’t very common in 2nd hand bookstores in the UK anyway.


bob mcmanus 09.04.13 at 11:55 am

In 1979 no one was going to introduce me to something from 1939 and have it be totally cool and still ‘current’ the way that Ziggy Stardust is.

Billie Holiday was part of my generation’s music (Lady Sings the Blues was 1972) but the exception proves the rule.

Reinhardt and Grappelli, Guthrie and Leadbelly, Terry and McGhee.


bob mcmanus 09.04.13 at 12:09 pm

In 1979 no one was going to introduce me to something from 1939 and have it be totally cool and still ‘current’ the way that Ziggy Stardust is.

I spent a little time yesterday just glancing at the covers of 1960s If and Galaxy to see what Pohl was doing as editor, but learned little besides his nurturing of New Wavy SF. Pohl was very important as an editor.

Specifically, I wondered if he was as historical as Wollheim, reprinting the older stuff. As an SF reader in the 60s, I read the likes of Ellison, Dick, Delany but Howard, EE Smith, Moore and Kuttner, even Doc Savage were always kept in print and available.
I think the constant dialogue with its history is what makes SF a modernist medium, maybe like comics, but much more than film or tv.


chris y 09.04.13 at 12:27 pm

Reinhardt and Grappelli, Guthrie and Leadbelly, Terry and McGhee.

Reinhardt, Guthrie and Leadbelly were dead or disabled before I could do anything about it, but I saw the other three many times, and the audiences were full of cool kids. It’s the uncool kids who are unaware of the previous generations music/movies/fashions.


Belle Waring 09.04.13 at 12:37 pm

Do Europeans consider asparagus a seasonal treat now? Our children were excited once time when they saw a spear that was as big around as my little finger, having never seen one larger than a pencil before. They grow all ours in Malaysia. I mean, here in Asia one sees it constantly available, as one does in America, it can’t be very different in Europe. Certainly no one is lovingly burying the stalks in more and more earth as they reach up so they are pallid and delicious–I have never had them like that, really.

bob mcmanus was listening to the same music as my parents, so I was listening to plenty of music from long before my parents were born, and I definitely knew about more cool music as an 8th-grader both because I knew about Robert Johnson and because I knew about the Velvet Underground (music my peers acknowledged was cool, subsequently). But it’s true that if someone didn’t literally hand these things to you it could be hard to find out. As a teen I had the self-same copy of Exile on Main Street that we had played in my family’s leather store in Savannah, GA when I was 5 and 6. I had to weight the needle arm with 2 quarters and three or so nickels to get it to play. It still sounded like someone was frying bacon the whole time, but in a homey way, and better than the noise coming out of this MacBook.


chris y 09.04.13 at 12:47 pm

Belle, some asparagus is more equal than others. There’s asparagus that you’d actually want to eat steamed, with a shedload of butter or hollandaise, and there’s the stuff that’ll do at a pinch in a casserole or something. The former is seasonal, the latter not so much.


Belle Waring 09.04.13 at 2:05 pm

Since then I’ve noticed human unpleasantness and sad endings as a common thread in Pohl’s work, which is why I’ve not read many of them, although they aren’t very common in 2nd hand bookstores in the UK anyway.
That was exactlywhy I gave up on English Literature as well. Though it is more common in 2nd hand bookstores in the UK.

chris y: alright, so, assume I am a cretinous moron–wait you know I’m from America–anyway, one who has, however, grown and eaten asparagus on her family’s failed hippie farm, which was quite a successful hippie garden. I’ve also eaten plenty of delicious asparagus in East Hampton in NY in the spring, my grandfather was very fond of it. So, you consider the tiny stalks we have here…thin gruel or something? I like them because you can eat them alllmost raw, not actually raw which would be bready and revolting, but steamed for a nanosecond and then with butter on them. My grandfather preferred them much larger, as did we when we were growing them, because duh. We would bend them till they snapped and cook above there with judicious peeling if we felt any of those iffy peticules around the bottom were getting problematic. As usual you could look at the pre WWII cookbooks and wonder, was the earth made of sterner stuff? Or were men, perhaps, exceedingly weak and timid, and frightened of vitamins? Who would need to boil asparagus for 45 minutes? Would there be anything left at the end? Collard greens and fat meat, OK. I can do it differently, too, but both ways are good. Green beans: tiny green beans that are blanched and reheated in butter are a different thing from–and way better–than long green beans you snapped the top and bottom off of and de-stringed and snapped in half, each one by one, and cooked with bacon, but they are both good foods. What the fuck with the asparagus though? I’m not blaming you for these latter problems, chris y, only noting them. Otherwise, enlighten me as to what I am missing besides the “didn’t produce chlorophyll” (which, in itself, sounds great.)


Zamfir 09.04.13 at 3:14 pm

I don’t know about asparagus elsewhere, but here they are definitely seasonal. Exactly as Chris says, the really good kind is seasonal, other kinds can be had year round and in tin cans etc.


Zamfir 09.04.13 at 3:19 pm

Good ones are purely white


chris y 09.04.13 at 3:52 pm

Now we’re talking about the finer points of personal taste in luxury foods, which is in itself a little embarrassing. But me, I like thin green asparagus, I like fat white asparagus. The point is, I like it better the less time it’s been out of the ground, and if it’s fresh I don’t care about the colour. tl;dr: what Zamfir said.

In other news, anybody who boils asparagus for 45 minutes should be put on trial at the Hague for crimes against everybody and everything.


chris y 09.04.13 at 4:23 pm

Is it permissible to suggest, by the way, that though Gateway was completely awesome, both Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous were some way short of the great man’s best work.


NomadUK 09.04.13 at 5:14 pm

chris y@19: Not only permissible, but pretty much obligatory.


mistah charley, ph.d. 09.04.13 at 5:17 pm

When I was 16 a friend and I attended the 21st World Science Fiction Convention in Washington, DC (Discon), along with about 598 other people. We attended a panel where Pohl spoke. He had severe stage fright – when he stood up he took a drink from a water glass which wobbled in a comical way – some of us in the audience laughed because we thought he was joking. However, he was unable to continue, so the next panelist spoke. After that Pohl was able to address us, but he did so sitting down.

The toastmaster at the banquet was Isaac Asimov. There was a bit of very slightly ribald banter at the beginning – someone stood up and said, “Dr. Asimov, where were you last night?” He replied, “I was in bed.” “One more question, Dr.—” “No more questions,” Asimov said sternly.


Shatterface 09.04.13 at 5:48 pm

That’s totally cool, man. But wait. It’s 40 years old. In 1979 no one was going to introduce me to something from 1939 and have it be totally cool and still ‘current’ the way that Ziggy Stardust is. Or the Beatles. I mean: someone could have introduced me to swing. But if I’d been listening to 30′s swing in 1979 I would have been one weird 12 year old. If Zoe turns out to be a 12 year old who likes early Bowie instead of One Direction, that won’t be weird in the least.

Which is kind of ironic because in the Seventies the Thin White Duke was getting all nostalgic for the Thirties.


Shatterface 09.04.13 at 5:57 pm

The New Wave seemed to have indirectly rejuvinated some of the Old Guard in the Seventies: Pohl with Gateway and Man Plus, Asimov with The God’s Themselves, Clarke with Fountains of Paradise and Rendezvous with Rama. They’re among the authors’ best works.


lige 09.04.13 at 7:19 pm

I always think about the “food mines” every time I hear about the tar sands of Canada.


JakeB 09.04.13 at 8:14 pm

Shatterface @23–

Although if you had included Heinlein in that list, the gods themselves might have smote you.


guthrie 09.04.13 at 9:10 pm

Of course I forgot to say that what Pohl wrote that I have read was good.
I think he was pretty much the last golden age author still alive? Certainly his books have always been somewhat less well known and less famous than other authors.
Perhaps the other most famous work of his is the collaboration with Kornbluth, the Space Merchants stuff.
Has Pohl himself written much about what he wrote and why he wrote it?


guthrie 09.04.13 at 9:10 pm

Hmm, another comment of mine awaits moderation, if someone would be so kind as to release it.


John Holbo 09.04.13 at 10:33 pm

Sorry about the delay, guthrie. Not sure what you said that seemed presumptively immoderate.


John Holbo 09.04.13 at 10:52 pm

Re: pop continuity. It is certainly true that, had I been into 30’s swing jazz in the 70’s I would have been the coolest kid on the block. It’s not that this was impossible. Second Eddie Izzard joke of the week. “Fifty. Years. Ago! No! No one was ALIVE then!”

But there is a sense in which – so it seems to me – the lack of generation gap is due to a homogeneity of pop culture that I date from the mid-60’s, roughly. My point isn’t that Zoe is cool for liking Ziggy. It’s that it isn’t a leap to like Ziggy. It’s no harder for her to get into Ziggy than into … Owl City. It’s the same kind of thing, broadly. (Only better!) She doesn’t need to acquire a new ‘culture’. There are exceptions to this. Sometimes the girls really don’t like things that I really liked as a kid. A lot of movies and TV, except for the animated stuff. But mostly there’s no need for ‘translation’, across generations. By contrast, it seems to me early stuff – certainly pre-war stuff – is harder.

This is, of course, a matter of degree. There’s always the Wizard of Oz, and there’s also all the stuff from early decades that was, clearly, ancestral to the pop world of today. Blues stuff. Partly it has to do with the way pop keeps eating itself. It wouldn’t be so surprising if a new band tried to sound exactly like a band from the 60’s. (In fact, there’s a ton of them.) It’s scarcely noteworthy. But if a new band tried to sound exactly like a band from the 20’s, that’s a bit more noteworthy. I’m thinking about the Brian Ferry Orchestra

Relating pop stuff to that sort of style is a conceptual leap. It is to be applauded as such, or disliked. I would expect people who like rock and pop to have a bit more trouble getting into it, if they were previously unfamiliar.


John Holbo 09.04.13 at 11:09 pm

I just moved the goalposts, sort of. Saying it’s harder for pop to eat stuff from almost a century ago.

OK, the point would be this. Suppose you are making rock music in 1970. You are David Bowie. What are you drawing on? A lot of stuff, obviously. If we toss in the Stones, it’s obvious that you are drawing on decades of blues. (OK, my point is crumbling here.) But it seems like there was a real revolutionary ‘newness’ to a lot of stuff in the 60’s – hence the generation gap – that much exceeds the ‘newness’ of pop today. Our pop is a mature formation. When I listen to the radio, I don’t hear stuff fundamentally unlike what I heard as a kid. Yesterday in the taxi we heard “I Will Survive” and I remarked to Zoe that it was a hit when I was her age. She sort of shrugged. It was a nice song. It didn’t sound ‘different’ to her from Lady Gaga. Not fundamentally. If, in 1970, some parent had been hearing stuff from 1940 on the radio, and telling the kids ‘that’s a hit from my day!’ the contrast would have been greater.


Substance McGravitas 09.04.13 at 11:13 pm

Maybe this should be here.


John Holbo 09.05.13 at 2:06 am

One issue here: am I deceived about all this in the same way that we are deceived when we watch a movie from the early 80’s and everyone looks like they are from the 70’s. What’s up with all that Sean and Leif hair still in 1982?

The answer, of course, is that in real life – and in film – everything doesn’t look up to the minute. The cars are old. The buildings are old. Some of the ads are old. There’s a natural time lag.

Maybe music is the same. I am aware, right now, of how the music scene is this mixed up thing full of 4-decade old stuff. But maybe ever was it so. I dunno.


Belle Waring 09.05.13 at 3:27 am

Hmm, in re: asparagus, I’m going to go with: nothing good ever comes out of cans, and tiny little stalks are yummy if someone just went and harvested them a day or two ago in Malaysia but not yummy if someone grew them in Malaysia and then flew them on an extended trip to Europe. So Americans are correct in eating them all the time if they live near California, and probably if they pay extra for them at Whole Paycheck. Personally, I like the minuscule stalks best but I’ve never tried white asparagus (except from a can) so probably that’s awesome.

Unrelatedly, on failures of SF imagination, in the (not-very-good) sequel to Gateway, the protagonist is playing chess against the “female” computer on the ship. She consistently kicks his ass but takes longer to think between moves until they start to get out by the orbit of Mars, at which point it becomes clear she’s been cheating by relying on the mainframes on Earth. Once she’s out of range he beats her all the time. This is funny because he’s just supposed to be an amateur chess player and I’m certain my daughter’s old phone could regularly trounce him. It’s one of those humorous “we’ll have kick-ass FTL technology–but women will still be space-stewardesses” issues that often arise in SF.


bad Jim 09.05.13 at 7:23 am

Typical of Pohl, frustrated with Siri decades before we had her in our hands to disparage.

Apologies for the asparagus distraction. I’ll blame the colossal century plant that sprouted in my yard this spring, three meters tall and fifteen centimeters in diameter, briefly imitating an old Charles Addams cartoon which was captioned something like “I’ll call Better Homes and Gardens. You start making the hollandaise sauce.”


herr doktor bimler 09.05.13 at 9:03 am

Do Europeans consider asparagus a seasonal treat now?

I’ve been in Frankfurt and Munich at the start of the Spargel season, and yes a seasonal treat — almost a festival — though “treat” is a serious understatement for the quasi-religious seriousness given to its transient glory.


Phil 09.05.13 at 9:20 am

“Stay Free,” Jesus, I couldn’t even start with that.

Don’t diss my culture! I never did it myself, but in the mid-70s I knew plenty of people who went dancing down Streatham on the bus. Can’t remember the name of the dancehall, sadly. When you got a bit older and more adventurous you might stay on the bus as far as Brixton (This Is Not A Metaphor).

I had a major argument with my wife-to-be – one of our first – about “Stay Free”; I’d just realised that the title refers specifically to staying out of the nick, and I felt it would have been more powerful and universal and stuff if it was just a general kind of “go easy, step lightly, stay free”. She pointed out that I was talking utter bollocks, and it was much more powerful meaning what it did specifically, locally, personally mean. Later, we got married.

I think John has a point about the time horizon; I wrote about this myself a while ago:

“the Led Zeppelin of the fourth album and the Pink Floyd of Dark Side are still there – still our contemporaries. This is a very recent phenomenon; at the time of Dark Side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. ‘Progressive’ rock wasn’t a genre to us then – it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.) Most pop music from before the late 1960s is still over the horizon – there’s no appetite for replica reissues of Herman’s Hermits albums, and very little appetite for anything by the likes of Vince Taylor or Cliff Bennett – but once you get to about 1967 the clock has effectively stopped. (The Smile sessions were in 1966.)”

This sense of currency is connected to (but not identical with) availability – something else that’s changed forever. My wife and I still remember odd tracks that our older siblings used to play (on vinyl, of course) – I remember the Troggs, she remembers Audience, we both remember Chicken Shack. And we instinctively think of those songs as not available, as something you might find in a charity shop or on a strange pub’s jukebox, but which you’re otherwise never going to hear again. But of course it’s all out there, à portée de Google. Anyone growing up now will take that for granted. (I am now listening to “I would rather go blind” for the first time in over 30 years. Give me a moment.)


Phil 09.05.13 at 9:33 am

In other ways (returning towards the OP) there’s less availability. You doubt me? Twirlers, I say to you. Lightweight rotary display stands for paperback books, about the size and shape of a beach parasol (collapsed), usually containing genre fiction – romance, horror, sf. Grocers and corner shops had twirlers. Post offices had twirlers. In any tourist town the gift shops would definitely have twirlers. Great source of sf. The hours I spent as a kid combing through twirlers for anything by Clifford Simak or Robert Silverberg or Harlan Ellison, or (later) anything by Larry Niven or Philip K. Dick or James Tiptree Jr… (I wasn’t that into Pohl, I’m afraid, although in retrospect he certainly should have been on my list.)

All gone now. Where do the kids go for sf discoveries, now there aren’t any twirlers?


NickS 09.05.13 at 8:29 pm

” the lack of generation gap is due to a homogeneity of pop culture that I date from the mid-60′s, roughly.”

I think this is very true of pop music, but not true of everything. A counter-example which proves the point — Rap and Hip Hop have both changed dramatically since the early 80s, and somebody who was growing up now who was really into Public Enemy, would be showing distinctly odd and retro tastes (note, I know almost nothing about Rap and Hip Hop, so add the appropriate grains of salt).

Movies from the 80s feel very dated, video games from the 80s are almost unplayable (here‘s an online flash version of Rampage, interesting as a nostalgia item, but not at all addictive), different mediums and different genres will age differently.


NBarnes 09.05.13 at 10:18 pm

Just going to add in a shout out for John Varley here. <3!


Mercy 09.06.13 at 1:41 am

RE: the cultural immediacy thing, how much of this is down to changes in production standards, rather than the pop eating itself idea? After all a lot of the “still current” music is pastiching or loosely updating stuff that’s now seems much older (Led Zep being the famous example but think about punk vs. garage rock). The thing that made 30s stuff unpalatable to sixties kids was the greater gulf in recording/reproductive standards, perhaps, rather than a greater difference in style than exists between now and then?

I don’t know enough about music production to judge it, but looking at other mediums it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, certainly with movies I think the film stock is the thing that really triggers kids “not for me” reflex when looking at older films, moreso than the content – obviously not on a conscious level but it’s a reliable predictor for where people’s cut off points come in.

And in comics the big generation gap is obviously colouring, retro-comics is synonymous with four-colour, while there are 80s comics that are of a piece with Silver Age stuff in every other respect that read as contemporary because of their colouring.

I guess, to re-rail a little, the equivalent in fiction might be the novel format (as opposed to magazine reprints)?

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