Saturday, 9 September 2006

Not dead yet? In praise of 50s SF writers

by Edwin Hesselthwite

While wandering around the interweb today I decided to look up the wiki pages of the two men I consider the greatest Science Fiction writers never to get media acclaim outside the field - Richard Matheson and Frederick Pohl. I was stunned to find that in both cases, these legends are still alive. Both were at their most productive in the 50's and 60's, both have fallen off the public radar completely in the following 40 years.

I've always felt it a pity that writers like Clarke, Heinlein, Dick and Asimov are always taken as the figureheads of SF from that era. Because, while fantastic ideas men and passable craftsmen, the four are not great writers by any stretch of the imagination. Not to dismiss these, but by comparison to Matheson, Pohl and literary figures like Wyndham and Bradbury these guys were second rate wordsmiths.

It's really quite incomprehensible that Matheson isn't a better known name - The Omega Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Hell House, Duel, and Nightmare at 80 000 feet (the episode of the Twilight Zone with William Shatner on a plane) are all based on his intensely claustrophobic work. But somehow all those movies didn't lead to him being taken seriously as a name in his own right. Duel, the film that made Steven Spielberg's reputation, is particularly typical of Matheson. Matheson's speciality is stories of a paranoid man in a world that really is out to get him. Typically he strips his story's down so far that it's just 1 man versus idea. Without doubt the best introduction to Matheson's work is his book I am Legend, the brickshittingly terrifying story of a world populated by vampires. Read it in one sitting (there is no other way), then read everything else.

Pohl's lack of fame is more understandable - Hollywood has never been his friend. However, when on form his sheer craftsmanship eclipsed everything being written in the field. His novel The Space Merchants is fascinating for the way it raises most of the issues of the Anti-Globalisation left 50 years before Klein's No Logo (although No Logo doesn't include 40 foot spherical chickens that are farmed like rotating kebab meat). However, if you want something with a little more roaring storytelling, Gateway and Man Plus are his best. Pohl's underlying interests tend to be advertising and capitalism, although he always leads from the critique rather than offering solutions. Personally, his short fiction grabs me more than his novels, but he's still one of the greatest novelists SF ever produced.

I am glad to be living on this planet at the same time these 2 men are alive... Long may they continue.


JohnJo said...

Fancy that. I've just read I am Legend and loved it from front to back. The new SF Materworks series is full of gems like this.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

I was split when writing this piece between doing a bit on Gollancz's Masterworks range and those 2 authors specifically.. Hopefully I will get around to doing a further piece in praise of The Masterworks - They've introduced me to loads of gems I never would have read otherwise, George Stewart's Earth Abides is fantastic.