Sunday, December 22, 2013

Drunkard's Walk and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederick Pohl

Via twitter Joachim Boaz points to an interesting discussion of academia as portrayed in science fiction by blogger and novelist Andrew Fox.  Fox talks about Drunkard's Walk, by famous science fiction writer and editor Frederick Pohl, examining Pohl's depiction of teaching technology and of the social status of college professors.

I read Drunkard's Walk  in October 2011 but, unlike Fox, when I went to Amazon to review it I didn't do anything ambitious.  Instead I took it as an opportunity to vent my frustration about my own experiences in academia and to mock Pohl's left wing politics, as you can see below, where I paste my review, typos and all:

The cover of the 1960 Ballantine edition of Fred Pohl's Drunkard's Walk proclaims that it is "biting funny" and "sharply satirical." I didn't find anything in the book funny myself, and am actually at a loss to figure out what the novel is a "sharp satire" of. Does "Rich people are inhuman sadists who use their special powers to control us!" count as sharp satire? Maybe it does to an alumnus of the Young Communist League like Pohl.

The novel is set in a university in 2196. My experience in academia suggests that professors (who take credit for their students' work, use grant money to finance their personal hobbies, espouse wealth redistribution in the media while plotting tax evasion in the privacy of their luxury apartments and summer homes, et al) are a ripe target for satire, but Pohl doesn't take that tack. Maybe the professors he knew in the 1950s were not like the professors I knew in the 2000s.

Anyway, the novel follows the structure of a mystery or detective story, and Pohl has math professors as his heroes. The math profs discover that the incredibly ugly and incredibly rich university president and other wealthy people are immortal telepaths who have murdered numerous people in order to hide their conspiracy to rule the world. This conspiracy includes setting loose smallpox to kill most of the population, but does not include amassing weapons or any kind of defense; once the math profs finger the telepaths it only takes a dozen police officers to subdue them.

Pohl produced in Gateway a brilliant masterpiece, and I continue to read him in hopes of finding that he has gifted the world with a similarly impressive work. Drunkard's Walk is, emphatically, not that work. Still, Pohl's style is not bad, and Drunkard's Walk is short and its plot holds together pretty well (I am being hard on the book because I don't appreciate its anti-capitalist politics and I find stories about epidemic diseases and conspiracies boring. I feel that I can safely recommend Drunkard's Walk to anyone who likes left-wing conspiracy novels or whose current address happens to be "Zuccotti Park."

In September 2010, a year before I read Drunkard's Walk, I had taken a whack at Pohl on Amazon because I was disappointed in the mundane Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, the sequel to Pohl's masterpiece, Gateway.   To the video tape:

Fred Pohl's "Gateway" is one of the great SF novels, an adult novel about one man's harrowing adventure in outer space and his own psychological problems, a novel with perfect pacing and a tone of unrelenting tension. The sequel to "Gateway", "Beyond the Blue Event Horizon," is unforgivably pedestrian and boring. "Blue Event Horizon" replaces "Gateway"'s first person narrator with three or four viewpoint characters plus omniscient narration so the tone is terribly uneven and there are no characters we get to know well enough to care about. The oppressive fear and danger that were on every page of "Gateway" are replaced with the tedium of science lectures and page after page of a business guy talking to lawyers, politicians, and doctors about his business dealings and his wife's health. One of the themes of "Gateway" was that life is terribly difficult, and the main character faced various tragedies and suffered terrific levels of fear and guilt, but "Blue Event Horizon" almost seems like a man's wish-fulfillment fantasy; a rich guy gets richer, has a great sex life, his wife gets killed and is brought back to life, and she doesn't mind that he is also in love with another woman! And then after a few hundred pages of boring businessman stuff he hijacks a space ship and wins a gunfight with the aliens.

"Beyond the Blue Event Horizon" is not a bad novel (the basic plot of the scenes in space with the aliens is good, for example) but it is totally average, and painfully fails to live up to the masterpiece that its predecessor was.

(In those days, after furiously typing a bitter denunciation of a book, I would often feel better, even a little regretful for my bile.  Then I would finish the review by claiming the book was good despite what I had just said; after all, I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings!)

Because he was well represented in the libraries I frequented in my New Jersey youth I read a lot of Pohl as a kid.  I loved Gateway when I first read it, and I still loved it when I read it in 2010.  (I didn't review it on Amazon, though.  Back in those days I rarely wrote positive reviews of popular books; instead I thought it worthwhile to slag books everybody else loved and to promote books I thought were obscure.  My Amazon reviews must make me look like some kind of weirdo.)  I have vague but positive memories of Jem and Man-Plus; maybe I will reread them someday.   


  1. I just got a copy of Kampus by James Gunn -- hence the reason I found the article... Very curious -- supposedly Gunn's favorite of his own novels (not sure where I read that).

  2. The only James Gunn I've ever read is his 1955 collaboration with Jack Williamson, Star Bridge. I read it in January or February of 2011, and recall very little about it. Luckily I have my Amazon review to jog my memory:

    Kampus sounds like a serious attempt to examine social issues; Starbridge was just a crazy and fun adventure story.

    I'd be interested in reading more James Gunn, but I've bought so many books in the past few months I really should read some of them before buying any more, and that could take most of next year.

    1. I love Gunn. The Immortals and The Joy Makers were both amazing.