Anthopology 101: The Pohl Star

By Bud Webster

The Roanoke Public Library was a refuge for me when I was a kid. I never got beat up there, it held more books than I could ever hope to own myself (although I've been trying to catch up ever since), and in its quiet stacks and cool recesses I could read to my heart's delight and even take books home (limited to six by special dispensation)!

Among the books lining their shelves were those whose spines bore one of two symbols: a rocket or an atom. Having exhausted (I thought) the mythology books (Greek, Roman and Egyptian), I decided to see what was so special about these that they'd been marked. Thus, my introduction to science fiction in general, and SF anthologies in particular, among them those who still give me great pleasure and delight: Adventures in Time and Space, The Big Book of SF, The Science Fiction Omnibus...and, curiously smaller than the others, but nonetheless a hot ticket, Frederik Pohl's Star Science Fiction Stories.

It's not terribly difficult to assess Frederik Pohl's place in the history of science fiction: you could almost close your eyes and point. He's been everything there is to be except cover artist. But a career that encompasses so much can't be adequately dealt with in a relatively short magazine article, and in any case, my purposes here in these pages is specific and particular (and, perhaps, a bit peculiar), so I'll limit myself this time to his role as original anthologist, and, more specifically, to his STAR series.

There had been original anthologies before Pohl created the STAR series for Ian Ballantine: J. Berg Esenwein's Adventures to Come (McLoughlin Bros. 1937, and about which more, perhaps, at a later date) is widely considered to be the first SF anthology, and as there are no previous publication credits listed, may also be the first original SF anthology; Donald Wollheim edited The Girl with the Hungry Eyes anonymously for Avon in 1949; Henry Holt published Raymond J. Healy's New Tales of Space and Time in 1951; and there are others that published one or two original stories mixed in with the reprints.

In truth, the first two books were aberrations: none of the stories or authors in the Esenwein book have ever been seen subsequently, and my research points to the possibility that Esenwein wrote the stories himself pseudonymously; and the Wollheim was intended to be the first issue of an Avon magazine until a distribution deal fell through. The Healy is legitimately original, that having been the purpose, but was stand-alone, and thus the STAR books were the very first original SF anthology series.

In 1953, Frederik Pohl was writing successfully, both solo and in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth, contributing frequently to H. L. Gold's GALAXY, and had already produced two anthologies for Perma-Books as well as co-ghosting the Robert A. Heinlein anthology, Tomorrow the Stars, with then-wife Judith Merril for Doubleday.

Meanwhile, Ian and Betty Ballantine had been operating as Ballantine Books out of their New York City apartment for two years, and when Pohl sold Ballantine the classic Pohl/Kornbluth novel, The Space Merchants, the Ballantines wanted more SF. Thus was a significant chunk of SF history made.

The Ballantines wanted a regular schedule of SF titles, something to keep them in the minds of the major writers in the field. Pohl suggested an anthology. Ian Ballantine further suggested that it be all original, and then did one more thing that no other publisher had been willing to do: he doubled the going rate for stories, enabling them to nail the best work by the best writers before the magazines got to see them.
Star Science Fiction Stories was born.

There were six in all, as well as a Star Short Novels, a collection of the best from the six books titled Star of Stars, and a single issue of STAR SCIENCE FICTION in magazine format. Many of the stories were widely reprinted, some ending up included in various authors' Best of... collections. Some twenty years later, Ballantine Books would follow up the series with Stellar Science Fiction, edited by Judy-Lyn del Rey; it would better Pohl's count by two books (one, as with Star, a collection of short novels), but would reach far fewer heights.

Interestingly, the first three volumes of Star SF and the singleton short-novels title were published in the two-year period of 1953-4; the next volume wouldn't appear until 1958, after the single magazine issue. At this late date Pohl doesn't recall why there was a time-lag. The final two were published in 1959, and Star of Stars followed a year later.

A good half of the writers in the first volume were clients of Pohl's literary agency, a situation that made his job as editor easier, but an indulgence he tempered by soliciting work from non-clients (and by waiving his agent's fees).

Although the books were published before the founding of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the creation of the Nebula award, two of the stories (Bixby's "It's a Good Life" and Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God") were included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, an anthology intended to honor stories considered good enough to have won a Nebula had there been one at the time they were published.

The series was always excellent, and frequently brilliant; aside from the two stories mentioned above, Sturgeon's "The Clinic", Tenn's "The Deserter", and Matheson's "Dance of the Dead" stand out, as well as many others; at its very worst, it was at least as good as the competition.

An astute student of American culture could almost date these books without bothering to look at the copyright pages; science fiction tends to mirror the time in which it's written, no matter what time period the story takes place in, and there's a preponderance of stories using the Cold War, psychology, television, and other themes common to the mid- to late-50s.

When I asked Pohl about the failure of the magazine version, he told me that the magazines had been returned en masse in unopened cartons; the magazine wholesalers and distributors had been solicited, but when the magazine arrived, they didn't know what it was, didn't know it was from Ballantine, and thus didn't send it out. There was a second issue planned, but internal evidence indicates that the stories were used in the STAR 4.

Looking back, it's easy, perhaps, to find a reason why the magazine failed where the individual books had been successful: as an anthology, STAR was unique. As a magazine, it was one of dozens at a time when others were dropping like flies. At that particular time, trying to maintain even a quarterly schedule as well as keeping the literary quality as high as the books had established would have been a Sisyphean task at best.

With the last few books in the series, Ballantine tightened the purse-strings and if the quality of the stories stayed mostly the same (barring a few stinkers), the quantity didn't; the first book contains fifteen stories, the last, eight. Robert Silverberg recalls, "By the time I got into was no longer quite as splendid as it had been at the outset."

It's difficult to say why the series didn't last past #6; Jack Williamson says, "Ian Ballantine was a scholar, a gentleman, and a great dreamer. Sometimes his dreams didn't quite come true." Pohl himself admits that Ballantine could no longer afford to pay competitively.

If there's a problem with the Star books, it's that nearly 50 years later so many of the stories date; this is hardly Pohl's fault, of course, and the same can be said of just about anything else. Frederik Pohl, ever a pathfinder, charted the course for Damon Knight's Orbit, Terry Carr's Universe, and Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions; that in itself is a significant achievement.

Silverberg told me, "Of course the manner of storytelling in s-f had changed somewhat between STAR's time and ND's, but I have always regarded STAR, at least the early issues, as the pinnacle of original-anthology achievement in s-f, and it was my hope right from the start to have my anthology function at that level."

I suspect that Silverberg isn't alone in that assessment.

In the next few pages is an index of the stories with my comments, which I hope will send you scurrying to find copies of these books if only to refute me; an asterix (*) indicates a story later reprinted in Star of Stars.

Ballantine 16, 35¢ (hardcover $1.50) 1953

Pohl, Fred Editor's Note
Morrison, William "Country Doctor"*
Kornbluth, C. M. "Dominoes"
Del Rey, Lester "Idealist"
Leiber, Fritz "The Night He Cried"
Simak, Clifford D. "Contraption"
Wyndham, John "The Chronoclasm"
Tenn, William "The Deserter"
Gold, H. L. "The Man with English"*
Merril, Judith "So Proudly We Hail"
Bradbury, Ray "A Scent of Sarsaparilla"
Asimov, Isaac "Nobody Here But..."
Sheckley, Robert "The Last Weapon"
Kuttner, Henry & C. L. Moore "A Wild Surmise"
Leinster, Murray "The Journey"
Clarke, Arthur C. "The Nine Billion Names of God"

Morrison was a pseudonym for Joseph Samachson, and also wrote the better-know story, "The Sack"; this story concerns a doctor on Mars who really gets into his work. Kornbluth's "Dominoes" is an uncharacteristically pedestrian yarn on a subject that had already been explored any number of times. Alas, the del Rey is a good example of a bad, idea-driven story, and an excellent example of why I frequently find his work frustrating; too long a build-up to a disappointing pay-off. The Leiber is a terrific hard-boiled parody, targeting Mickey Spillane specifically. The Simak is typically and pleasantly Simakian, if not one that stands out from his other pastoral tales; it reminds me a little of Avram Davidson's "The Goobers". The Wyndham works for exactly the opposite reason that the del Rey doesn't: it's a much-used idea, but the characters are more fully developed. The Tenn...the Tenn! If you can forgive the author one cardboard characterization (and I, for one, have no trouble doing that), "Deserter" is a brilliant little gem; the ending is both heroic and tragic, but without either the nostalgia of the Bradbury or the heart-break of the Merril. Gold's "The Man with English" could have appeared in Unknown Worlds, and if it's dated, it doesn't hurt the story in the least; it's still funny. (There's a wonderful anecdote in Pohl's The Way the Future Was about the Gold yarn, far too involved to recount here, and I recommend that you find a copy.) Merril's "So Proudly We Hail" is tragic, beautiful, and could have been written last week; except for a few bits of hardware, it's absolutely timeless. Bradbury's story is the flipside of Heinlein's "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants"; nostalgia both sweet and bitter, but with a different, less idyllic ending. Asimov described "Nobody Here But..." as his one and only "big lug" story, and it's an apt description; Asimov's humor could fall pretty flat, but not here. The Sheckley is typical of his early work, which is to say witty and O'Henry-esque; this is exactly the kind of story he built his reputation on. The Kuttner-Moore yarn is a gleeful little dig at psychiatry, a much-used trope in the early `50s; of them all, this is one of the best. Speaking of the best, the Leinster alone is worth the whole STAR series; if there was ever a single story to prove to a new generation why Leinster was called the "Dean of Science Fiction" long before Heinlein was, it's this one. I doubt anyone has to be reminded of the Clarke story; it's deservedly a classic in the field, and one that left this 10 year-old church-goer gasping at its audacity.

Ballantine 55, 35¢ (hardcover $2) 1953

Pohl, Fred Editor's Note
Bester, Alfred "Disappearing Act"*
Sturgeon, Theodore "The Clinic"
Budrys, A. J. "The Congruent People"
Clement, Hal "Critical Factor"
Bixby, Jerome "It's a Good Life"*
Del Rey, Lester "A Pound of Cure"
Crane, Robert "The Purple Fields"
Blish, James "F Y I"
Boucher, Anthony "Conquest"
Pratt, Fletcher "Hormones"
Sheckley, Robert "The Odor of Thought"
Williamson, Jack "The Happiest Creature"*
Kornbluth, C. M. "The Remorseful"
Wilson, Richard "Friend of the Family"

The Bester is one of my favorites, a study in solipsism worthy of Heinlein. Sturgeon's "The Clinic", a story I skipped over in puzzlement when I first read the book lo, these many years ago, is a revelation now; Sturgeon's use of warped language to depict an alien mind trying to work like a human's is thoroughly consistent, and, once you catch the rhythms, is completely understandable. "The Congruent People" by Algis Budrys may have been clever before the advent of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but it's one of the more dated stories in the series; nevertheless, Budrys is a good writer, and it shows in his prose. Clement's "Critical Factor" posits an intelligent life-form that flows through the interstices of rock and thus is introduced to gravity rather rudely. The Bixby, like the Clarke in the first volume, is as well-known as it gets in this field and for good reason - even after almost 50 years, it's disturbing. There may be a pretty decent story buried somewhere in del Rey's "A Pound of Cure", but like his story in the first book, this just doesn't work for me. "The Purple Fields" by Crane (pseudonym of Bernard Glamser) needs more room; as it is, the point of the story is dulled and the importance of the titular retirement village isn't at all clear. "FYI" is good, early Blish, setting us up for a climax that doesn't happen until after the story ends. Boucher's "Conquest" is cute enough, I suppose, but hardly his best, and the theme was done better elsewhere. The Pratt story is a mildly risqué joke, and that's the best I can say for it. On the other hand, Sheckley's "The Odor of Thought" is also a joke, but a good one, and the sort of thing that Sheckley's best at. Don't be fooled by the title of Jack Williamson's yarn; the main character may be a creature, but he isn't happy. Again, it relies on an often-used trope, but Williamson carries it off better than Boucher did. Wilson's "Friend of the Family" could have been written by Simak, and it might have been a better story if it had been, but as Wilson did it, it's still pretty good.

Ballantine 89, 35¢ (hardcover $2) 1954

Pohl, Fred Introduction
West, Jessamyn "Little Men"
del Rey, Lester "For I Am a Jealous People"
Sturgeon, Theodore "To Here and the Easel"

The West is a SF trope used to reasonably good effect by someone not terribly familiar with the genre; it was expanded into The Chilekings. The del Rey works far better than his shorter stuff; after 46 years it's still a powerful examination of religion versus reality. It may very well be his best, for all that it hasn't been reprinted but once, in The Best of Lester del Rey. Sturgeon's contribution is a pretty okay story set in a magnificent and intricate framework; like a lot of his stuff, you may scratch your head when you get to the end, but you've had a hell of a good time getting there.

Ballantine 96, 35¢ (hardcover $2) 1954

Pohl, Fred Editor's Note
Asimov, Isaac "It's a Beautiful Day"
Bradbury, Ray "The Strawberry Window"
Clarke, Arthur C. "The Deep Range"*
del Rey, Lester "Alien"
Dick, Philip K. "Foster, You're Dead"
Kersh, Gerald "Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?"*
Matheson, Richard "Dance of the Dead"*
Oliver, Chad "Any More at Home Like You?"
Vance, Jack "The Devil on Salvation Bluff"
Williamson, Jack "Guinevere for Everybody"

Asimov's story is a little better than his usual run, the characters aren't quite as wooden and the prose is less self-conscious. Bradbury's Mars is hooey, but it's magnificent hooey, and it's the one I'm always disappointed not to see whenever NASA lands something there. "The Strawberry Window" tells us that home is wherever you are, even if you have to pay extra for it - or maybe because. The Clarke was, of course, later expanded into the novel of the same name, and mirrors his interest in oceanography. Del Rey's story suffers from the same problems I detailed in the first two volumes; it just doesn't work for me. Dick was an uneven writer early on, and I'm not terribly fond of "Foster, You're Dead", but it did show up later in Ballantine's Best of... book. The Kersh is perhaps his most famous, if not his best (I'm personally more fond of "Men Without Bones"). The Matheson is a nasty little bastard of a story that gave me the creeps when I was a kid and still does. It's one of his best. Chad Oliver is an unfairly forgotten and underrated writer whose work deserves a second reading; this is, I think, his second-best story (after "Blood's a Rover"). The Vance is one of the reasons he was thought to be Kuttner under a pseudonym; it compares well with his "Moon Moth". Williamson's yarn is an odd little gem that has the distinction of having been bought and published twice by the same editor.

Ballantine Magazines Jan. 1958, 35¢

Pohl, Frederik Introduction: A Pinch of Stardust
Davis, Chan "It Walks in Beauty"
Asimov, Isaac "Spell My Name with an S"
Budrys, Algis (as by John A. Sentry) "Mark X"
Bloch, Robert "Daybroke"*
Aldiss, Brian W. "Judas Danced"
Anderson, Poul "The Apprentice Wobbler"
Hyde, Gavin "Nor the Moon by Night"

Davis's "It Walks in Beauty" is a vaguely Knight-ish story about how male perceptions about women might change; this is not to take anything away from it, though - it's a damn good yarn with a message that's still worth getting. The Asimov is cute, if slight, and worth reading once. Budrys published under a number of pennames early on, Sentry was one of them. This story is one of his best, and it's unfortunate that it's never been collected. The Bloch was probably pretty snappy in 1958, but has long since been drained of any power it might have had; at this point it wouldn't even elicit groans. I know I should like Aldiss, and some of his stuff I do; this isn't one of them. It reads to me like a triumph of style over content, and that's one of my buttons. It worked with "...Downhill Motor Race", but not here. Still, for 1958, it's a daring piece of work. Poul Anderson's story reads like it was written for Campbell's ASTOUNDING and may have been bounced from there; it's a "psi" story I'd have thought would be perfect for ASF. The Hyde is his first, and it shows. It suffers from too-slow pacing, but there's one hell of a story in there, and it, too, deserves reprinting.

Ballantine 272K 35¢ 1958

Pohl, Frederik - Introduction
Kuttner, Henry - "A Cross of Centuries"*
Kornbluth, C. M. - "The Advent on Channel Twelve"*
Leiber, Fritz - "Space-Time for Springers"*
Wilson, Richard - "Man working"
del Rey, Lester - "Helping Hand"
deFord, Miriam Allen - "The Long Echo"
Cooper, Edmund - "Tomorrow's Gift"
Knight, Damon - "Idiot Stick"
Gunn, James - "The Immortals"

Although the introduction here has the same title as the one in the single issue of the magazine version of STAR, they're otherwise completely different. The Kuttner is a ballsy story about a flawed messiah that deserves reprinting. Kornbluth's "The Advent on Channel Twelve" is just as ballsy and just as deserving, and should be required reading for every single Disney employee (both these last two stories were published just after their respective authors' deaths). The Leiber is well-known and often reprinted, and predates the recent and lamentable spate of cat-character stories by decades, as well as being far better written. The Wilson is fun, if slight, and I doubt it would be published today except ironically. The del Rey is a terrific story, one that nailed my attention from the first paragraph and, for me, fully makes up for what's lacking in his earlier STAR contributions; I hasten to add that del Rey certainly doesn't need my affirmation to have been one of the major players in the field, his reputation is solid and well earned; but this story (and the longer one in Star Short Novels) really worked for me where a lot of his others don't. This says far more about me than about him. Miriam Allen deFord's story reads like a college exercise in creative writing, there's just no story there. It's clever, and the conceit is interesting, but it just doesn't say much. I can't figure the Cooper out, but again, that probably says more about me than about the story; it just doesn't seem to take the central conflict anywhere important. Nice last line, though. The Knight can be seen as the flip side of his "To Serve Man", but isn't quite up to his usual level. James Gunn reputation as a writer has unfortunately been overshadowed by his achievements as an academic, and this is unfair. "The Immortals" became part his best-known and most successful novel, and is ample proof (if any was, in fact, needed) that the cyberpunks didn't do anything new; if this story were reprinted now, it would read just as well as it did 42 years ago. It's exciting, logical, and if it doesn't cut a new edge by much, who cares? It's still a hell of a story.

Ballantine 308K 35¢ 1959

MacLean, Katherine & Tom Condit - "Trouble with Treaties"
Matheson, Richard - "A Touch of Grapefruit"
Silverberg, Robert - "Company Store"
Davis, Chan - "Adrift on the Policy Level"
Hyde, Gavin - "Sparkie's Fall"*
Budrys, Algis - "Star Descending"
Galouye, Daniel F. - "Diplomatic Coop"
Sellings, Arthur - "The Scene Shifter"
Brown, Rosel George - "Hair Raising Adventure"

"Trouble with Treaties" is a lark almost worthy of Eric Frank Russell or Christopher Anvil. The Matheson has a cute conceit - LA as a living organism - and lots of footnotes dated three years into the future to lend it an air of a real documentary, but LA has been a self-parody for years now and the story has lost whatever bite it once had. The Silverberg is terrific; one of the best of the stranded-colonist stories that used to be fairly common. Davis's "Adrift on the Policy Level" is more impressive than it seems to be on a first reading for all that it's not science fiction; he wrote nothing else after this to my knowledge, and his own story is interesting enough for another article. The Hyde is a treasure, one I wish I could have written, and it makes me wonder why he simply disappeared. The Budrys could have been just another late-50s big-business-is-evil rant, but he's far too good a writer to let that happen. "Diplomatic Coop" is about what happens when alien bureaucracies are really made up of con-men; Galouye is one of those unfairly forgotten writers who are a joy to rediscover. Sellings (pseudonym for Robert Arthur Ley) is best known for his novel Telepath; "The Scene Shifter" is an odd little yarn about a man who can change movies as they're being shown. Brown's story (her first sale) starts out slowly, but generates plenty of laughs by positing an absent-minded (non)professor who isn't nearly as absent-minded as he seems.

Ballantine 353K 35¢ 1959

Cottrell, C. L. - "Danger! Child at Large"
Borgese, Elizabeth Mann - "Twin's Wail"*
Purdom, Tom - "The Holy Grail"
Smith, Cordwainer - "Angerhelm"
Dickson, Gordon R. - "The Dreamsman"
McGuire, John J. - "To Catch an Alien"
deFord, Miriam Allen - "Press Conference"
Koch, Howard - "Invasion from Inner Space"

I'm unsure about the identity of C. L. Cottrell; he isn't listed in any of the standard references, either as a real name or as a pseudonym. Silverberg suggests it was actually Kuttner, but I can find no confirmation of this. In any case, his story is perhaps the finest in the entire series, predating King's Firestarter by several decades. An incident in the story also presages the final episode of M.A.S.H., and interestingly enough, Cottrell was reportedly stationed in Korea at the time he wrote it. Borgese (her father was Thomas Mann) seemed to want to write a story, but wasn't at all certain how to go about it, except that it shouldn't be easy to read. This one isn't, and there's little enough to be gotten from it. Tom Purdom isn't nearly as well-known as he should be; his story is a nasty little gem. And is there a bad Cordwainer Smith story anywhere? Not here, for all that it's not a famous one. It's a creepy, weird little ghost story that reads just as well now as it did in the midst of the Cold War. Dickson's tale is a gleeful little piece about a 184 year-old man who just likes things the way they are, thank you. McGuire hung with del Rey, Budrys and others, so it's no surprise that this story came to Pohl's attention; it's a nice examination of psychological warfare with a neat twist: some internal evidence suggests that Germany may have won WWII. I wish I could say something nice about the deFord, because she's a writer I've admired for a long time, but this is a silly little story written partly in an annoying dialect with no real payoff. Koch is best known for the radio script he wrote adapting H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds for Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, and perhaps he should have stopped there; this story is dense and although there's a fairly interesting conceit, I don't think he handled it well.


From a perspective of some 50 years, it would be easy to compare the STAR series against its successors and judge it something of a failure; after all, look at the numbers: ORBIT, 21 volumes; UNIVERSE, 17; NEW DIMENSIONS, 12; and NEW WRITINGS, 30(!). STAR only lasted for six volumes and change, including a failed attempt at a new magazine.

But that's hindsight, and blinkered hindsight at that. Star proved that an original anthology series could succeed, it proved that writers would welcome a showcase more permanent than a month's exposure on a newstand, and that readers would gleefully and eagerly buy the books (one wonders how long the series might have lasted had there not been that four year gap - even the most patient of readers wouldn't wait that long!).

And if you need a further indication of STAR's importance, just go back and read the tables of contents again.