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Thursday
Aug132009

1980

Jem

By Frederik Pohl

Original Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Current Publisher: Orion Publishing Group

Ron Hogan writes:

Frederik Pohl was experiencing a hot streak when St. Martin's published Jem in 1979. His previous two novels, Man Plus and Gateway, had both won the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula Award; Gateway had also received the Hugo, voted upon by science fiction fans at an annual convention, and the juried John W. Campbell Memorial Award. As it happens, Jem didn't win any of those awards. Neither the Hugo nor the Nebula was limited to American authors, so Arthur C. Clarke took both prizes for The Fountains of Paradise, while the Campbell jury selected Thomas Disch's On Wings of Song.

(Could Pohl have won a U.S.-only ballot? We know John Varley's Titan finished ahead of Jem in Hugo voting, but how many Arthur C. Clarke fans would be more likely to choose Varley over Pohl if they couldn't vote for Clarke? It's the sort of "what if?" that can go indefinitely, or at least until somebody refuses to buy another round.)

Despite not winning any of the established science fiction prizes, however, Jem did receive the first—and only—National Book Award (or American Book Award, as they were calling the prize that year) for hardcover science fiction. (Varley wasn't even on the ballot, although Disch was.)

Thirty years later, the novel's geopolitical framework, splitting the world up into power alliances revolving around Food, Fuel, and People, may look a bit quaint to post-Cold War readers, but it's not like anybody else in science fiction had the collapse of the Soviet Union pegged, either. And maybe the not-so-subtle shout-out to Carl Sagan on the very first page is a bit over the top. But where Jem works as a novel, it works in ways that would be very satisfying even to people who say they don't like science fiction.

The playing out of international intrigues on an intimate, personal level would have been instantly recognizable to fans of literary thriller writer Charles McCarry. The near-future setting is created by tweaking a few social details—one of the main characters is a career military officer who constantly smokes pot with a nonchalance that implies legalization—and the handling of the big science basically boils down to "ok, look, let's stipulate that we have interstellar travel and move on to the planet, shall we?" The approach isn't that far off from that of Ted Mooney's Easy Travel to Other Planets (which was still three years into the future) or Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century (two decades away). Even the metafictional playfulness with which Pohl introduces his aliens ("What can be said about a being like Sharn-igon that will make him come clear and real?") could put a contemporary reader in mind of literary authors like Jonathan Lethem or Junot Diaz.

(I'm cheating on that last one, as I'm reasonably certain Lethem and Diaz did read Frederik Pohl, and lots of him, in the 1980s.)

Oh, yes: there are aliens in Jem. Three distinct races, in fact, each with a completely different social framework: crab-like beings that scurry across the planet, tribes that float through the air supported by the biological equivalent of hot-air balloon sacs, and a mole-like society that burrows underground, scavenging from the surface. Pohl sketches out some of these races in more detail than others, sometimes from the perspective of the human researchers, sometimes from the alien's point of view. You may, in fact, find yourself wanting to see more of the strange cultures, but Pohl knows exactly what he's doing, drawing out just enough detail to allow readers to familiarize themselves but not so much that he can't spring a few climactic surprises, then pull all those threads together for an ending that's truly... well, I'm repeating myself, but alien is the best word for it.

Jem is one of a handful of the National Book Award winners that has fallen out of print in the United States. That's a shame: Despite everything Pohl guessed wrong about the superficial details of the world of (roughly) 2009, he gets so much right about people, alone and in groups... and sometimes not even human.

Ron Hogan is the curator of the literary website Beatrice.com.

ISBN: 9781857987898

Science Fiction (Hardcover) Finalists that Year:

  • John Crowley for Engine Summer
  • Thomas M. Disch for On Wings of Song
  • Jerry Pournelle for Janissaries
  • Kate Wilhelm for Juniper Time

Fiction Judges that Year: Not available

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

For the first fifteen years of his writing career, Frederik Pohl published under pseudonyms. His first published piece was a poem in the October, 1937 issue of Amazing Stories credited to “Elton Andrews.” Pohl began publishing material under his own name in the early 1950s.

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