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The Man Who Ate the World (SF) - Frederik Pohl ****

Fred Pohl was a truly imaginative science fiction writer. Perhaps his best books were his collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth, but solo he was capable of some remarkable work too. This collection of 6 long short stories from the late 1950s is amongst his most original writing. Like many writers of the period, what we get here needs a small health warning - this was the Mad Men era, and women rarely get a totally fair treatment in these stories - were things different, the book would have received five stars.

What Pohl did so well was turn aspects of modern society on its head. This is never more obvious than in the brilliant title story, The Man Who Ate the World, which describes a society recovering from a position where consumption has become a requirement - the poorer you are, the more you are expected to consume (not just food, but all kinds of consumer society goods). Although the ending is a little facile, the concept is breathtaking. 

Another highlight is The Day the Icicle Works Closed Down, which combines the impact of a colony losing the value of its only export with a Dollhouse-like (for Joss Whedon fans) scenario where humans rent their bodies out for cash. We return to regular Pohl themes of the dangers of consumerism and advertising in the final two linked stories, The Wizard of Pung's Corner and The Waging of the Peace, which see a small town in America take on the might of an advertising-driven post-apocalyptic society where more and more updated products are released from self-powered and protected AI underground manufacturers, which seem impossible to stop from flooding the world with unwanted products.

One thing is clear - how much Pohl's thinking was ahead of its time. The America of the late 50s might have been in full Mad Men mode of emphasising novelty and pushing products far beyond what would now be acceptable - but Pohl was able to see beyond this and do what science fiction does best: examine the future consequences of today's actions.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, this is now out of print in the UK, but is available in the US.


Review by Brian Clegg


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