Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, June 17, 2013

1981: The Cool War (Pohl, Frederik)

Two ideas dragged out to 282 dry, starchy pages (2/5)

My eighteenth book of Pohl, nearly half of which I’ve given a rating of 2-stars, among them Farthest Star (1975), Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Syzygy (1982), and Black Star Rising (1985). I wonder to myself why I keep pursuing to read Pohl novels, and the only logical answer is that I’m still under them objective impression that he’s a “good writer”. My subjective experience contrasts this, alas, I continue.

In the mid- to late-1970s, Frederik Pohl was on a roll with his Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel ManPlus (1976), another Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel Gateway (1977), and a finalist for both awards was his novel Jem (1979). In that same year, Pohl began to publish three stories: “Mars Masked”, “The Cool War” and “Like Unto the Locusts”—the three of which were stitched together, padded, and called a singular novel, The Cool War. Unlike the three preceding novels published, The Cool War didn’t share the same limelight.

Rear cover synopsis:
“One day, the Reverend Hornswell hake had nothing worse to contend with than the customary power shortages and his routine pastoral chores, such as counseling the vivacious Alys Brant—and her husbands and wife. At, nearly forty, his life was placid, almost humdrum.

“The very next day, Horny Hake was first enlisted as an unwilling agent of the Team—secret successor to the long-discredited CIA—and then courted by an anti-Team underground group. In practically no time at all, Horny and Alys were touring Europe on a mission about which he knew zip, except that it was a new move in the Cool War, the worldwide campaign of sabotage that had replaces actual combat.

For the Team and its opponents, though, the Cool War could be as perilous as any hot one!”


Long Branch, New Jersey is home Reverend Hornswell Hake’s church of Unitarianism, where the idle yet content reverend writes his droning weekly sermon for his congregation, lives with the restrictions of power and coal, balances a tiny budget, and acts as marriage counselor to Alys Brant in her four-way marriage. Life is simple, life is good… better than being a paraplegic like he was in seminary school, anyhow.

Horny is pulled from his idle duty and thrown into the conspiring affairs of a secret government organization bent on sabotaging the work of other countries. He considers his role as an agent to be entirely passive—escorting children around Europe; unbeknownst to him, he carries a virus which he had been spreading all across the continent since his arrival. With his return home, the organization revels in its victory from Horny’ passive duty: factory worker absenteeism up 80% in Germany.

The American government, and all governments around the world, is restricted from imparting violence and death upon its adversaries, so the only way to destroy a nation’s morale is through subtle methods. The means to a successful sabotage operation must conform to three requisites: covert, non-lethal, and on foreign soil. While Horny is used without his knowledge at first, he soon gets the training he needs to be a more conniving, more competent, and more resistive agent.

His calm demeanor hides a latent playboy. His interest in Alys is halted by her inclusion in his congregation, but that relationship develops as Alys fixates herself into Horny’s spy life and home life. His ability to woo isn’t limited to temptresses, but extends to one of his fellow spies: Leota. Though of a different nationalist persuasion than Horny, the twosome find their physical proximities invigorating as they are productive to their respective causes.

His extensive training in Texas is interrupted by his assignment, which takes him to Egypt. His mission to infiltrate a hydrogen plant is clear, but Horny’s personal agenda clashes with his professional agenda: he needs to save Leota from her servitude under s sultanate while being shadowed by the sexual aggressor of Alys. With women on his mind and executing a mission with his lingual knack, Horny is also assessing his allegiance to the United States government—are his missions for the greater good, or for the selfish benefit of a failed nation? And is he acting under his own volition or is he under some hypnotic trance?

The mission he was recruited for, the skills which were needed, and the subtle tact that he has since earned have led him to Egypt. All sides of his internal struggles will rear their head while all facets of the international cool war convene for this mission. His strategic importance in the mission gives him power to choose the destiny of mankind as a whole, a path which he must defend against his own government, his own doubts, and the powerful sultanate who holds a country hostage… a very precarious position for a whole who used to simply preach sermons.


There’s nothing wrong with stitch-up novels; I don’t discriminate against serial novels, stand-alone novels or trilogies, but I hesitate to read stitch-up novels because they tend to show their seams. This is the case of The Cool War. The seams between the stories feel protracted, like Horny’s flight to Europe with all the children on board and the training done on the Texan ranch. Pohl drones on and on through the petty portions of this novel, yet pedals right through the most interesting parts: the types of sabotage, the perpetrators of the sabotage, and the effects of the sabotage.

The most interesting thing about The Cool War is the history behind the need for covert actions against other nations, which boils down to the astronomical cost of real war. But the real background to the story is Pohl’s typical world-at-chaos-due-to-energy-restrictions, a theme covered by Pohl again and again through the 1970s and 1980s. In The Cool War, the Israelis bombed out all the oil wells and set fire to all the oil deposits, thereby forcing the world to adopt alternatives: hydrogen and coal. It’s only mildly interesting because it’s this weak foundation on which the entire book floats.

Atop this barely floating plot is Hornswell Hake, a dull man with a dull life through into extraordinary circumstances which don’t render him any more interesting. Mislead yet virtuous, prying yet content, Hornswell Hake is a man who interested in the reality of things but content with whatever answer is given to him while at the same time nursing some off theory of his own, such as hypnotism. Hornswell can’t be liked.

Aside from the interesting yet poorly performing plot of subtle incursions and non-lethal attacks on countries, the last aspect of The Cool Way which failed was Hake’s obsession about hypnotism, as mentioned above. I was an eager reader looking for ways to include hypnotism, entertain a half dozen different ideas about how Pohl could switch things up with dramaturgy, one under hypnosis who is able to act out any given part. Alas, Hake finds out that hypnotism plays no part in his life—Pohl had led the reader on a while goose chase, a path which could have had numerous implication turned out to be a dead end. Wasted words.


Another Pohl read, another 2-stars given. There’s not much else in Pohl’s bibliography which intrigues me. Is this the end of the road for my Pohl readership? This is very, very close to the truth because on my shelves of 100+ unread books, there remains no Pohl. It’s time for this over-rated author to make way for some of the more unknown works on my shelves.


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who keeps trying Pohl novels but keeps being let down. Like so many of them, this one sounds like it has some fascinating ideas and background elements, it's a shame they weren't as developed or well used.

  2. I just don't understand his popularity. He's been very disappointing half the time, more than any other author I've read. Maybe he's may be a better editor than he is a writer?

  3. I disliked Slave Ship, Gateway, etc but definitely enjoy his collaborations with C. M. Kornbluth -- who is definitely the superior writer....

    1. Joachim, glad you could put down the croissant and join us! The ideas surrounding the Merchant books were fabulous and, unlike the rest of Pohl's work, very well executed (the Midas touch of Kornbluth?). I think I only want to read Jem, then ignore the rest of his work I haven't read.

    2. I recommend Kornbluth's short stories -- you need one of his collections. He's a damn good short story writer....

      HAHA, I've actually lost weight in France (all the walking) despite my massive consumption of pastries, bread of all sorts, and French cured meat.

  4. I read Jem and found it infuriating, for what it's worth. YMMV.

    But yeah, I keep trying Pohl, I keep getting disappointed by Pohl. I've only really liked some of his earlier short works and his collaborations with Kornbluth.