I'm going way back with this one. The Cool War was published in hardcover in 1981. I was a wait-for-the-paperback kind of guy back then, so I would have read the novel in 1982. Forty long years ago.

I had been a huge Frederik Pohl fan at that point. I don't think it would be out of the question to say he was my very favorite writer. I loved Gateway and Jem, and all his earlier works I had read. So I was as primed for The Cool War as any other book publication in my life.

Coincidentally, The Cool War takes place in the early twenty-twenties. I am now re-reading it in 2022. The picture of the world Pohl depicts is not a pretty one.

War is an unfortunate inevitability in our species, but in The Cool War, battles are not fought with guns or missiles. It is done in sneaky, almost subliminal ways. I'm not just talking about simple things like siphoning money out of bank accounts or infiltrating illegal drugs into a foreign culture. It's more sinister than that. How about sneaking a virus into a population? While having a vaccination already developed to sell to your victims after a pandemic. Or infecting food supply livestock with gonorrhea. Better yet, flood a market with inexpensive commodities to bring about ill health and apathy.

Enter Hornswell "Horny" Hake, a genial Unitarian minister. An agreeable sort, he becomes a perfect tool for "The Team", a shadowy outfit that took the place of the disgraced CIA. Hake is enlisted as an unwitting pawn to help deliver unrest and economic damage on America's enemies.

Horny Hake bumbles his way through a mission or two, and then is approached by members of the resistance. Political idealists who wish to thwart The Team's clandestine activities. Hake wants to do the right thing, but it becomes apparent that the revolutionaries aren't a whole lot better than the government spooks.

The Cool War is very funny, but also chilling in its portrayal of murderous thugs who often appear to be charismatic heroes. Engulfed with frenemies, Horny tries to find actions to not only satisfy his moral code, but to keep from becoming a casualty of the ruthless cool war.

Pohl's predictions of spy tactics are credible, but he misses some things. People are listening to magnetic cassette tapes in 2022, and Horny Hake brings a portable typewriter on a plane so he can write. No futurist gets everything right.

Frederik Pohl is as good as any SF writer ever was. It's too bad he never got the acclaim of someone like Isaac Asimov. I think Pohl is easily the superior writer. He was a pessimistic optimist who foresaw gloomy futures, but his characters generally display enough decency and fortitude to suggest that despite our collective foolishness, humankind has a pretty good shot at enduring.

Pohl's sweetest spot as a writer was between 1976's Man Plus through The Cool War in 1981. The later books are certainly good ones, but nothing before or since affected me so deeply.

Written by Mark Sieber

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