Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of C. M. Kornbluth

Cyril Kornbluth was born July 23, 1923, and died in 1958, only 34 years old, while running to catch a train in order to interview for an editing position at F&SF. He was one of SF's great cynics, and his work was dark and bracing. He collaborated extensively with Frederik Pohl, and also with Judith Merril. At the time of his death his reputation in the field exceeded Pohl's, but shortly thereafter, in New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis named Pohl arguably the field's best writer, and of course Pohl lived a half century and more beyond that, and did some tremendous work in that time, so by now he is (deservedly) regarded as the more important writer. But Kornbluth was very good as well, and it would have been wonderful to see where he might have ended up had he the chance to write more. Here's a selection of snippets I've written about Kornbluth, not necessarily representing his best work at all. But on what would have been his 96th birthday, I think he merits a look.

F&SF, Fall 1950

"The Silly Season" is C. M. Kornbluth at his most sardonic. A newspaperman investigates mysterious UFO-type manifestations. They seem real, but nothing comes of them. Over a few separate outbreaks, people become convinced they are all fake. Then the aliens REALLY come ...

Worlds Beyond, February 1951

Three more stories are reprints. One is C. M. Kornbluth's rather well-known first story, the short-short "The Rocket of 1955" (600 words) about a fake rocket launch. This first appeared in Escape in 1939, though the copyright notice here says "[c] 1941 by Albing Publications". ...

The third reprint is, as it happens, also by C. M. Kornbluth, though it is published as by "Walter C. Davies". "Forgotten Tongue" is also copyright 1941 by Albing Publications -- suggesting that the notice under "The Rocket of 1955" is a foulup, mistakenly copied from this story, which first appeared in the June 1941 Stirring Science Stories. Stirring Science Stories is yet another magazine to have died after its third issue (that June 1941 issue), though it was revived for one more issue in March 1942, by a different publisher. The blurb reads "A brief, apparently meaningless message -- but once you've read it, your mind wasn't your own". (Not sure what Knight was doing with tense there.) That made me hope for an early example of a "blit", but not so. It's more just sophisticated, and implausibly powerful, propaganda. It's set in a future divided between the Optimus party, representative of the rich (and apparently intelligent and physically superior) and the Lowers. The Optimus party is in control, but then an Optimus devises a way of influencing people through distributing books which subliminally make them Loyal -- but a Lower steals the book, changes every occurrence of Optimus to Lower, and turns the tables. Kind of dumb, I thought. Kornbluth did get some mileage out of the story, though, as besides this appearance and the original it was reprinted in the May 1942 Uncanny Tales.

Galaxy, December 1951

"With These Hands", by C. M. Kornbluth, is another story about a true artist facing replacement by less expensive machines. In this case Halvorsen ekes out a living by teaching, very occasionally selling something, and by the patronage of women who seem to hero worship him to some extent. In the dark conclusion, he finds this insupportable, and flees to a dangerous place to admire a true work of art, even if it means his life. Pretty good work.

Astounding, January 1952

And finally there is "That Share of Glory", one of C. M. Kornbluth's better known stories, though a somewhat atypical one. It lacks the bitterness of much of Kornbluth's most famous work -- indeed, it's downright Campbellian. It's about Alen, a novice in a quasi-religious order of linguists. He is assigned to his first mission, to help a somewhat rascally trader deal with the natives of Lyra. Alen does his job fairly well, using his knowledge of languages and customs to help foil some space pirates, and to help with the jewel trade on Lyra; and he also adheres to his Order's pacifism: they have a rule against ever using weapons. Then one of the crewmembers gets arrested, and it looks like the local authorities will railroad him, especially when Alen uses his knowledge to confound a strict local judge ... The resolution involves Alen realizing that sometimes violence is justified, and that the whole thing was a setup to test him: is he an inflexible prig only fit for low-level jobs in his order, or does he have the imagination to be a more influential member. So: very Campbellian. And pretty enjoyable.

Space Science Fiction, May 1953

"The Adventurer" is one of Kornbluth's somewhat well-known stories. It's cynical, naturally, and in a bracing way. In the future the US has become the Republic, ruled by hereditary and corrupt Presidents. The cabinet, in despair at the debased nature of the dynasty, decides to create a hero to lead a rebellion -- with cynically believable results. A good, bitter, story.

F&SF, April 1954

"I Never Ast No Favors", by C. M. Kornbluth (5700 words)
Amusing story told in a somewhat Runyonesque style. It's a letter from "Tough Tony", a teenaged gangster who has been sent to an upstate farm in lieu of jail. He's complaining to his mob boss about the horrors of farm life -- mainly a tough boss lady and a "hexing" war.

F&SF, November 1972

Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's “The Meeting” is a very simple story, really, set not far in the future. Harry Vladek is shown attending a parent-teacher meeting at his son’s school. This is a school for “exceptional children” – that is, children with special needs. We are given a portrait of the trouble Harry and his wife are having with their son Tommy, and that that some of their fellow parents are also having, and a portrait of a bit of mild optimism in that this new (and expensive) school does seem to be helping Tommy – a bit. Just a little bit. On coming home his wife reminds him that a certain Dr. Nicholson has called, and urgently needs Harry to call back, with a decision. We soon gather that the decision concerns whether to allow Tommy to be the subject of a brain transplant – another boy is dying, his brain is perfectly intact, but an accident will soon kill him. Harry and his wife will get a new brain for their child… but, of course, their child is not dead, and his brain, while decidedly not working very well, is not dead either. That’s pretty much the story, and as such it’s pretty effective, though ethically there doesn’t seem to be a choice. (The brain transplant would be murder, of course.) But the depiction of the Vladeks’ despair is effective.

1 comment:

  1. The NESFA "Complete Korbluth" short story collection, His Share of Glory, is a real treasure. For years I'd looked forward to reading his solo novel, The Syndic, and when I finally got around to it I was surprised to find that I didn't like it at all. Oh well...