The Best of C. M. Kornbluth

Another entry in the alternate history series though this one only has a single story that fits the bill.

Raw Feed (1992): The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, ed. Frederik Pohl,

“Introduction: An Appreciation”, Frederik Pohl — Discussion of C.M. Kornbluth’s career, including many mainstream works, and his work as a journalist (which explains the wide variety of characters in his work as well as a knowledge of the world’s workings and seamier elements), his education, his intellectual traits (showing in the wide knowledge illustrated in these stories), and bursts of writing. He started early, at a high level, and got better.

The Rocket of 1955” Story of the world’s first “moon-shot”, a con put together with blackmail, for money. It fails (in that what seems to be a tragic explosion but is entirely planned), but the plot is uncovered and the perpetrators are executed. It’s main interest is Kornbluth’s characteristic economy even at this young age (18) and a cynical element (a moonshot being a con) which marks many of the stories in this anthology.

The Words of Guru” A fantasy (Kornbluth started out with them) with possible science fiction elements (the Cavern Out of Time and Space could be an alternate dimension or just a magical realm) of a youth’s initiation (with surprising whiffs of sex though nothing explicit and the narrator exhibits little interest in sex) into the use of magical power words. Like most Kornbluth stories, there’s a nasty ending with the narrator/protagonist learning a word that will (and he is going to use it) destroy the world. Peter, the narrator, seems to be an adolescent uncomfortable with his growing maturity (sexual and otherwise). He rejects the advances of the witches(?) he meets in the cavern, kills Brother Paul after the latter tells him about books on glands which Peter seems to think, despite being an “infant prodigy”, are “short, thick green men” or “things with many legs”. This further reinforces the impression that this story is a metaphor for an adolescent hate of sexuality and the adult world), and drives the subject of his first love mad and rejects Guru’s offering of any woman he wants in favor of the ultimate destructive word.

The Only Thing We Learn” — A science fiction reworking of history (an honorable tradition going back to at least Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy). Here the drama being replayed is the fall of Rome. Kornbluth here is suggesting that there always is a wealthy, stifling power on Earth (or somewhere else) that men of adventure and competence flee for the frontier. There, on the frontier, they are hardened, strengthened and return to conquer the city. I’m not sure how this fits Rome. The foederati were German barbarians (though many were technically Roman citizens). Perhaps he was referring to the many Roman generals from the frontiers who marched on the capitol. Still, it’s a good story if a little puzzling in its historical analogies.

The Adventurer” — Despite Pohl’s introduction, this story does not seem to be about Richard Nixon. (This seems to be wishful thinking from Democrat Pohl in 1976.) Rather, it’s another of Kornbluth’s science fiction reworkings of history. Here, we take the archetype of the adventurer (Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Philip the Macedonian), the man who overthrows the old order to establish a new one. (This is a very fifties science fiction story in its reworking of history, social satire, and Cold War allusions). The particular adventurer in this story is manufactured by some clever cabinet ministers to overthrow President Folsom XXV (hereditary ruler of the police state that is the Republic). Kornbluth makes the interesting point that all the adventurers of history were intelligent, charismatic, had some real or imagined disability, distant relationships with their father (or no father). Grayson is manufactured to fit these requirements and overthrow the Soviet and Republic. This he does but, in a typical cynical Kornbluth end twist, Grayson has his creators killed for denying his “godhood”.

The Little Black Bag” — A delightful piece of social satire from the fifties. Kornbluth envisions a future where morons occupy most of the positions of society. “Supernormals” (the very word seems a satire on the fifties’ desire to be average, hence a superior intellect is defined in terms of normal) ride herd on them disguised as middle management, lab assistants, and technical types. The reason for this state of affairs is that the morons have outbred the intelligent members of society. Wonderful technology has compensated for society becoming increasingly stupid. Hence doctors can be complete idiots in this future but still effect marvelous cures through their practically automated instruments and tools. The irony of this story is that a drunken doctor from our time, a man kicked out of the County Medical Society, is more intelligent with these tools than the future doctor who loses them in a time machine. The tools sort of rehabilitate the doctor, cause him to do great good. Several people have pointed out that Kornbluth was one of the few authors of the fifties to deal with the seamier side of society. (Alfred Bester did in some of his work, but it was in a romantic way not with the realism of Kornbluth.). That trait shows up in the slum setting of this story and the slum girl who blackmails Dr. Full into sharing the wealth of his medical venture with the little black bag. She doesn’t share his ethics and altruism though. In a typical nasty, cynical Kornbluth ending, her greed leads her to accidentally kill herself (the custodian of the bag in the future cuts the power of the bag) while demonstrating the miraculous qualities of a tool — after killing Dr. Full. I also liked the bogus, trivial digress (satire on GI Bill education?).

The Luckiest Man in Denv” — As Pohl points out in his introduction, this story exhibits remarkable economy. This is a fifties piece of social sf influenced by Cold War images in a way that reminded me of Philip K. Dick. Los Angeles and Denver are fighting a hot nuclear war over water rights to the Colorado River. This seems like a pretty advanced idea for the fifties as does the missile intercept system (though that probably is just a logical extension of many space opera stories). Kornbluth’s economy shows up in the creation of this resource starved society with its hierarchy of jobs, feudal relationships — all geared towards perpetuating the war effort — and characters who long for chairs and tables and carpets. The plot of political intrigue — well done given the size of the story — is reminiscent of A.E. van Vogt and early Dick. The protagonist Reuben is caught in some intrigue between his patron General May and General Rudolph. Both are jockeying for political supremacy, but May has more than political ambition. This is a paranoid, status obsessed society as you’d expect with a militarized, resource poor society fighting a war. May realizes that the war between Denver and Los Angeles hasn’t always been going on and that someone had to set up the cities on a wartime footing. He wants to gain power to end the war and settle the land outside the city. But subordinate Reuben sells him out (to competitor Rudolph) by declaring him insane, and the story ends with Rudolph and Reuben, “The two saviors of civilization as they knew it”, conspiring to do in May and end his plans. A typical, bitter, surprise ending by Kornbluth.

The Silly Season” — A fun story which gains a lot from Kornbluth’s days as a newspapermen (you learn a lot about the technical and editorial aspects of fifties’ journalism). The clever idea here is that aliens are planting (Martians specifically) evidence of their existence during the silly season (the summer season where newspapers latch on to temporary fads like UFOs, chloroform bandits, and giant turtles because regular news is lacking) and then removing it. The object is to cry wolf so many times that humanity ignores the real thing when the Martians finally invade.

The Remorseful” — A science fiction rationalized ghost story about what seems to be the last human alive wondering an Earth full of ghosts he can not sense. Gestalt, visiting aliens (these insect-like aliens are kind of interesting: each member of the gestalt carries a bit of memory, can use tools, carry things, is devoured by its fellows on its death) try to contact these ghosts but find them unpleasantly filled with remorse, repentance, and regret. I also liked the strange chatter that went through the humans mind: the Liberty Unlimited army where it’s required you march out of step and Covey’s Gin which patriotically blacks you out faster.

Gomez” — Story about a brilliant young, self-taught physicist who decides to suppress his discovery of a unified field theory for fear it will place too much power in America’s hands. This story has a message about government repression in the name of national security. (The narrator’s editor threatens to expose the military’s illegal searches and seizures in the name of national security if the narrator isn’t allowed to cover the Gomez story.)

The Advent on Channel 12” — This is a gem of a story, a short, very nasty satire on Mickey Mouse, the Mickey Mouse Club, the Mouseketeers, Walt Disney, and the fifties in general. The Mickey Mouse figure here is Poopy Panda created by Ben Graffis. The story has bankers pressuring Graffis to do things with Poopy Panda (for not entirely clear reasons though it seems they want to increase consumer spending) like amusement parks (and contrived nature dramas to be made by Graffis — I’ve recently heard the charge that Disney rigged his animals for his films on “nature” to make them cute and human like). Kornbluth sees the Poopy Panda Pasl (i.e. the Mouseketeers) as an attempt at social engineering with its commercial tie-ins, the identification of untalented children with the talented Mouseketeers, a father figure to deride (in fitting with Baby Boomers love of Mom), a cute boy to serve as big brother or sex object, opening “hymn and closing benediction”. The last aren’t accidental terms for Poopy (and his dopey saying Poop-Poop-poopy) becomes the center of a religion. Mickey Mouse as god. Pretty scary, funny stuff. You can read this story as science fiction (since it’s written like a religious text, particularly the King James bible, you can regard the Advent of Poopy Panda as fiction) or as a fantasy (Poopy Panda as a real god).

The Marching Morons” — Probably the most famous of Kornbluth’s stories though I’ve liked others better. Still, it was interesting to read this classic. The story is related to Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag”. Frederik Pohl convinced Kornbluth to expand the idea of morons outbreeding intelligent people into a full story. And it’s a grimly funny story. The story involves one John Barlow, a real estate developer, thrust into a future moronic world after being put in a sort of accidental suspended animation at the dentist’s office. Barlow’s expectations are humorously shaped by sf stories. What he finds is wide spread imbecility: quiz shows where the object is to put a shape in the correct hole, bad grammar on newscasts, a place where a Ph.D. in flycasting (Kornbluth saw the trivialization of higher-education that came from the G.I. bill.) is enough to get you the dreaded label of “bluenose”, massive auto and air accidents (speedometers are rigged to show a faster than real speed), racing forms that are incredibly long (no abbreviations are used — the races themselves are incredibly long due to incompetence), weird propaganda films to discourage child-bearing. Over this world of morons, a group of supernormals ride herd (in disguise — they won’t openly proclaim their superiority or authority so they work as “drafting room people”, chief nurses and minor bureaucrats during drafted terms of service). The intellectuals of this world, like the intellectuals of the past 20 generations, haven’t solved the problem of morons outbreeding intellectuals. A war would mean five hundred million tons of rotting flesh, sterilizing operations would cost too much. (Kornbluth conveniently ignores passive oral contraceptives — in the water for instance — or genetic engineering — perhaps he honestly didn’t foresee these future possibilities. On the other hand, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has oral contraception.) Barlow, though, has a ruthlessly, frankly Hitlerian solution he’ll execute in exchange for being made world dictator. Through political propaganda and media manipulation and fraud and hypnosis, he convinces the morons to march themselves on to rocketships to Venus — for fatal vacations. For his successful efforts (they freely admit they wouldn’t have thought of it), the intellectuals kill Barlow. Kornbluth sees Barlow as an evil tool and, like all evil tools, to be disposed of when their usefulness is done. Another sardonic Kornbluth twist.

The Last Man Left in the Bar” — I really didn’t like this story that much. It was written in a deliberately confusing style (unusual for Kornbluth) and seems (I’m not sure) to be about a man in a bar who has an object that a future religious cult wants. When he doesn’t give it to them (he really doesn’t know what they want), they initiate an apocalypse. I think.

The Mindworm” — This is, as Pohl points out, a story bridging sf and fantasy. It’s a tale of a mean telepathic man who feeds on heightened emotions of people, and the town of Eastern Europeans who, armed with their folklore of vampires, put a stop to his predations. The story shows Kornbluth’s talent in realistic depictions of life, especially its seamier side: the mindworm is the unwanted product of a temporary liasion between an officer and nurse; he haunts slums and hangs out with hoboes (his first kills). Kornbluth’s cynicism and newspaperman’s eye is evident in his West Virginia mining town populated by Eastern European migrants and controlled by the mining company. A lot goes on, like the doings of this story, unreported in the official press of the town.

With These Hands” — This story gets to the heart of what I consider to be one of the essential questions of some art: Does an artwork require special, rare skill (usually acquired through long, hard training) and perhaps inherent talent to be art? This story postulates mechanical, computer production of plastic arts and drawings. This computer can be set to convey different emotions to distort the reality of portraits along programmed lines. In short, to completely replace artists like the put upon protagonist of this story. (His plight reminded me of a couple of other, I believe, fifties’ science fiction stories: Walter M. Miller’s “Darfstellar” and Isaac Asimov’s “Galley Slave.”). Kornbluth does a nice job with describing his desperate artist and his sucking up to the few people who still want art lessons and his eventual refusal to psychically and financially mooch off another would-be female art student. I liked the bit about him not necessarily being so dedicated to art as to make so many sacrifices, just bored with everything else. It’s because of his refusal to get in another futile relationship that he commits — in effect — suicide by going to radioactive Denmark. There he meditates that the esthetikon (the art machine) can’t mix styles the way an artist can, can’t introduce the calculated flaw. His death, a pilgrimage to something called Mille’s Orpheus Fountain (I have no idea if it’s a real artwork:) is poignant but doesn’t really answer the central question of manual skill’s relation to art.

Shark Ship” — This sick, in a very good way, weird story (whose element of sadomasochism reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction”) was well done. Kornbluth does a nice job with the culture and many technical details of his oceangoing civilization. And the weird, violent, sex-hating religion adapted by the humans still on land is an interesting notion. Kornbluth’s point that both over and under population give rise to their own social adaptations and corrections was chilling, interesting, and well done.

Friend to Man” — One of many sf stories using the ichumendon wasp as a motif for nasty aliens. Here an alien gives a nasty man succor — to keep him alive for the young that have impregnated him — and then kill him.

The Altar at Midnight” — Poignant story of a man who helps the deformed, ostracized spacers he meets — spacers he helped deform by virtue of his inventing the space drive they use, a drive he did not know would have such ill effects on its users. This story had the mournful flavor of Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?”

Dominoes” — This is one of those stories with people causing, via time travel, the very event they sought to avoid through prescience. This particular story has a stockbroker trying to foresee a stock crash and thereby bringing it on. The only interesting thing in this story is that the stockbroker dies at the hands of the time machine inventor — after the latter lost a fortune in the market.

Two Dooms” — Pohl says this is one of the first alternate WWII stories, and I agree with him that it’s one of the very best. Unlike so many people who do the alternate WWII story, Kornbluth doesn’t just emphasize the physical brutality of a triumphant Third Reich and Japanese Empire. He emphasizes the intellectual barbarity and deliberate ignorance of the Nazis with their racial science, magical studies, and theories of World Ice and Hollow Earths and miscellaneous other stupidities. The physicist here (a rather naïve hero who dismisses — he enters this alternate world via drug vision/dimensional displacement about 150 years after WWII but the story starts with him working on our Manhattan Project — the stories he hears of Nazi concentration camps) flees to what he thinks will be a better place — Japanese occupied America. He images the Japanese to be like the Japanese students he’s known: frugal, dogged, brainy, good humored. What he finds is a brutal, fanatical feudalism imposed by the Japanese. That and genocide and overpopulation and bad land management and oppression (of women by men in their villages) and overwork and starvation. The oriental mindset comes in for a lot of knocks by Kornbluth. He sees it as non-rational. Their philosophy of acceptance is borne of exhaustion from overwork and starvation, their religion is hunger-fed hallucination, their economy impoverished, badly managed. This story makes an interesting counterpoint to “Gomez” by Kornbluth. In that story, Gomez decides to deny knowledge to the government because of its possible destructive potential. The hero of this story faces the same dilemma, and the story explicitly argues that it’s a good thing we nuked Japan. The actual alternate history of this story is interesting and unique but not, ultimately, convincing. Germany is occupied but America gets bogged down invading Japan. Manpower is pulled out of Europe. The Nazis spring to life again. Hitler is executed early on by Joseph Goebbels who leads Germany in the resurgent war. The Nazis conquer Europe and, eventually half of America (Japan gets the rest). I also liked the incidental (again showing Kornbluth’s erudition) details about Hopi Language and culture. A very good, very chilling story.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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