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Strange Horizons speculative fiction magazine

Cyril M. Kornbluth: One of Science Fiction's Forgotten Greats

By James Palmer

(originally published in Strange Horizons January 3rd, 2005)

(Addendum: I can't take all the credit for this one.  My thanks to Kat McDonald, the intrepid editor on this piece.  She came up with the idea of using the story quotes and did some much-needed last minute editing to help make this article what it is.)

"Drink up, mister," a pale free drink, soda bubbles lightly tinged with tawny rye. A small sip to gain time.

"Sam, there are some people after me—"

"You'll feel better in the morning, mister. Drink up, I got to close up, hurry up."

"These people, Sam [it's cold in here and scary as a noise in the attic; the bottles stand accusingly; the chrome globes that top them eye you] these people, they've got a thing, The Century of—"

"Sure, mister, I let you sleep because you got it here, but we close up now, drink up your drink."

"The Last Man Left in the Bar"

Cyril M. Kornbluth is probably one of the SF genre's most unsung writers. Publishing stories when he was fourteen, and dying tragically at age thirty-four, the prolific author left behind an impressive body of work, some of which still reads well today. Because of his gift for language and his largely satirical bent, Kornbluth is one of SF's forgotten masters.

Born in Manhattan, Cyril M. Kornbluth was a member of the Futurians, a famous 1930s group of New York fans who grew up to become some of the genre's most famous practitioners—Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, DAW Books founder Donald A. Wollheim, and several others. Brash, egotistic, belligerent with rival fan groups and each other (the group disbanded suddenly in 1945 when Wollheim sued seven other members for libel), the Futurians were a one-of-a-kind group in fandom. Many of the Futurians lived together, and made up their own songs and games. They also wrote together, contributing stories to Wollheim, Bob Lowndes, and Pohl when the three of them became magazine editors, often filling up entire issues with a variety of pseudonyms. One of the most prolific of the Futurians, Kornbluth was witty and acerbic, and described by everyone who knew him as having been born with a gift for language. In his book The Futurians, Damon Knight recalled an early anecdote about Kornbluth as a baby, in which a woman was admiring him in his stroller. According to legend, Kornbluth then sat up and said, "Madam, I am not the child you think me." At fourteen he already knew how to craft colorful sentences, and even experimented with poetry. Although he was the youngest of the Futurians, Kornbluth was the fastest writer, turning out a thousand words an hour. Kornbluth didn't live with his fellow fans at first, being too young to leave home, but he crashed with them on weekends, paying his share of the rent by doing the week's dishes. While there, Kornbluth amazed them with knowledge he had gleaned from reading an entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

His first published story is believed to be a collaboration with fellow Futurian Dick Wilson called "Stepson of Space" in Frederik Pohl's magazine Astonishing Stories, written under the name Ivar Towers (the Futurian headquarters at the time was called the Ivory Tower). He also collaborated with Pohl on a number of stories under the pseudonym S.D. Gottesman, after a hated math teacher. Kornbluth also wrote a number of solo stories for Donald Wollheim's magazines Stirring Science Stories and Cosmic Stories.

Kornbluth married Mary G. Byers, an Ohio fan who had written letters to several Futurians and had arrived in New York in 1941. When World War II started, Kornbluth joined the Army, where he worked as a machinist behind the lines. Later on, as Frederik Pohl tells it in his essay "Cyril," Kornbluth signed up for a new program called the Army Specialized Training Program, or ASTP. This new program was designed to train future officers for what was at the time believed to be an extensive war. When the war finally looked as if it would come to a close, the Army decided that it needed present combat troops more than future officers. The Army canceled ASTP and transferred all of its members into the infantry. As a result, Kornbluth ended up far from the safety of the machine shop and classroom, carrying a 50-caliber machine gun during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, Kornbluth attended the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill, where he divided his time between schoolwork, the occasional wire report for his friend and fellow Futurian Dick Wilson at Trans-Radio Press, and, of course, fiction writing.

In the mid-1950s, the war finally took its toll on the young author. He had developed malignant hypertension as a result of exposure and exhaustion during his stint in the infantry, and it was terminal. Kornbluth's doctor told him that if he wanted to live much longer he would have to give up spices, cigarettes, and alcohol, and take regular doses of rauwolfia extracts (probably Rauwolfia Serpentina, or Indian Snakeroot, which is a known antihypertensive).

Kornbluth did as instructed, even cutting out alcohol (Kornbluth was a heavy drinker, and according to Pohl, was known to finish off cough syrup and even vanilla extract when liquor wasn't available), but the medication made his quick mind slow and dull. Apparently deciding he couldn't live like that, Kornbluth went back to his old habits and to outward appearances became his former self again. Then, on March 21, 1958, Cyril shoveled snow from the driveway of his home in Long Island, which he shared with his wife and sons, then ran to catch a train to the city, where he was to talk to the publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction about editing the magazine. He fell dead of a heart attack on the platform. It was a tragic and much too early end to a bright and promising talent. One can't help but wonder what Kornbluth would be writing today, or what effect his editorship of F&SF would have had on the field.

The lights are out behind the bar, the jolly neons, glittering off how many gems of amber rye and the tan crystals of beer. A meager bulb above the register is the oasis in the desert of inky night.

"The Last Man Left in the Bar"

Kornbluth wrote several novels, both alone and with fellow Futurians, all of them brilliant though slightly dated, save one. Under the pen name Cyril Judd he wrote with Judith Merril Outpost Mars and Gunner Cade, a still readable satire of a military fraternity. Alone Kornbluth wrote the mainstream novels Valerie, The Naked Storm, and Man of Cold Rages, and the science fiction novels Takeoff, about the first spaceflight, and Not This August, in which the Russians win World War III. He also had two historical novels in the works, one about the life of St. Dacius, and the other about the battle of the Crater in the Civil War. He died before he could do little more than research his subjects.

Kornbluth wrote seven novels with Frederik Pohl: Gladiator-at-Law, Search the Sky, and Wolfbane (a fine tour de force in which aliens pull Earth from its orbit and enslave humanity as units in a giant computer), plus three mainstream novels, two under their own names—Presidential Year and A Town is Drowning—and one, Sorority House, under the pseudonym Jordan Park. But their most famous collaboration, the only one that still reads as well today as it did when it was published, is The Space Merchants. The project began as a piece Pohl was working on, but he only had the first third completed. He showed it to Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine editor Horace Gold, who loved it, and promised to run it as soon as the current serial was ended. There was only one problem. It wasn't finished, and Pohl had bogged down in the story. So he showed it to Kornbluth, who wrote the next third by himself, then collaborated with Pohl on the final section. It ran as "Gravy Planet," and was later published in novel form by Ballantine as The Space Merchants. It has remained in print, in several editions and translations, to this day, and unlike Kornbluth's other novels, which are as rare as hen's teeth, it can easily be ordered from any bookstore.

A futuristic satire of the advertising field, Merchants follows the exploits of one Mitchell Courtenay, copysmith star class, who has been charged with the seemingly impossible task of getting people to want to move to inhospitable Venus. This future world is a scary one. India is a giant corporation called Indiastries, senators and congressmen represent corporations instead of states, and business rivals can legally have one another killed. Shanghaied when trying to pin down a rogue employee, Mitchell gets a new identity and a one-way ticket to a life of indentured servitude in Costa Rica, where he gets a taste of what life is like for those on the bottom. In one scene, Mitch recounts his experience with some highly addictive food additives:

Later I was hungry and there was the canteen where I got Crunchies on easy credit. The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain. And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr Cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies . . .

Makes you wonder about the green M&Ms, doesn't it?

The Space Merchants is a remarkably prescient take on consumer culture, and has as much to say about today's society, for instance, the exploitive nature of capitalism, as it did about the emerging consumer culture of the 1950s.

C.M. Kornbluth also left behind an incredible number of well-written, fun short stories, written both alone and with his fellow Futurians. All but his earliest "to spec" stuff, written solely to fill space in the hackneyed confines of the earlier pulps, is brilliant, and quite a few of them hold up remarkably well. In "The Little Black Bag," a medical bag from the future is sent accidentally back through time and is found by a down-on-his-luck doctor, who uses the contents to cure homeless sick people. The bag is notable not only for its amazing devices but for the idiot-proof instructions that come with them. Kornbluth later wrote about the future the bag came from in "The Marching Morons," in which a small group of intelligentsia keep the world functioning for a mass of imbeciles. His premise, that intelligence is inherited, is false, but it only takes a trip around the television dial or a glance out the window to understand why Kornbluth felt that way.

"Ms. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie" is a great satire of writing in general and SF writing in particular. It could almost be considered recursive, since the main character is Cecil Corwin, one of Kornbluth's noms de plume, and there are editorial asides by Kornbluth himself. In this story, Kornbluth is editing a collection of tiny messages from his friend Corwin that he found hidden inside fortune cookies. Corwin says that he has found, through his wide reading on a variety of topics, that these bizarre communiqués contain the answer to every question that has ever plagued mankind. In testing out The Answer, Corwin tips off other writers who have also discovered it, and want to keep it a secret. Corwin is given two choices: keep mum on the subject and rocket to the top of the bestseller lists, or be consigned to an insane asylum.

In the delightfully weird "The City in the Sofa," a billionaire hires a mercenary to stop an army of tiny aliens that live in the sofa of his gentlemen's club from taking over the Earth. In "Time Bum," a hustler called Harry Twenty-Third Street comes up with an interesting con that has frightening consequences for him—a story reminiscent of the fun ingenuity found in the type of short shorts that Asimov wrote. Kornbluth's last story, "The Meeting," was finished and published after his death by Frederik Pohl. "The Meeting" won Kornbluth the Hugo award posthumously in 1972; it was the only award given to a writer who deserved many, many more.

That is just a small sampling of the wonderful stories Kornbluth wrote in his prolific but short life. Had he lived a little longer, I think Cyril M. Kornbluth would have become as big a name as Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein or perhaps even fellow Futurian Isaac Asimov, being known even outside the genre. But because he died so young, and because most of his novels, while good, were at the time accused of being somewhat pessimistic and scathing in their satire, he has fallen into relative obscurity. Kornbluth's work has also suffered the fate of even the best science fiction by becoming dated, though I think if they were republished today the satire would be better appreciated by this jaded age. SF has long been the perfect realm for satire, and Kornbluth was one of the best at infusing it into his work in subtle ways. The facts and science will change with the passage of time, but the message—if important—remains.

Most of his books are hard to find today, but The Space Merchants is still in print, of course, and NESFA Press put out a collection of his solo short stories called His Share of Glory: The Complete Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth. If you've never read or heard of Cyril M. Kornbluth before, you owe it to yourself to check out the work of one of science fiction's greatest forgotten practitioners.

And it came to pass than on the Friday after the two-week buildup, in the closing quarter-hour of the Poopy Panda Pals, there was a special film combining live and animated action as they were one.

And in the special film did Poopy Panda appear enhaloed, and the talented kid performers did do him worship, and Otto Clodd did trip over his feet whilst kneeling, and Jacky Whipple did urge in manly and sincere wise that all the Poopy Panda Pals out there in television-land do likewise, and the enhaloed Poopy Panda did say in his lovable growly voice, Poop-poop-poopy.

And adoration ascended from thirty-seven million souls.

"The Advent on Channel Twelve"

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