Archive for Book Love

Farewell to My Friend, Ray Bradbury

My friend, Ray Bradbury, is now roaming the wind-swept midway of the Dark Carnival. He passed away at the age of 91 in Los Angeles on Tuesday, June 5, following what his publisher described as a long illness.

No, I never met Ray, apart from having had the pleasure of hearing him speak a couple of times (once at Tulane University in New Orleans, the second time at Comic Con International). Nor did I ever correspond with him. But I count him as a friend, as well as an influence and an inspiration.

One of the first science fiction books I ever asked for was Ray’s A Medicine for Melancholy. My father bought it for me at a newsstand/cigar store when I was in fifth grade, the day before I was due to get on a bus for my first-ever overnight trip away from my parents and home, a school-sponsored outing to Sea Camp down in the Florida Keys. The bus ride from North Miami Beach down to the Keys would take between two and three hours, and my father wanted me to have something to read on the journey. I picked out the Ballantine Books paperback because the collage of images on its front cover included a dinosaur. At that point, I didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was; I just wanted to read a book that had a dinosaur in it. No particular story of the twenty-two stories I read during those hours on the bus springs to mind; rather, what I recall from those hours I spent thirty-seven years ago is a sense of enchantment, of being gently drawn into a whole new universe of words and colors and textures, very much unlike anything I had read previously. The welcoming strangeness of the stories in the book was undoubtedly reinforced by the happy strangeness of Sea Camp, a place where the red (not pink) lemonade was tart to the point of harshness and one could walk precariously atop a giant ring of stones surrounding a shark pool, an artificial inlet connected to the ocean by a wire mesh gate.

I bought other Ray Bradbury story collections, including The Golden Apples of the Sun, The Machineries of Joy, and R is for Rocket. I read The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine. The two Bradbury books which left the strongest imprints on me during the years between my tenth and thirteenth birthdays were The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I remember that what impressed me so strongly about The Martian Chronicles was that story cycle’s pervading sense of yearning, nostalgia, and ultimate pangs of loss for the Martian culture which was so blithely superseded and discarded. One of the Martian stories (which had also appeared in A Medicine for Melancholy), “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” is the only story (apart from Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” which devastated me) that I remember from my seventh grade literature sampler. Being on the cusp of the cascade of adolescent physical changes when I read it, “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” being all about a young family of Earth people on Mars gradually, unconsciously transmogrifying into beautiful Martians sent quivers, both emotional and physical, all throughout my own transmogrifying self.

(By the way, isn’t it interesting that the only two stories I can remember from my seventh grade literature sampler, which was mostly filled with capital “L” Literary short stories, are both science fiction tales from the 1940s and 1950s? I wonder what percentage of one-time junior high school students would report the same? I suspect many would.)

I think I read Fahrenheit 451 and saw Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation within a few months of each other (the Truffaut film most likely as part of my local CBS affiliate’s “Science Fiction Thriller Week” of afternoon movies). I’m pretty sure I saw the movie first, which then sent me looking for a used copy of the book. The film had much the same effect upon me as reading A Medicine for Melancholy had – a thrilling immersion into a world of not-unwelcome strangeness, although the Truffaut film certainly struck me as more menacing and dark than any of the stories I had read in the Bradbury collection. I do recall thinking, after having read the original book, that it was rather weak sauce after the experience of the film. I don’t think that Ray would have minded hearing my opinion too much; after all, he has said that Truffaut’s film was his favorite of the many film and television adaptations which have been made from his work. And who can argue about the memorability of Truffaut’s images and visualizations of Bradbury’s words, the fire trucks, the firemen’s uniforms, that haunting suburban landscape, and the hypnotic fires themselves?

Twenty-seven or twenty-eight years after I read Fahrenheit 451 and first saw the movie version, I wrote my own novel-length homage to the book and the film, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, which has been described as “Fahrenheit 451 for the fast food industry.” I originally wanted to entitle the book just Calorie 3501 (3500 being the number of calories which, if consumed and not expended, adds one pound of fat to the human body). My publisher, Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications, wanted a title that reflected Bradbury’s title for the original novella-length version of his book-burning tale, “The Fireman” (published in the February, 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction); he wanted to call it The Good Humor Man. We ended up compromising with the combined title, which, although a bit clunky, sort of satisfied both of us (and which doubly reinforces the connection with Ray Bradbury’s original works).

Another aspect of Ray Bradbury, apart from his writings (although certainly affecting his writings), has always enormously impressed me. He was a genuinely happy man, and he was never loathe to express this to his public. He loved his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, and frequently referenced it in his fiction, but he loved being an adult, too. My former rabbi in New Orleans, David Bockman, grew up in Los Angeles in a house just up the street from Ray Bradbury’s house. David told stories about how his famous neighbor would throw huge Halloween parties for the neighborhood’s children each year, and how gracious Ray always was. Bradbury’s public talks and published interviews often repeated the same anecdotes, but they were invariably happy anecdotes, about writing Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter at the public library that he rented for ten cents an hour, or about his childhood encounter with Mr. Electro on a carnival midway sideshow, the encounter he credits with turning his imagination toward the fantastic. Ray was also a devoted friend, cherishing his boyhood friendships with Ray Harryhausen and Forry Ackerman throughout his life and always supporting them however he could.

Ray’s death leaves only Frederik Pohl as a living representative of that fabulous generation of science fiction writers who began as fans in the 1930s and turned pro in the early 1940s. In recent years, we’ve lost Jack Williamson (from an older generation still) and Philip Klass (who was three months older than Ray, whose birthdate was August 22, 1920). Ray’s contemporaries, writers of science fiction’s Golden Age, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A. E. van Vogt, departed Earth many years before he did.

Ray, I will miss you very much. As will hundreds of thousands of your readers. In my mind’s ear, I can hear your fog horn and lonesome dinosaur both bellowing their grief.

The Good Humor Man Back in the Kindle Store!

Hoo-ray!!! I just got word from the wonderful Jill Roberts at Tachyon Publications that all of their books have been returned to Amazon’s Kindle store. That means The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 is once again easily available for those of you who do your reading on a Kindle device. Here is Jill’s announcement:

“We’re pleased to report that, as of this weekend, our Kindle e-books will be available through Amazon again. Our e-books in all formats continue to be available on our website and through Weightless Books.

“We don’t have the details of the agreement, but we hope that IPG’s stand will have an ongoing positive effect throughout the publishing community, particularly as future negotiations with Amazon transpire.
IPG made this statement to its client publishers (excerpted):

“‘[We] can’t thank you enough for your input, support, patience, sacrifice, and loyalty over the last few months…. IPG and our publishers also received a tremendous amount of support from much of the rest of the industry, for which we will be forever grateful. I feel that the experience has clarified some things for us and our clients, and that now we are all even better equipped to navigate through this rapidly changing industry.’

“To all of you as well — thank you for your ongoing support as we continue to save the world one good book at a time. See you in the future.”

Sad Prediction: They’re Going to Ruin On the Road

It’s generally not a good practice, I’ll admit, to slam a movie before you’ve seen it. It’s unfair to the filmmakers, and it’s typically a lazy response on the part of the “reviewer.” However, I’m making an exception in this one case. And I promise to revisit this post and my opinion once I have actually seen the film (although I’ll probably wait to get it on Netflix).

The film in question is Brazilian director Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve been waiting a quarter century for this book to finally hit the screen. Lots and lots of folks have been waiting a good deal longer than that. So I was a happy lad indeed this morning when I read this headline on Google News:

Kerouac’s On the Road Hits Screen in Cannes Debut

I grew progressively unhappier as I read through the article, though. Walter Salles is best known for an earlier “road movie” he directed, The Motorcycle Diaries. Generally well received by critics for its acting and cinematography, this was a hagiographic portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s youthful, pre-revolutionary days. Okay… given that this film was pretty much a Valentine to the cult of a charismatic man who went on to help establish an oppressive dictatorship and police state, I figured that Salles is a man of the hard left; not an unusual status for a film maker. His cinematic chops appeared to be in order, however, particularly for a story such as On the Road‘s, which calls for a deft hand with montage. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to hope that he would accurately reflect the novel’s spirit and would not trowel on an overlay, utterly alien to the novel and to Kerouac’s outlook, of anti-American propaganda.

Well, my optimism lasted all of about fifteen seconds. Until I reached these quotes in the article:

“‘It’s about the loss of innocence, it’s about the search for that last frontier they’ll never find,’ Salles told reporters in Cannes. ‘It’s about also discovering that this is the end of the road and the end of the American dream.'”

May I congratulate you, Mr. Salles, on your spectacularly inaccurate take on your source material? “The end of the road?” “The end of the American dream?” What book did you read, sir? On the Road is about nothing of this sort. What makes Kerouac’s novel so enduring and memorable, more than just a period-piece curiosity or icon of Beat Generation kitsch (as some of its contemporary critics attempted to tar it), is its author’s genuine, ecstatic, and often grandly (or humorously) poetic love for America, for the country’s vastness and richness and strangeness, for the dignity and energy and humor of even its poorest outcasts and hoboes. Kerouac and his novel are in love with jazz and the common man’s automobile, and in love with the country that gave birth to both of those phenomena.

On the Road is not Howl. Kerouac’s novel and Allen Ginsberg’s poem should be seen as the yin and yang of the Beat outlook. Howl, of course, provides an outlook more convivial to the worldview of a film maker such as Mr. Salles. In On the Road, Kerouac portrays his friend Ginsberg as Carlo Marx. From what I can read into another snippet from the article, it appears Mr. Salles has likely upgraded Carlo Marx’s significance in the story:

“Salles’ camera captures America’s vastness – and the promise of something new around the corner – from the lights of New York to the hills of San Francisco and the long expanse of flat road and endless sky in between.

“But as the sun fades on the brief and bright explosion of the characters’ lives, age and responsibility intrude.

“‘This high we’re on is a mirage,’ character Carlo Marx tells Paradise and Moriarty.”

And that one line of dialogue, right there, gives the game away. It is not a line of dialogue from the book. Mr. Salles has added it; I can only presume in order to reinforce his adaptation’s ideological overlay. I fully expect Carlo Marx to end up being the true “hero” of the film, saying many pithy things about the hidden, rotten core of America (pithy statements which will have been creations of the screenwriter’s, not of Jack Kerouac’s).

Those familiar with Jack Kerouac’s biography know that he and Allen Ginsberg suffered a painful falling out during the 1960s, when Kerouac found himself unable to stomach Ginsberg’s high-profile association with elements of the anti-American left. Ginsberg’s political views, to put it mildly, were not those of Jack Kerouac. They are, however, those of Walter Salles.

If Mr. Salles had wished to make a movie with the sort of message he prefers, he should have found a way to adapt Howl, not On the Road. That would have been much more honest.

Nebula Awards Weekend Book Signing–Hope to See You There!

This Friday evening, May 18, I’ll be taking part in the mass book signing at the Nebula Awards Weekend from 5:30-7:30 P.M. This is an event that is free and open to the general public (not just folks who register for the awards weekend). It’s a great opportunity to get your books signed by several dozen of your favorite science fiction and fantasy writers (and to buy their books, too, which will be on sale in a display outside the autographing and meet-and-greet room). The Nebula Awards Weekend will be held at:

The Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel
2799 Jefferson Davis Highway
Arlington, Virginia

The Book Depot will be open on Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. and will then reopen during the two hours of the mass signing.

Some of the writers who plan to participate in the book signing include:

Brad Aiken

R.J. (Rebecca) Anderson

Lou Antonelli

Franny Billingsley

Marilyn Mattie Brahen

Robert Brent

Grant Carrington

Michael Cassutt

Adam-Troy Castro

Brenda Clough

Myke Cole

A.C. Crispin

Wendy Delmater Thies

Michael S. Dobson

Gardner Dozois

Andy Duncan

Scott Edelman

Timons Esaias

Cynthia Felice

E. Michael Fincke, Col, USAF (Ret); NASA Astronaut

Jim Fiscus

Andrew Fox

Nancy Fulda

Charles E. Gannon

Carolyn Ives Gilman

Joe W. Haldeman

James Patrick Kelly

John Kessel

Alethea Kontis

Mary Robinette Kowal

Ellen Kushner

Maria Lima

Richard A. Lovett

Lee Martindale

Jack McDevitt

James Morrow

Diana Peterfreund

Geoff Ryman

John Scalzi

Stanley Schmidt

Lawrence M. Schoen

Darrell Schweitzer

Delia Sherman

Bud Sparhawk

Katherine Sparrow

Rachel Swirsky

Brandie Tarvin

Sandra Tayler

Mary A. Turzillo

Genevieve Valentine

Jo Walton

Bud Webster

Richard White

Walter Jon Williams

Connie Willis

That’s some list, isn’t it?

So, if you’re in the area or will be passing through, come on over and see me (and all those other terrific folks) on Friday night. I’ll have my whole family with me (we’ll all be rooting for our friend Adam-Troy Castro to win at least one of the two Nebula Awards he’s up for this year). We’d love to see you!

Pohl + Kornbluth Part 7: Wolfbane

Return to Introduction
Return to The Space Merchants
Return to Search the Sky
Return to Two Solo Novels: The Syndic and Drunkard’s Walk
Return to Gladiator-at-Law
Return to the Collaborative Short Fiction

by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Original publication: October, 1957 and November, 1957 issues of Galaxy Science Fiction (as two-part magazine serial)
Ballantine Books, 1959 (simultaneous hardback and paperback, expanded version of Galaxy serial)
Most recent publication: Orion/Gollancz Science Fiction, 2000 (paperback); Wonder eBooks, 2008 (Kindle edition)


Wolfbane was the fourth and final of Frederik Pohl’s and Cyril Kornbluth’s novel-length collaborations in science fiction. Due to the unique history of its composition – it was essentially written in phases, with three separate versions eventually seeing publication – it offers a particularly clear window into what Cyril Kornbluth added to the mix. Given that Frederik Pohl himself has admitted that he can’t remember with any degree of accuracy the extent of his contributions and Kornbluth’s contributions to their shared novels, at least in terms of sorting out who was responsible for introducing particular characters or plot elements, giving Wolfbane a close look promises to be an illuminating exercise.

Here is what Pohl had to say about the genesis of Wolfbane in his Introduction to the first collection of Pohl-Kornbluth short fiction, The Wonder Effect: “Wolfbane was a different sort of story. We planned it as a 15,000 word novelette—and wrote it that way, too, turn and about. But it was almost unreadable, far too telegraphic and compressed; and I opened it out to about 40,000 words, in which form it was published as a magazine serial; whereafter Cyril expanded it to about 60,000 words for the final book version. This was about the last writing Cyril did before his death.”

Wolfbane has been published in three versions: the two-part magazine serial published in the October and November, 1957 issues of Galaxy; the longer version (fifty percent longer than the magazine version) published in book form by Ballantine in 1959; and a third version, expanded and revised by Pohl for publication by Baen Books in 1986, during a period when Pohl was going back to each of his SF collaborations with Kornbluth and revising it.

Based upon the above information, it’s possible to read the 40,000 word Galaxy version and the 60,000 word 1959 Ballantine version back to back, determine which 20,000 words were added between the former and the latter, and ascribe those words to Cyril Kornbluth. And, being the obsessive fan that I am, that is what I did. In this way, Wolfbane can almost serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the Pohl-Kornbluth collaboration, putting to rest (if it still needs putting to rest) Kingsley Amis’s assertion from his 1960 work of criticism, New Maps of Hell, that all of the “good stuff,” the social and political extrapolation and satire, in the Pohl-Kornbluth collaboration came from Frederik Pohl, with Cyril Kornbluth only contributing the pulpier, more action-oriented material. (See my assessment of Amis’s assessment here.)

To the best of my knowledge, the initially published, 40,000 word version of Wolfbane has never been republished since it first appeared in 1957 in Galaxy. However, thanks to my friends at Books From the Crypt, an online store specializing in SF pulps and rare paperbacks, I was able to acquire the two issues of Galaxy at a reasonable price.

The entirety of the first portion of the serial from the October, 1957 issue was inserted pretty much unchanged and unexpanded into the 1959 book version, along with about the first quarter of the second installment, from the November, 1957 issue. The Galaxy version and the 1959 Ballantine Books version are indistinguishable to my eyes (apart from a few relatively minor revisions noted below) to the point in the story where Glenn Tropile, the book’s Wolf/Citizen protagonist, awakens on the binary planet which has stolen Earth from its orbit, embedded in a tank of nutrient liquid by the Pyramid aliens as one-eighth of a human computer. From that point forward, the two versions of Wolfbane differ considerably, although they share an identical ending (an ending which is granted much greater emotional power by Cyril Kornbluth’s additions to the second half of the 1959 Ballantine version).

Just a quick word on some peculiarities of the Galaxy version – the haste with which Pohl and Kornbluth wrote it and with which editor Horace L. Gold edited it are apparent. The two-part serial contains numerous typographical errors, as well as a pair of minor but nonetheless irritating story errors. The worst of these was having Gala Tropile, Glenn Tropile’s wife, translated/transported to a storage unit on the binary planet, then later appear in Citizen Roget Germyn’s house on Earth, prior to the warfare on the binary planet, won by the Earthmen, which allows the people abducted by the Pyramids to return to Earth. The lesser error was describing several activities of the Pyramids taking place on Earth’s moon, rather than on the binary planet where they must have taken place (every five years, the Pyramids ignite Earth’s moon into a small facsimile of the sun, in order to maintain livable conditions for the humans on Earth while Earth is being dragged through interstellar space by the binary planet’s propulsion system; so, apart from somehow lighting a series of fusion reactions on the moon’s surface, the Pyramids do not carry out any of their activities there). All of these errors were corrected for the 1959 book publication.

Wolfbane is “big picture” science fiction, futuristic adventure on a grand canvas. At the book’s start, seven eighths of the human race have died out, due to continual environmental catastrophes caused by the Earth’s removal from its orbit around the sun by alien invaders (only one of which actually resides on Earth, atop the shaved-off peak of Mount Everest, the rest of the Pyramids remaining on their binary planet, upon which they have installed propulsion machinery capable of moving that planet, Earth, and Earth’s moon through space as a mini-solar system). As mentioned above, every five years the Pyramids ignite the moon to serve as a miniature substitute for the sun, but the moon’s radiance quickly declines and eventually it burns out, necessitating another ignition. In the meantime, ice sheets have retreated and then advanced across Earth’s land surfaces, and the seas have expanded and then shrunk, causing havoc for humanity’s efforts at agriculture and forcing the shrunken, dispirited remnants of humanity to continually migrate, keeping abreast of the advancing and then retreating ice sheets. The purposes of the alien Pyramids are a complete mystery to humanity. No Pyramid ever attempts to communicate with any human. Pohl and Kornbluth do a brilliant job of portraying the type of society which might emerge from such conditions. In North America, society has reverted to bare subsistence farming and social norms very much akin to those of pre-modern Japan. Barely surviving on about five hundred calories of food intake per day, Citizens constrain their movements and indulge in arts requiring the most minute expenditures of energy, such as elaborate rituals of politeness, hospitality, eating, and meditation. Meditation is considered one of humanity’s highest pursuits. The culmination of the purest form of meditation is “translation,” or a visitation by a shimmering eye-like visage, followed by the sudden vanishing of the meditator. Any persons who display unusual initiative or selfishness or who try to utilize advanced technologies left over from the pre-Pyramid era are denounced as Sons of the Wolf, captured, and executed by draining their spinal fluid.

The novel’s protagonist, Glenn Tropile, is a Wolf who has been trying to act out the part of Citizen his entire life. However, during a crisis in his village, his mask slips, and he is caught pilfering extra rations of food. He is caught and sentenced to having his spinal fluid drained, but he manages to utilize both his intimate knowledge of Citizen social mores and his psychological hold over his wife to escape prison and execution. Once he is outside his village, he is picked up by a helicopter operated by members of a secret village of Wolves. These Wolves have been recreating the weaponry of pre-abduction Earth and carry out expeditions to Mount Everest at the beginning of each five-year moon-sun cycle to gather intelligence on the Pyramid sitting on the summit. Their ultimate goal is to wrest control of the Earth back from the alien Pyramids and to return Earth to its orbit around the sun. Tropile’s new comrades warn him not to practice meditation, as that activity is strongly associated with the appearance of shimmering eye visages and subsequent translation, or disappearance. However, one day while he is harvesting crops, Tropile takes a lunch break and ends up inadvertently falling into a meditative state while observing his pot of water boil over an open fire. An “eye” appears above him, and while some of the other Wolves watch, Tropile is translated and disappears. The Pyramid atop Mount Everest, noting that Tropile has cleared his mind of all thought, registers that he is ripe for harvesting and instantaneously transports him to a holding tank on the binary planet. There he is surgically “wired together” with seven other humans to form one of the Pyramids’ numerous biological computers, which they utilize to run all of the complex machinery on the binary planet, including the planet’s propulsion system and the feeding booths the Pyramids need in order to survive. The purpose for the Pyramids’ abduction of Earth was to secure a supply of components for their biological computers. Once that supply has been completely harvested and used up, the Pyramids will abandon their hold on Earth and locate another planet occupied by suitable life forms for them to harvest.

At this point in the story, the two versions diverge. Readers concerned about “spoilers” should skip to the last paragraph of this essay. I apologize, but it is virtually impossible to talk about two versions of the final third of a novel without giving away a good bit (if not all) of the climax. The earlier version comes to its climax when Tropile manages to awaken and organize his fellow seven nutrient tank dwellers, and they use their control over various mechanical and chemical processes on the binary planet to trick the Pyramids into transporting six hundred Wolves and Citizens from Earth who are known to Tropile to the binary planet, along with weapons from the Wolves’ village. There, rather than being placed into storage for use as computing elements for the Pyramids, Tropile and his allies set the Earth people loose in the tunnels beneath the binary planet to cause mayhem among its myriad of fragile mechanisms. They use the distraction they thus gain to seize control of the Pyramids’ instantaneous transportation mechanism and use it to hurl all of the thousands of Pyramids on the binary planet’s surface onto the burning surface of the moon, where they are destroyed.

Given the task of expanding the novel by 20,000 words for book publication, Cyril Kornbluth opted to change this sequence of events in a number of very interesting ways. In the earlier version, Pohl and Kornbluth gave a name and background to only one of the seven individuals Tropile finds himself sharing a nutrient tank with. Kornbluth opted in his expanded version to flesh out the identities of all of other seven “computing elements,” having them originate in various regions and continents of Earth still inhabited by humans and giving them widely disparate personalities and histories. In doing so, he offered a vivid portrait of a gestalt consciousness, on par with what Theodore Sturgeon had so memorably accomplished in his novel More Than Human (1953), which must have influenced Kornbluth. Kornbluth also portrays a much more fascinating picture of the interplay between this gestalt consciousness and the hundreds of human beings it causes to be transported from Earth to the binary planet. Rather than simply give them weapons and have them attack the Pyramids’ machines, the gestalt consciousness manipulates them, through alternating periods of satiety with periods of hunger and thirst, into becoming “mice” inside the tunnels and automated factories of the binary planet, causing continual destruction through their search for food and water. Kornbluth also included a scene wherein the separate personalities of the gestalt consciousness disaggregate themselves, and some, including Tropile, express horror at the callousness with which they have used their friends and relatives as tools, fomenting a brief but intense conflict among the eight partners and adding a new layer of psychological and moral complexity to the novel.

Another major change that Kornbluth made was to give the alien Pyramids a backstory. In the novel’s second version, rather than there being tens of thousands of Pyramids, there are only eight. The Pyramids were constructed thousands of years ago as mechanical servitors by a biological race which once inhabited the binary planet. The eight most powerful and invincible of these were designed to explore the stars. While they were carrying out their mission of interstellar exploration, the more mundane Pyramids turned on their creators, nearly wiping out the biological population before the creators managed to destroy their rebellious creations. However, when the eight super Pyramids returned and found that their brethren had been wiped out, they eradicated the remainder of their creators, leaving only one to hover between life and death, which they preserved in a sort of stasis in a chamber located on the binary planet’s north pole. Tropile’s gestalt consciousness manages to contact this one remaining Pyramid creator and convinces it to share its unique knowledge of the Pyramids’ weaknesses in order to defeat the eight super Pyramids.

In contrast to the cursory, summarized battle portrayed in the initial version of Wolfbane, the struggle portrayed in the 1959 version is a well thought-out military campaign against the Pyramids. Kornbluth utilized his knowledge of large-scale infantry combat and basic engineering, acquired during his Army service during World War Two, to write a vividly described, massive struggle between the gestalt consciousness and its human allies versus the Pyramids and their robots that spans the entirety of the binary planet. Tropile separates himself from his gestalt partners at great personal sacrifice to lead the human forces on a sabotage mission designed to destroy the Pyramids’ source of nutrients. The mission involves fierce combat against giant repair robots, combat which leaves a third of the human forces dead, but which succeeds in blowing up the central nutrient depository. The Pyramids are then doomed to run down and become inactive, having expended all their energy supplies in an ultimately successful though Pyrrhic attempt to destroy the gestalt.

Kornbluth and Pohl opted to retain their original ending from the Galaxy serial version. However, Kornbluth’s changes and additions to the story give that ending much more emotional heft, as well as more fully supporting and justifying Tropile’s decision to return to a form of gestalt consciousness, despite the deaths of his original seven partners.

The initial version of Wolfbane is an exciting and imaginative apocalyptic thriller that effectively evokes the SF sense of wonder. However, Cyril Kornbluth’s additional 20,000 words elevated it from a good SF novel to a classic SF novel.

Frederik Pohl has opined that, had Cyril Kornbluth lived a longer, more typical lifespan, he would have become one of the all-time greats of science fiction. Those final 20,000 words of Wolfbane were some of the last words that Kornbluth wrote, and they are some of his finest, most powerful, and most fully realized work. Had he continued producing long-form works of the quality of his work on Wolfbane, he would certainly now be at least as well-remembered and well-regarded as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Robert Heinlein. Bereft of this what-if, we are left only with his classic short fiction, a flawed but memorable solo novel (The Syndic), and his novel-length collaborations with Frederik Pohl as evidence of his skill and talent as a writer. Count his contribution to Wolfbane as one of the most compelling pieces of that evidence.

Pohl + Kornbluth Part 6: the Collaborative Short Fiction

Return to Introduction
Return to The Space Merchants
Return to Search the Sky
Return to Two Solo Novels: The Syndic and Drunkard’s Walk
Return to Gladiator-at-Law

Although best known for their quartet of science fiction novels they published in collaboration, the partnership of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth also produced about thirty-five short stories. These stories can be divided into three groups. The bulk of them (many now lost, or buried within one of the numerous pseudonyms the Futurians used during their early writing days) were written between 1939, when Cyril was 17 and Fred was 21, and 1943, when they both entered the U.S. Army. They produced an additional handful during the years between their collaborations on The Space Merchants in 1952 and Wolfbane in 1957. Following Kornbluth’s death on March 21, 1958, Pohl went through an assortment of manuscripts, both stories and a couple of unfinished novels, that his former writing partner had left incomplete, and over a period of about fifteen years expanded several of those fragments into complete stories. He also revised some of their earliest shared work together, pieces they had written in collaboration during the late 1930s or early 1940s and which had gotten temporarily lost.

Four collections of their collaborative short fiction have been published. The contents of each overlap a good bit, as you can see below (h/t: Wikipedia entry on Cyril Kornbluth):

The Wonder Effect (1962)
“Critical Mass,” 1962
“A Gentle Dying,” 1961
“Nightmare with Zeppelins,” 1958
“Best Friend” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1941
“The World of Myrion Flowers,” 1961
“Trouble in Time” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1940
“The Engineer,” 1956
“Mars-Tube [as by S. D. Gottesman],” 1941
“The Quaker Cannon,” 1961

Critical Mass (1977)
“Introduction,” (Pohl)
“The Quaker Cannon,” 1961
“Mute Inglorious Tam,” 1974
“The World of Myrion Flowers,” 1961
“The Gift of Garigolli,” 1974
“A Gentle Dying,” 1961
“A Hint of Henbane,” 1961
“The Meeting,” 1972
“The Engineer,” 1956
“Nightmare with Zeppelins,” 1958
“Critical Mass,” 1962
“Afterword,” (Pohl)

Before the Universe (1980)
“Introduction,” (Pohl)
“Mars-Tube” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1941
“Trouble in Time” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1940
“Vacant World” [as by Dirk Wylie (with Dirk Wylie and Pohl)], 1940
“Best Friend” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1941
“Before the Universe” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1939
“Nova Midplane” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1940
“The Extrapolated Dimwit” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1942
“Afterword,” (Pohl)

Our Best: The Best of Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth (1987)
“Introduction,” (Pohl)
“The Stories of the Sixties,” (Pohl, section introduction)
“Critical Mass,” 1962
“The World of Myrion Flowers,” 1961
“The Engineer,” 1956
“A Gentle Dying,” 1961
“Nightmare with Zeppelins,” 1958
“The Quaker Cannon,” 1961
“The 60/40 Stories,” (Pohl, section introduction)
“Trouble in Time” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1940
“Mars-Tube” [as by S. D. Gottesman], 1941
“Epilogue to The Space Merchants,” (Pohl, section introduction)
“Gravy Planet,” (extract from the magazine serial, not used in the book)
“The Final Stories,” (Pohl, section introduction)
“Mute Inglorious Tam,” 1974
“The Gift of Garigolli,” 1974
“The Meeting,” 1972
“Afterword,” (Pohl)

In his Introduction to their collection of their early collaborative stories, Before the Universe, Pohl wrote, “The first published story by Cyril and me was ‘Before the Universe.’ … We worked out an assembly line procedure: I wrote an ‘action chart’ – essentially a plot outline, with some indication of characters and setting – from which Cyril wrote a first draft, which I then revised and retyped…” He also had this to say about their early collaborations (from his Introduction to their earliest collection of shared stories, The Wonder Effect): “A number of reviewers have speculated, and readers from time to time ask, what the mechanics of collaboration were between us. I take this to condone the vanity of supplying an answer. There isn’t one single answer, though, because we tried everything. At first I made up plots, Cyril fleshed out the stories and I rewrote them in final form for publication. That was the technique that produced the bulk of the early stories which I now hope to see forgotten. I was not a very good way of writing a story, and we never wrote a complete story that way after 1942.”

Their 1980 collection, Before the Universe, contains those early stories which Frederik Pohl is willing to share with the reading public. “Before the Universe,” “Nova Midplane,” and “The Extrapolated Dimwit” form a trilogy, the best that can be said of them being that they display a pulpish energy which sweeps the reader along and that the three main characters, two male scientists and a woman reporter, banter continuously in a not-too-bad imitation of Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man series of books and films, or the screwball comedies popular in the 1930s. I think the most enjoyable is the last, “The Extrapolated Dimwit,” wherein Pohl and Kornbluth shared the writing chores with fellow Futurian Robert “Doc” Lowndes. Of the remaining stories in the volume, “Best Friend” is interesting in that it focuses on evolved, intelligent dogs, a notion explored to great effect in the later stories of Cordwainer Smith. “Vacant World,” which was written in conjunction with Dirk Wylie, contains some memorable images of a seemingly abandoned Earth that wouldn’t be out of place in a Twilight Zone episode. “Mars-Tube” is probably the most technically proficient of these early stories, being an entertaining adventure story focusing on an ancient subway system beneath the surface of Mars.

Of the stories collected in the four volumes, the only one which Frederik Pohl identifies as having been completed after their military service and before Kornbluth’s death is “The Engineer,” which was a revised out-take, or unused scene, from their novel, Gladiator-at-Law, focusing on a character, a “political engineer” (in the same sense that Dwight Eisenhower was considered a “political general”) who does not appear in published versions of the novel. All of the other stories in The Wonder Effect, Critical Mass, and Our Best, with the exception of those stories these collections share with Before the Universe, were posthumous collaborations, where Pohl took up an incomplete story or fragment of a novel Kornbluth had left behind (or, in the case of “A Gentle Dying,” a pre-war collaborative story which had gotten misplaced) and expanded it into a full story, the last of which being “The Gift of Garigolli,” published sixteen years after Kornbluth’s death.

In his introduction to Critical Mass, Pohl wrote, “I think if Cyril had lived he would have become one of the all-time greats of the field. He was just hitting his stride when his health began to falter. … When the Army made him a machine-gunner, lugging a 50-calibre-heavy MG around the Ardennes forest, they shortened his life. Exertions damaged his heart, and in his midthirties his doctor told him that he had a clear choice. He could give up smoking, drinking, spices in his food, a lot of the food itself, irregular hours and excitement; or he could die of hypertension.”

Kornbluth followed his doctor’s advice for nearly a year, cutting virtually all his former pleasures out of his life and going on the primitive tranquilizers of the 1950s, which had the effect of making him sluggish and thick-headed and also making it impossible for him to write. Pohl continues: “So I suppose Cyril made his choice. In his place, I think I might have made the same one. He went back to coffee and cigarettes, gave up the medication, went back to writing, finished the revisions on Wolfbane, wrote two or three of his best novelettes, signed on as an editor for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — his first experiment with editing, rather than writing, science fiction, and one which he enjoyed enormously. … And then on a snowy March morning I had a phone call from Mary, his wife, to say that Cyril had shoveled out their driveway to free his car, run to catch a train and dropped dead on the station platform.

“He left a bundle of incomplete manuscripts and fragments, some of which I was later able to revise and complete…”

One of the posthumous collaborations, “The Meeting,” was awarded a Hugo in 1973, the only Hugo Award Cyril Kornbluth would receive (he completed virtually all of his work before the Hugo Awards were established, although one of his best solo stories, “The Little Black Bag,” and one of his most memorable novellas, “The Marching Morons,” were selected by Robert Silverberg for The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, a trio of volumes assembled by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to commemorate the finest short fiction to be published prior to 1965, too early to have been nominated for a Nebula Award). “The Meeting” is a very low-key story which centers on a subject very near Cyril Kornbluth’s heart — the plight of “exceptional children,” sufferers of autism or severe emotional-neurological impairments — that ends with a punch to the reader’s gut, subtle and powerful. Nearly as good is “Mute Inglorious Tam,” which isn’t a science fiction story at all, but rather a story about story-telling and the making of science fiction; it centers on a peasant in Medieval England who, had he lived in a less brutal and hand-to-mouth age, perhaps five centuries later, would have become a science fiction writer but who is trapped by the constraints of his time. I also really enjoyed “The Quaker Cannon,” which benefits from both writers’ years in the military, and “Nightmare with Zeppelins,” a proto-Steampunk story centering on the discovery of the secret of atomic power deep within the colonial Africa of the Victorian Age, a story which Frederik Pohl expanded from fragments of an unfinished novel about the Civil War’s Battle of the Crater which Kornbluth had been unable to complete. “Critical Mass” is noteworthy in that Pohl expanded it from three separate story fragments Kornbluth had left behind, plus an additional story fragment of Pohl’s own — four fragments in all.

In all honesty, I have to say that very few of the stories in these four collections approach the quality of the best of Cyril Kornbluth’s solo short fiction or the best of Frederik Pohl’s. Clearly, working at novel-length was a more appropriate venue within which their collaborative genius could shine. Also, the stories that have come down to us are either products of their earliest, youngest writing days or represent Frederik Pohl’s attempts, some more successful than others, at resurrecting the ashes of stories left undone. However, the lengths Pohl was willing to go over a fifteen year span to utilize virtually every usable scrap of prose Cyril Kornbluth left behind is a testimony to his enormous respect for the skills of his former partner and his desire that Cyril Kornbluth’s name should live on for readers of science fiction. As he wrote in the Afterword to Critical Mass, “Some person who is not me will have to decide how great a writer Cyril Kornbluth was. I was too close to him, as collaborator in many ways, and as friend.”

Next: Wolfbane

Harmonic Convergence of Leisure-Time Pursuits

Seeing things from the point of view of a jaded photographer in BLOW-UP (1966)

Every now and then, one snaps to the realization that several of one’s pursuits or activities, due to no conscious design, fit together like the gears of a nice pocket watch. It happened to me this past weekend – a sort of “satori for geeks.”

Ever since this past summer, when I was finally able to divorce myself from my habit (of five year’s duration) of easing my three boys into sleep by lying down in bed with them (often falling asleep myself), and thus reclaimed some nightly reading time, I’ve been pursuing the project of reading much of the notable classic science fiction that I somehow missed out on during my personal Golden Age of Science Fiction (my teen years). Two of the writers whose vintage paperbacks have been falling into my acquisitive fingers with increasing frequency have been Philip Jose Farmer and Michael Moorcock. As a teen, I’m pretty sure all I read of Farmer was his collection Strange Relations, and my familiarity with Moorcock was limited to his novel-length version of Behold the Man (I wasn’t into sword and sorcery, so I avoided his then-omnipresent Elric books, and his Jerry Cornelius books weren’t widely available when I would’ve been apt to pick them up in the late 1970s or early 1980s).

I’ve been collecting the “frisky Farmer” books, his early forays into exploring human-alien sex and the like. So far, I’ve found copies of The Lovers (the 1961 novelization of his 1953 short story), Dare, and Flesh, plus several of his Tarzan pastiches, which I’m sure have various forms of sex or sex-play in them. When it comes to old paperbacks, I prefer to find them in my local used bookstores or at conventions, but I think I may break down and utilize the Internets to get my hands on his two “pornographic” SF novels of the 1960s, Image of the Beast and Blown (which have been published by at least two publishers as a combined edition).

Michael Moorcock has also been popping up on my radar screen. I chanced into a nice vintage hardback copy of the second of his Jerry Cornelius novels from the late 1960s, A Cure for Cancer. I already had his collection of Jerry Cornelius short fiction, The Life and Times of Jerry Cornelius, sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, and, being a completest (and also having this blog to somehow fill each week), I have set off on a quest (also likely to be cut short by a visit to the Internets) for the other three Jerry Cornelius novels (which have been published both as stand-alones and as omnibus editions).

I also bought books two and four of his Jherek Carnelian/Dancers at the End of Time series, The Hollow Lands and The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming, which means, of course, that my next order of business must be acquiring books one and three, An Alien Heat and The End of All Songs (which, like the Cornelius books, are available in several different handy omnibus editions). Jerry Cornelius and Jherek Carnelian are both avatars of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, Cornelius being the 1960s embodiment (along with Elric, of course) and Carnelian being the 1970s embodiment (or one of them, Moorcock having been incredibly prolific throughout the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes writing books at a rate of 15,000 words per day, cranking them out in three or four days apiece!).

Accompanying my book-buying binges are occasional jazz CD buying binges. My most recent purchase was a meaty, satisfying compilation from Blue Note Records, Artist Selects: Lou Donaldson, in which the alto saxophonist picked out thirteen of his favorite tracks from his more than two decades of putting out albums on the Blue Note label. The earliest selections on the CD date from the early 1950s, when Lou sat in on a number of hard bop sessions with drummer/band leader Art Blakey and introduced pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Clifford Brown to the Blue Note stable. Most of the second half of the cuts on the CD come from Lou’s “soul jazz” period, which began with his classic album Blues Walk in 1958. One of the keys to the Lou Donaldson quintet’s unique sound was the inclusion of conga drummer Ray Barretto, which made his numbers danceable, and which secured him placement in jukeboxes around the country. Not long after Blues Walk, Lou settled on a standard format for his soul jazz records, groups that included electric organ and guitar players (he liked having an organist accompany him because an electric organ was easy to transport, and many of the small clubs Lou’s groups played didn’t own a piano). This remained his preferred format throughout the 1960s. His most popular album of that time was Alligator Boogaloo, recorded in 1967, featuring Melvin Lastie on cornet, Lonnie Smith on organ, George Benson (before he became a singing star) on guitar, and the talented New Orleanian Leo Morris on drums. The title cut originated as a throwaway piece, an elaboration on a vamping groove that Lou conjured up at the last minute to fill four empty minutes on the record, but it ended up being the most commercially successful piece he ever recorded.

What brought these disparate works of pop culture together for me in flash of “geek satori?” It was watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up on Turner Classic Movies. The Italian director’s first film in English (he made two more, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, the latter starring Jack Nicholson), it was set in the Swinging London of the mid-1960s and featured a protagonist loosely based on a real-life British fashion photographer of the period. This movie, just like the only other Antonioni film I’ve seen, the earlier The Red Desert, is a visual feast, with stunning, unforgettable cinematography. It’s also a marvelous period piece, capturing the mod Swinging London of the Sixties like a fly trapped in shimmering celluloid amber. David Hemmings, who plays the unnamed photographer, lives in a sprawling photographer’s commune in an industrial part of London and drives an enormous Bentley convertible with blaise abandon, weaving it through streets meant for cars half its size. His days are filled with sexually provocative fashion shoots and the would-be groupies his notoriety attracts, and his evenings are filled with parties he experiences through a haze of drugs and alcohol. The City of London is rife with protesters against nuclear war and racism, as well as an “action squad” of mimes who drive about in an Army-surplus truck, looking for an audience.

The film’s plot (such as it is) hinges on a chance encounter between the photographer and two lovers in a neighborhood park. The photographer shoots a series of photos of the couple from long range, before being spotted by the woman (Vanessa Redgrave), who is considerably younger than her apparent paramour. She tracks the photographer back to his studio/commune and demands that he turn over his negatives. Intrigued by her reactions, he gives her a roll of film, but substitutes a different set of photos. Later, when he develops the photos of the couple, he sees, hidden in the bushes behind them, what might be a man with a gun and a dead body. He blows the images up in an attempt to figure out if what he thinks he sees was actually there. That evening, he returns to the park and finds the dead body. However, he has forgotten to bring his camera along. He goes to a party where he knows his agent will be present, intending to recruit him to return with him to the park to view the body. But he gets sidetracked by all of the drugs and sex available at the gathering. When he awakens the next morning and returns home, he discovers that, in his absence, all of the photos of the couple, plus his negatives, have been removed from his studio, which has been thoroughly ransacked. That evening, he spots the character portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave outside a theater. He follows her inside, only to get sidetracked once again by the wild scene inside, a raucous concert given by the Yardbirds. He loses her. The film ends the following morning, when he returns to the park and finds the body gone, no evidence left behind of it ever having been there. When he walks out of the park, the mime “action squad” spots him and their truck pulls over. The mimes spill out of the truck and rush to the park’s tennis court, where two of them mime a tennis match while the rest of them watch the “game.” The photographer watches, too. One of the mimes pretends to hit the “ball” over the fence, then signals for the photographer to fetch it. He pretends to toss it back to them. In the film’s final shot, he begins hearing the sounds of a tennis match from the mimed game.

My take on the film is that it was a subtle but telling broadside against the excesses of its age. The photographer is bored and filled with ennui due to the emptiness of his life and his fixation upon vapid surfaces. When something real and important — a possible murder — intrudes upon his existence, he is drawn to it, yet he is unable to extract himself from the morass of his over-stimulated milieu to do anything about it, either alert the authorities or solve the mystery of the killing himself. When we last see him, he is ascribing reality — the sounds of a ball being struck by a tennis racket — to phenomena which do not exist, to a mimed fantasy.

How do my other current leisure-time obsessions fit in with Blow-Up? Part of the film’s affect of alienation is achieved by the lack, for much of the film, of a musical soundtrack. The only times music is heard in the film is when one of the characters turns on a radio or a phonograph player or attends a concert. One of the only occasions on which David Hemmings’ character expresses any enthusiasm is when he plays a jazz record for the Vanessa Redgrave character. Although all of the movie’s instrumental music was composed by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, this bit of jazz sounds exactly like Lou Donaldson’s quintet from Alligator Boogaloo. Soul jazz was very popular in the Swinging London of the mid-1960s, particularly electric organ groups. Herbie Hancock played on a number of Blue Note albums with Lou Donaldson, so he was very familiar with that sound. The photographer’s ultra-alpha male persona with women, his easy domination of his models and groupies, so easy that he becomes bored with the ease of it, reminded me very strongly of the protagonist of Philip Jose Farmer’s 1960 novel Flesh, an astronaut who returns to Earth after an absence of eight hundred years, only to be turned into the Sunhero, a living sex totem surgically enhanced with “the pure sex power of fifty bulls” (to quote from the back cover copy from a late 1960s reprint edition). But most of all, watching Blow-Up made me eager to dive into Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and stories. Cornelius sprang from the exact same milieu that produced the photographer of Blow-Up. Moorcock and his good friend J. G. Ballard were an integral part of the Swinging London scene, one of the few times when the worlds of science fiction and the art world’s avant garde intersected (the only other time I can think of would be the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, when science fiction films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showcased German Expressionism).

What can I say about my having the experience of watching one of the key cinematic portraits of Swinging London enhanced by my serendipitous choices in reading and listening material?

Absolutely fab.

Pohl + Kornbluth Part 5: Gladiator-at-Law

Return to Introduction
Return to The Space Merchants
Return to Search the Sky
Return to Two Solo Novels: The Syndic and Drunkard’s Walk

by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Original publication: as a three-part serial in Galaxy Science Fiction, June-August, 1954; Ballantine Books, 1955 (hardback/paperback)
Most recent publication: Baen Books, 1986 (paperback, revised by Frederik Pohl from 1955 edition)

Of the four Frederik Pohl-Cyril Kornbluth novel-length collaborations, I think their third, Gladiator-at-Law, is my favorite. Not because it offered the most relevant social satire – that would be The Space Merchants — nor because it was the most imaginatively audacious – that would be Wolfbane. However, I found it to be the most entertaining of the four books. In large part I was thoroughly entertained because of the novel’s large cast of well-drawn, sympathetic, and ultimately endearing characters.

This isn’t to say that Gladiator-at-Law is without its satisfactions as social satire or regarding the science fictional ideas it presents. It is fairly rich in both, even if it doesn’t quite match up to The Space Merchants when it comes to social satire or to Wolfbane when it comes to bat-sh%t-crazy sense-of-wonder concepts. One of the central notions presented in Gladiator-at-Law is that corporate law firms have become the most powerful elements in a future American society (as opposed to The Space Merchants’ advertising firms). The rationale for the rise and supremacy of corporate law firms is not offered with nearly the same level of exposition as the rise of advertising firms was in the earlier novel. However, a rather compelling rationale is offered regarding how major corporations maintain a chokehold on their most valued employees. They entrap employees with the honeypots of subsidized housing. And not just any subsidized housing, but what is referred to as “bubble housing,” or G.M.L. Homes (short for Gorman-Mofatt-Lavin Homes, Gorman and Lavin having been the inventors of the “machines for living in” and Mofatt the vital money man).

What is it that makes a G.M.L. Home so desirable – so desirable, in fact, that any neighborhoods or subdivisions made up of non-bubble housing are considered substandard and quickly devolve into slums for the poor and working classes? G.M.L. Homes are completely and instantly configurable by their residents. Locations of walls, doors, windows, furniture, and appliances may be changed at the press of a button or the twirl of a dial. Colors of wall paper or pieces of artwork can be switched on a whim. The home is self-cleaning and self-maintaining. It cooks meals automatically, massages its residents to sleep, wakes them at the proper time in the morning, and assists them with personal hygiene and dressing, so efficiently that the typical businessman can go from asleep in bed to walking out the door in less than ninety seconds. The residents of G.M.L. homes quickly become dependent upon the conveniences and luxuries that a bubble house can provide. Which is very much to the benefit of the companies which employ those residents, for bubble houses are too expensive for individual citizens to purchase and must be provided by corporations, which lease them and then make them part of their employees’ compensation packages. Thus, for nearly all white-collar and professional employees, losing their job also means losing their bubble house, which means being thrust into one of the slums made up of traditional, non-bubble housing. Fear of this outcome is sufficient to keep most employees tethered to their employers for life.

What fascinates me most about Gladiator-at-Law is the way that Pohl and Kornbluth were able to foresee the evolution of many of the cookie-cutter suburbs which were constructed for returning GI’s and their families after the Second World War, when the GI Bill opened up the possibilities of home ownership and a college education to veterans. Some of those early suburbs, such as the original Levittown on Long Island, have been able to maintain their desirability as middle-class places of residence, due to their physical proximity to healthy, jobs-rich urban cores and to sufficient public transportation and highways. Many others, however, what are now commonly called “inner ring suburbs,” have been abandoned by the middle and professional classes, who have moved to more modern and spacious housing farther away from the central cities. The newer residents of these inner ring suburbs are recent immigrants or poor or working class residents who have moved out of the city centers (often when those city centers have become gentrified and re-occupied by the same sorts of white-collar and professional residents who fled them after the Second World War). One of the novel’s primary settings, the slum called Belly Rave, was built as a GI Bill suburb shortly after WWII and was originally called Belle Reve. In lots of the metropolitan areas of the Northeast and Midwest, the actual post-WWII Belle Reves have devolved into suburban slums not very much different from the portrayal of Belly Rave in Gladiator-at-Law.

The other significant social extrapolation made by Pohl and Kornbluth in this novel is the rise of ultra-violent entertainments for the suburban masses, provided in a “bread and circuses” format in coliseum-like stadiums. The combatants are either drunken thrill-seekers or impoverished wretches who see no other possible future than to commit themselves to a likely death or maiming in the chance of earning some money. With a few tweaks, what the authors suggested back in 1954 can be seen as a prediction of some of what makes up our current smorgasbord of reality television, shows such as Survivor, Fear Factor, Wipeout, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, and Dog Eat Dog, which place (supposedly) non-actors and non-stunt people in potentially hazardous situations and environments. The format has been extended to the ranks of the moderately or formerly famous with Celebrity Circus, in which viewers get to watch people they might actually recognize risk their necks. Whether one views the explosion of reality TV as a welcome widening of America’s entertainment options or as a prime example of the coarsening and decline of popular entertainment, it is interesting to note that the phenomenon was not instigated by a coordinated plan among programming executives at the major networks, but rather by an economic event – the November, 2007 to February, 2008 strike of the Writers Guild of America, which shut down the production of what had been the heart of network TV’s evening schedules – scripted comedies and dramas. Reality TV shows, primarily adapted from British models at first, were rushed into production to plug holes in network schedules. When they proved to be both popular and relatively cheap (compared to scripted comedies and dramas), the major networks and many cable channels shifted a significant amount of programming hours towards what had originally been thought to be a stop-gap measure. And Cyril Kornbluth looks down from SF writers’ heaven and enjoys a wry chuckle at our expense.

Another factor which greatly adds to the appeal of Gladiator-at-Law (and which helps keep this nearly sixty-year-old genre novel fresh for new audiences) is the high quality of its characterizations. Virtually all of the primary characters begin their story arcs as losers of some kind – some as lovable losers, others as rather contemptible losers. By the end of the novel, each of these characters has been challenged to rise above his or her former station and to perform daring acts they would not have dreamed of accomplishing at the book’s beginning. Charles Mundin starts the book as a criminal lawyer barely scraping by on other lawyers’ leavings and charity cases thrown to him by his low-level connections in the local political ward hierarchy. Donald and Norma Lavin, the rightful heirs to the G.M.L. Homes fortune, are locked out of their inheritance by the machinations of G.M.L. and the shadowy, powerful corporate law firm of Green, Charlesworth, and Donald has been reduced to a brainwashed semi-moron to keep him from remembering the location of his stock certificates. Norvell Bligh is a fearful, easily intimidated designer of blood-sport spectacles for a third-rate production company, responsible for upcoming Field Day shows, barely hanging onto his job and the bubble house that comes with it. His shrewish wife, Virginia, and her lazy, disrespectful daughter, Alexandra, both of whom have climbed out of their origins in the slum of Belly Rave, only make Norvell’s existence more hellish. Yet by the end of the novel, each of these characters has been transformed, mostly of their own volition and due to their own initiative. Together, they form an extended family and team capable of facing down the mighty firm of Green, Charlesworth and restoring some of the original promise of Gorman’s and Lavin’s invention to improve the lives of common working people, rather than enslave them.

Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s story, while a critique of predatory capitalism, does not condemn capitalism as an economic system. Rather, it suggests that, as an economic system, it is only as humane and civic-minded as the people who participate in it. The novel suggests that people such as its protagonists, who have both suffered from the worst excesses of capitalism and who have experienced their ability to better themselves through utilizing capitalism’s tools, may be the types of “captains of industry” capitalism needs to fulfill its potential as an enabler of human progress and happiness.

Next: the collaborative short fiction

SF in San Francisco

This past week I had the great pleasure of visiting San Francisco for the first time. I think there are few enjoyments more enjoyable than seeing a vibrant city for the first time, with fresh eyes, when every vista is a new one. Given the briefness of my visit and the fact that I was only able to walk through six of the city’s nearly 120 distinct neighborhoods, San Francisco should provide me with that “fresh vistas” thrill on many subsequent visits, should I be lucky enough to experience them.

My day job sent me to San Francisco, but I was also fortunate to be able to do some business and make some connections concerning the job of my heart – writing, the job that doesn’t pay the bills, but which rewards me through the simple act of doing it.

Jacob Weisman and Jill Roberts of Tachyon Publications

The afternoon I landed in town, Jacob Weisman and Jill Roberts of Tachyon Publications, publishers of my novel The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, swung by my hotel in Jacob’s little Scion to pick me up and take me back to their office. Turns out their office occupies the first floor of Jacob and Rina Weisman’s three-story home in the hilly part of the city a few miles south of the Financial District, where I was staying. I had a chance to meet Rina (who is a big-time book collector and an absolute hoot), Elizabeth Story, and James DeMaiolo. The whole staff clusters together in a shared workspace with beautiful hardwood floors and some of the most impressive bookshelves you’ll find anywhere (handcrafted by the same talented gentleman who built all the bookshelves at Borderlands Books, as it turns out).

Being in the Tachyon offices gave me a chance to take a look at their entire publishing output all at once. I have to say I was pretty impressed. Running Tachyon is clearly a labor of love for Jacob, Rina, Jill, and the rest of the staff – what they’ve accomplished is to put out a very full, rich line of books for people who both love reading science fiction and fantasy and who are intensely interested in the history and heritage of those fields. One of the very first books they published, back in the mid-1990s, when Jacob was running Tachyon primarily to provide limited edition books for specialty SF and fantasy bookstores (a species of store now very much endangered, unfortunately), was a reprint edition of Stanley Weinbaum’s 1939 novel The Black Flame, with its complete, original text restored. Their more recent output has ranged from extremely interesting (and fun) retrospective anthologies, such as The Secret History of Science Fiction, The Secret History of Fantasy, The New Weird, and Kafkaesque, to nonfiction about the field or some of the field’s most famous practitioners (The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick), to reprint editions of “lost” classics (Lot and Lot’s Daughter by Ward Moore), to “quirky” or “difficult” works by major writers (The Word of God by Thomas M. Disch).

Me standing in front of Tachyon Publication's wall of their bestselling books

It may be a bit self-serving for me to say so, given that they published my most recent book, but I think Tachyon is one of the most interesting publishing concerns going, and they are certainly partial proof that we are living in what may be considered a golden age of small press SF and fantasy publishing. I could certainly envision myself, upon my retirement (whenever that may be… I suspect very far into the future, given the ages of my children), spending a year or two doing little but reading the entirely of Tachyon’s output. And having a grand old time doing so.

Jacob and Jill were kind enough to take me on a stroll around their neighborhood, show off some of the hilltop views of their city and bay, and bring me to a neighborhood coffeehouse for a hot chocolate (Rina insisted I try the hot chocolate) and a pastry. We talked a good bit about Jacob’s and Jill’s careers prior to working at Tachyon (journalism and non-profit fundraising, respectively), the adventures they’ve had working with some of Tachyon’s more, shall we say, opinionated and feisty authors, and what it is like living with a houseful of little boys who can turn Barbie dolls left behind by their older sister victims of monster trucks or dinosaurs or even into light sabers to bonk each other with (this last topic being my contribution). I talked some about my plans to branch out into children’s, middle grade, and young adult fiction this year (I recently wrote a children’s chapter book, The Velveteen Ebook, an updating of the classic story, and I’ve started the first book of what I hope will be a series of middle grade novels set in the world of Mount MonstraCity, The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity).

One thing all three of us have in common is a deep appreciation for the skills of Marty Halpern. Marty has worked as a copy editor on a great number of Tachyon books, and he served as my copy editor for The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501. Although my experience with copy editors is somewhat limited, I’ll go out on a limb and say I think Marty has to be one of the best in the business. The man sweats the details, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, he is right. I’ve reached the point with Marty that I won’t argue with his suggestions unless I’m darned sure I know what I’m talking about. My wife, Dara, used to work as a copy editor herself, for a pair of technical magazines published in Washington, DC, and when she perused some of the emails Marty sent me, she nearly swooned. “Oh, he’s so good! Oh, he’s so good! Oh, I want to meet this guy!” If I didn’t know Dara as well as I do, I would’ve gotten as jealous as Othello.

Golden Gun Investigations, a couple of blocks from the Tachyon office

When we walked out of the coffeehouse, I looked across the street and saw a business I simply had to photograph – the Golden Gun Investigations agency. Isn’t that quintessentially San Francisco? Don’t you immediately picture a Sam Spade of Chinese heritage working there, smoking Camel after Camel while trading bon-mots with his bored, underpaid, but loyal secretary? I think that place needs to show up in a book published by Tachyon; it’s right in their neighborhood, after all (even though it does bring to mind one of the weaker entries in the James Bond franchise). Maybe Jonathan Lethem could write a follow-up to his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music. Or maybe I could send Jules Duchon on a trip to San Francisco… after all, his friend and one-time protégé Doodlebug doesn’t live too far away…

Wednesday night I took a BART subway train from the Financial District to the Mission District to do a “meet and greet” and book signing at Borderlands Books. Borderlands is located on Valencia Street, a long commercial strip which in recent years has become a hub for ethnic restaurants, boutiques, antiques outlets, and specialty stores. Jude Feldman, the bookstore’s general manager, welcomed me and ushered me over to the Borderlands Café next door, which opened last year, and provided a much needed cappuccino. Jude is an absolute sweetheart. We discovered a shared love for Robert Mayer’s wonderful superhero farce Superfolks, and she introduced me to a number of the store’s regular patrons. Unfortunately, she had to boot me and the gang from Tachyon out through the front door before I’d had a chance to peruse more than half their selection of new and used books – it was closing time! But I had a chance to pick up a copy of Michael Bishop’s Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas and a couple of vintage Philip Jose Farmer paperbacks before getting the boot.

Borderlands Books (with Borderlands Cafe to the left)

One interesting side note about the Borderlands Café – it doesn’t feature wi-fi, and that was by design. Jude mentioned to me that, not long after the café opened, she’d surveyed the customers to find out how much they wanted wi-fi to be available. It turned out that many of them, particularly the writers among them, didn’t want it at all… they wanted to have a place to hang out where they could escape the Internet and the siren song of social media. I’ve found an even easier way myself to avoid the Internet when I want to do real work: I do all my writing on a Mitsubishi Amity laptop from 1997, which won’t run anything more modern than Windows 98 (and, in fact, all that I run on it is DOS 6.1 and WordPerfect 5.1, that classic word processor which will have to be torn away from my cold, dead, stiff fingers – I feel the same way about WordPerfect 5.1 that Harlan Ellison feels about manual typewriters).

Rina and Jacob Weisman

After Borderlands closed for the evening, Jacob, Rina, Jill, and a friend, Jeremiah, took me out to a Thai restaurant a few blocks away. I discovered that Jacob and Rina had hooked up the same way Dara and I had – through (although they had met previous to their electronic hook-up, when Jacob had made the error of wearing his bar mitzvah ring on his left ring finger, mistakenly signaling to Rina that he was married; her finding him on JDate cleared that up). Jill revealed that she had met her boyfriend while they’d both been engaging in indoor rock climbing (he had charmed her by swinging like Tarzan on a safety rope). The food was quite good, by the way… I’ll prevail upon Jill to remind me of the name of the restaurant, in case anyone needs a recommendation for good Thai food in the Mission District.

One more little note before I bring this post to a close (I’ll be writing more in a day or two about my nighttime gambols through Chinatown, North Beach, and the Fishermen’s Wharf area). While I was on my trip, I made use of the long in-flight times to work on a short story to submit to Claude Lalumiere’s upcoming anthology of tales about books, book collecting, reading, and writing, Bibliotheca Fantastica, scheduled to come out late in 2012. My story centers on a mostly unsuccessful science fiction writer whose earliest claim to fame was being chosen First Runner Up in the 1985 Writers of the Future contest. Writers of the Future is an annual contest and anthology which has given many science fiction and fantasy writers their first rung up on their climb to professional status. It was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in 1983. Writers of the Future has always had a double-edged reputation in the science fiction field; many writers and readers are grateful to the contest for midwifing so many promising careers but are a bit leery of its sponsorship, given the somewhat shady rep of Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.

Transamerica Pyramid

Anyway, I’m walking to my temporary work location a few blocks away from my hotel, and I stroll right past the famous Transamerica Pyramid building, built between 1969 and 1972 (and briefly the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, before being eclipsed by the Aon Center Building in Los Angeles in 1974). While waiting for a traffic light to change, I glanced across the street at a striking triangular-shaped building which looked like a smaller version of the Flatiron Building in the Manhattan (home of Tor Books, by the way). Large letters on its side read, “Transamerica Corporation.” Even bigger letters on its front spelled out, “Church of Scientology.” Turns out this was the original headquarters of the Transamerica Corporation, prior to the Transamerica Pyramid being built, and it became the headquarters of the San Francisco Church of Scientology in 2003.

original Transamerica Building, now the HQ of the Scientology Church of San Francisco

Here’s what the online Fodor’s Guide to San Francisco has to say about the building I photographed:

“The original Transamerica Building is a Beaux Arts flatiron-shaped building covered in terra cotta; it was also the home of Sanwa Bank and Fugazi Bank. Built for the Banco Populare Italiano Operaia Fugazi in 1909, it was originally a two-story building and gained a third floor in 1916. In 1928, Fugazi merged his bank with the Bank of America, which was started by A. P. Giannini, who also created the Transamerica Corporation. The building now houses a Church of Scientology.”

Pohl + Kornbluth, Part 4: Two Solo Novels, The Syndic and Drunkard’s Walk

Return to Introduction
Return to The Space Merchants
Return to Search the Sky

The Syndic
by C. M. Kornbluth
Original publication: Doubleday, 1953
Most recent publication: Armchair Fiction, 2011 (paperback double novel, included with Poul Anderson’s Flight to Forever); Wonder eBooks, 2009 (Kindle edition)

Drunkard’s Walk
by Frederik Pohl
Original publication: serial publication in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1960; Ballantine, 1960 (paperback original); Gnome Press, 1960 (hardback)
Most recent publication: Granada, 1982 (British pb)

Although their most famous and enduring work of the 1950s remains the novels that they wrote together, both Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl published numerous other books during that decade, both solo works and novels which they wrote with other collaborators (Kornbluth with Judith Merrill, and Pohl with Jack Williamson and Lester Del Rey). Kornbluth’s best-remembered solo novel of the decade is The Syndic, and Pohl’s best received solo novel of that period is Drunkard’s Walk (his only other solo novel of the decade was Slave Ship from 1956; solo novels from Pohl would remain relatively rare until the latter half of the 1970s, when his career experienced a second blooming).

By taking a look at these two solo novels, each written either during or shortly after the period of their most intense and sustained collaboration, we may be able to acquire a better sense of what qualities each partner brought to the collaboration. We may also get a clearer idea of both men’s weaknesses as novelists during this time in their careers, which will help us to better understand how their strengths were complementary, and how this complementariness contributed to the classic status of three of their four shared novels.

Fred Pohl had this to say about Cyril Kornbluth’s assets and weaknesses as a writer:

“Cyril had a nearly in-born gift for graceful writing and excellent spot-on characterization. His only real weakness was in plotting. By then he had taught himself — maybe with a little help from those Futurian writing orgies — plot structure for short stories and, soon thereafter, novelettes and novellas. Some of his work from that period I would match against almost anybody’s best stories ever, including ‘The Marching Morons,’ ‘Two Dooms’ and a good many others.”

It is very likely that Fred Pohl knew Cyril Kornbluth as well as anyone. How do Pohl’s observations above match up with what can be observed in Kornbluth’s best-known solo novel, The Syndic?

Pretty well, I think.

The Syndic’s central idea, that of a future American society based on anarcho-capitalism, in which organized crime has booted out the federal government, legalized itself, and runs things in a surprisingly humane fashion, is a sturdy one for a science fiction politico-satire. The Syndic is variously described by its members as “an organization of high morale and easygoing, hedonistic personality” and “an appropriately structured organization of high morale and wide public acceptance,” never as a government. The book may be viewed as one of the stronger extrapolations of libertarian social and political ideas in science fiction, and it has been awarded a Hall of Fame Prometheus Award by the Libertarian Futurist Society in 1986.

The novel’s central characters are fairly well sketched out and appealing. Charles Orsino, the hero, is a low-level bag man for the Syndic, a young man painfully aware of his low rank in the organization but who is loyal to a fault. His uncle, Frank Taylor, a financial administrator for the Syndic and a social theorist, the author of Organization, Symbolism, and Morale, is a humorously crusty old curmudgeon who obviously has a big soft spot in his heart for his nephew. Lee Falcone is a stand-out in that she is portrayed as both a highly competent woman professional (a psychologist) with an important role in the Syndic and as an attractive and desirable potential love interest for Charles (not a crone or a spinster or a battle-ax), a combination rather rare in science fiction during the period in which the book was written. A secondary character, Martha, a young, telepathic “witch” of a primitive Irish tribe, is especially appealing, a fascinating mix of naiveté, youthful over-confidence, willfulness, heroism, and sweetness. The novel’s primary villain, Commander Grimmel of the exiled North American Government’s Office of Naval Intelligence, is a less well-rounded character, but, even so, may be viewed as more carefully and intelligently drawn than most of the heavies which tormented the heroes of 1950s science fiction novels.

Several of the novel’s set pieces are especially well-written and gripping. The scene in which Charles and a junior officer of the North American Navy are surrounded in the Irish wilderness by a hostile tribe of pagan savages and must defend themselves with a dismounted fifty caliber machine gun is loaded with telling details, suspense, tension, and atmosphere. Cyril Kornbluth makes excellent fictional use of his personal experiences lugging a machine gun around the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge. Also very good is the description of Charles’ amnesiac sojourn in the lower depths of New York’s waterfront while he is under the induced delusion that he is Max Wyman, a man who hates the Syndic and wants more than anything to become an agent for the North American Government; Wyman is an invented personality temporarily grafted to Charles by Lee Falcone in order to allow Charles to infiltrate the North American Government and learn whether that entity is behind the assassinations and attempted assassinations of Syndic family members (including an attempted hit on Charles himself). The waterfront scenes are very atmospheric, reminiscent of the work of the best noir writers of Kornbluth’s day.

Kornbluth also showed a deft touch with humor. Charles’s interactions with a woman shopkeeper from whom he collects what we would think of as protection money is both funny and nicely revealing of the relationship between the Syndic and much of the American population east of the Mississippi. When Charles is undercover in the North American Government’s stronghold in Ireland, I smiled at his reactions to the relatively puritanical sexual mores he discovers there, in contrast to the easygoing and open physical relations between the sexes he has become used to back home. One of the best humorous exchanges occurs during a high ranking Syndic family strategy meeting, where Uncle Frank describes the current state of much of Europe, which had no organization capable of picking up the pieces after traditional governments atrophied and died of their own bureaucratic sclerosis:

“‘The forests came back to England. When finance there lost its morale and couldn’t hack its way out of the paradoxes, that was the end. When that happens you’ve got to have a large, virile criminal class ready to take over and do the work of distribution and production. Maybe some of you know how the English were. The poor buggers had civilized all the illegality out of the stock. They couldn’t do anything that wasn’t respectable. From sketchy reports, I gather that England is now forest and a few hundred starving people. One fellow says the men still wear derbies and stagger to their offices in the City.

‘France is peasants, drunk three-quarters of the time.

‘Russia is peasants, drunk all the time.

‘Germany–well, there the criminal class was too big and too virile. The place is a cemetery.'”

The novel’s primary shortcomings seem to me to be in the area of plotting. Kornbluth ends The Syndic on a weak note, a philosophical dissertation by Uncle Frank on the proper limits of anarcho-capitalism which, although interesting and sure to provoke discussion among sociologists and political scientists, brings the book to a close on what is, dramatically, at least, a damp squib. Nothing is resolved. The only takeaway is that the North American Government and the Mob are working together against the Syndic is some ways, which does not come as much of a revelation, given information which was shared early on in the book.

A couple of plotting elements irked me particularly, but may not trip up other readers. I ended up confused by the sequences in which Charles Orsino initially goes undercover. The way the material was presented, I assumed that his invented identity, Max Wyman, is an actual person, and that Charles has inadvertently been put in great danger by Lee Falcone by being given the identity of Wyman, since both Wyman and Charles would be joining the North American Navy at about the same time. I kept waiting for “the real Max Wyman” to make another appearance in the book and precipitate a crisis for Charles and Lee. What happened is that I missed a one-sentence tip-off that Wyman is an invented personality; I didn’t discover my mistake until I reached the end of the book and, perturbed by Wyman’s failure to make a second appearance, went back to the chapter where the identity had first been introduced. Then I whacked myself on the forehead and went, “Duh!” Yet then I realized that, had Kornbluth been a little more clear, if he had perhaps arranged his scenes a bit differently, I would have avoided my mistake. The other element which disappointed me was Kornbluth’s killing off of my favorite character, Martha, the adolescent, telepathic “witch,” to little purpose. Martha and her abilities are a bit of a “bridge too far” for the novel, which didn’t need the introduction of an additional (and non-central) fantastical idea like telepathy. But once she was introduced, I very quickly came to like her, and I looked forward to Charles bringing her back to the land of the Syndic, where she might serve a novelistic role similar to that of John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead, she gets killed off in a melodramatic and unnecessary fashion. I missed her.

Unfortunately, no quotes from Cyril Kornbluth survive which would indicate what he had thought of his friend Fred Pohl’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Early in his career, Pohl was greatly attracted to collaboration, at least when working on novels; the only solo novel he published during Kornbluth’s lifetime was Slave Ship in 1956. However, Drunkard’s Walk, his next solo novel, appeared slightly less than two years after Kornbluth’s untimely death. Given that it was touted as a satirical science fiction novel in the vein of The Space Merchants and that it is better remembered than Slave Ship, let’s take a look at this book and compare its virtues and shortcomings with those of The Syndic.

Drunkard’s Walk was originally serialized in a shorter form in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1960. Pohl’s novel has the feel of a typical late-1950s Galaxy story: a surface urbanity and wit, many clever turns of plot, and characterization about as deep as that found in a Twilight Zone episode of the same era. The novel-length Drunkard’s Walk, although not a long book, suffers some from excess padding glued to its flanks during the effort to expand it from a novella to a novel; many of the chapters told from the vantage point of a supporting character, Master Carl, feel tacked on and unnecessary. The primary problem faced by the protagonist, Master Cornut, a mathematics professor at an unnamed University, is both original and compelling—during periods of partial consciousness, such as when he is on the verge of falling asleep, has just woken up, or is distracted by the progress of one of his own lectures, Cornut is plagued by an autonomous compulsion to commit suicide, despite being a happy, privileged, and well-adjusted individual. He is forced to rely upon the watchfulness of those who live adjacent to his on-campus living quarters, initially students and later his student wife, to keep himself from slitting his own throat or hurling himself over the railing of his apartment’s balcony. Where the plot ultimately heads is less fresh, at least from the present vantage point of an additional half-century of science fiction stories and films, involving as it does the trope of a conspiracy of secret immortals who seek to wipe out potential rivals before those rivals can realize their own power.

For today’s reader, the primary draw of Drunkard’s Walk may be its setting, the University where Master Cornut teaches. Pohl paints the University as a refuge from the overcrowded, tumultuous outside world, where a sizable portion of the American lower middle class is forced to live on “texases,” off-shore platforms originally constructed as early-warning radar installations, which are now used for dirty jobs such as manufacturing and raw materials processing (each texas produces its own power from the wave energy that crashes continuously against its support legs). Pohl is very skillful at extrapolating a future society and delineating its most colorful details; the future world of Drunkard’s Walk is as colorfully described as that of The Space Merchants. Pohl places the University’s professors, or Masters, at the top of his social pecking order. Masters may take advantage of a sort of droit de seigneur regarding the University’s students. Conjugal relations between professors and students are encouraged, being viewed as beneficial to each, and what are called “term marriages” are common, which may last (presumably on the Master’s prerogative) as briefly as a few weeks. There is a strict separation between Town and Gown, with the latter acting in many ways as a sort of hereditary landed aristocracy, but one which sometimes opts to absorb very talented members of the former into its ranks (as scholarship students). The book’s most accurate prediction is Pohl’s envisioning of distance learning; each professor’s lectures are taped and broadcast, reaching audiences of millions, those who either aspire to degrees of higher learning or who desire access to knowledge.

With Drunkard’s Walk, Pohl showed off his mastery of the clever turns of plot possible within the bounds of a science fiction novel. As a writer of science fiction novels myself, several times while I was reading the book, I found myself stepping back in admiration and doffing my metaphorical hat to Pohl’s skill and cleverness in twisting his plot. (Skip the remainder of this paragraph if you wish to avoid a major spoiler.) The resolution and climax of the novel revolve around the notion that a small group of telepathic human immortals has been secretly manipulating history and society to benefit themselves and to remove potential threats to their hidden dominance. It turns out that Master Cornut is one such threat, as, unknown to himself, he is a potential telepath. His unmotivated suicide attempts are actually the result of telepathic suggestions beamed at him by the immortals on campus, who wish him to remove himself. Even more clever is the immortals’ plot to winnow down the burgeoning population of non-immortals (the world of Drunkard’s Walk is just as overpopulated as that of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!). Using their telepathic abilities, they erase all memories from the human race of small pox and how to make a vaccine, saving that knowledge for themselves only. Then, in their roles as heads of Master Cornut’s University, they organize a sociological expedition to a South Pacific island where descendants of soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army have formed a primitive, militaristic tribal society, hidden in the jungle since the end of the Second World War. All of the members of this tribe have been exposed to small pox, which has been eradicated (and then forgotten) in the world outside the island. The immortals take members of the tribe on a lecture tour all over the globe, encouraging them to spread small pox throughout every population they come into contact with by selling their ancient uniforms and flags as souvenirs and by sharing a pipe of peace – reflections, of course, of how small pox was spread through the Native American population by European settlers. They succeed in starting an epidemic, which only Master Cornut’s intervention is able to halt, although only after millions of people have died.

I would argue that Drunkard’s Walk is more skillfully plotted than The Syndic, and its future world is more fully extrapolated. Where does the book fall down in comparison with Kornbluth’s novel? Primarily in the area of characterization, I’d say. Many of the two books’ characters can be viewed as counterparts, and in each comparison, Kornbluth’s characters feel more rounded and fully realized than Pohl’s characters. As a young hero-protagonist, Kornbluth’s Charles Orsino is more appealing, magnetic, and interesting than Pohl’s rather bland Master Cornut. In the role of elder advisor and provider of knowledge, Uncle Frank is much more intriguing than Master Carl, who comes across as a self-involved old bore. Similarly, Charles’ romantic interest, Lee Falcone, is far more three-dimensional than Master Cornut’s student-wife, Locille (although Locille has her appealing qualities, too). There is less differentiation between the quality of characterization of the two novels’ villains, although there again I would give the edge to Kornbluth’s villains (Pohl’s lean a bit too much toward the mustache-twisting variety).

Although Drunkard’s Walk was marketed as a satirical comedy – the blurb on the original Ballantine Books paperback edition reads, “Not since The Space Merchants — an S.F. novel so biting funny, so sharply satirical” – I found that the book’s humor fell flat. Unlike the humor found in The Syndic, which has held up well, the gibes in Drunkard’s Walk feel dated and forced. Also, although Pohl’s novel ends in a paramilitary assault on the immortals’ stronghold, his book contains no action scenes nearly as gripping or as richly portrayed as the battle scene Kornbluth set in rural Ireland.

What can we discern from this comparison of The Syndic and Drunkard’s Walk? Regarding the relative contributions of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth to their shared novels, I would venture to say that much of the credit for those novels’ plotting, world building, and social extrapolation should probably be given to Pohl. However, I suspect that a goodly portion of those books’ rich characterizations (especially in contrast to the sketchy, minimal characterization found in so many of their contemporaries), their humor, their physical descriptions of settings, and their action sequences can be chalked up to Kornbluth’s input.

At this point, only Fred Pohl could say for certain. And considering the more than half-century that separates those novels’ composition from the present day, even he might have difficulty sorting out who contributed what.

Next: Gladiator-at-Law

Appearing at Borderlands Books in San Francisco

My day job is sending me to San Francisco this week to support a couple of days of computer training. This’ll be my first opportunity to visit San Francisco, home to lots of Beat Generation history and many, many albums’ worth of classic West Coast jazz (as well as one of Ray Harryhausen’s early monster classics, It Came From Beneath the Sea).

My good friends at Tachyon Publications set me up for an informal book signing at Borderlands Books on Wednesday evening. I’ve met the nice folks from Borderlands Books before, but at conventions (pretty sure I chatted with them and shopped their wares at the 2010 NASFiC in Raleigh, North Carolina), never at their store.

Book Signing and Meet-and-Greet at Borderland Books
Wednesday, March 7, 2012, 7:00-9:00 pm
866 Valencia Street, San Francisco, California
(415) 824-8203

I hope a few of you will be able to drop by on Wednesday, or have friends in the San Francisco area to whom you could pass along the word. I’ll be staying at the Hilton in the Financial District, right next to Chinatown, not far from the waterfront, and only about four or five blocks away from City Light Books and Cafe’ Vesuvio, two classic Beat hangouts. Although it’s never easy to be apart from my family, I’m really looking forward to the trip and to seeing places that, until now, I’ve only read about (not just the Beat spots, but also Philip Marlowe’s haunts in The Maltese Falcon). Thanks, work!

Great Kids’ Books from MystiCon

Danny Birt, doing his heroic thing

My family and I really enjoyed attending MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia this past weekend. It’s very gratifying to me to be able to say this, considering that the volunteer who was scheduled to run most of the children’s activities track got sick prior to the con, and those activities had to be canceled. Even so, my kids were very welcome in the dealers’ room, the con hospitality suite, and (most important to them) the video gaming room, which featured various games and gaming consoles going all the way back to the 1980s.

In fact, my best memory of the con, apart from two terrific (but sparsely attended) panels on Sunday, is of the Saturday night children’s story hour in front of the hotel’s fireplace in the lobby. Alethea Kontis and Deborah Smith Ford read from their picture books to a very appreciative audience of about eight children (three of whom were my boys), who sat on pillows in front of the fire and were quite vocal with their reactions and questions. After the story telling was over, a kind (and incredibly patient) con organizer wandered over with a beginners’ level fantasy board game and taught the kids how to play. Even my five-year-old, Judah, caught on and was very engaged in playing. Asher, my seven-year-old, got a little too overly enthusiastic on a couple of occasions and knocked over the playing pieces, but the man organizing the game took this in his stride (which is more than I could’ve accomplished – after the second mishap, I would’ve exiled Asher to the far side of the lobby).

Writer/actress/teacher Deborah Smith Ford

I remarked to another parent (who, like me, enjoyed being able to lean back and watch other adults entertain and educate our kids), “There’s the future of fandom, right there, sitting on those pillows. If we can do a good enough job of showing the kids a good time at conventions, making cons events the kids want to go back to again and again, then we can be reasonably assured that we’ll still have conventions to go to thirty years from now.”

A number of conventions that I’ve attended in the past few years have catered to the needs and interests of young children. I think this is a marvelous and healthy development. As a parent, I really enjoy being able to take my kids with me to conventions and knowing they won’t be bored out of their minds (and constantly bugging me to entertain them). As a writer for multiple age groups, I appreciate that so many folks are making a concentrated effort to make reading a fun activity and offer science fiction and fantasy books as desirable acquisitions for young people (who, we all hope, will grow from young readers to teen readers to adult readers). As a fan, I’m gratified (and relieved) that fandom appears to be making a good effort to avoid becoming extinct (by pushing back against what has been called “the graying of fandom” – not that there’s anything at all wrong with senior citizen fans, many of whom I love to death and who provide much of the best audience participation at panel discussions, but conventions need to have a good mix of ages involved if they are to survive).

For those of you who may be looking for great new (or old) books for your kids, or who just like children’s books, here are some of the wonderful books my boys and I were exposed to at MystiCon.

Alethea Kontis is an absolute natural when it comes to interacting with children. Kids just gravitate toward her (adults, too, for that matter; warmth and genuineness count for a lot). She sold out of her first picture book, Alphabet Oops! prior to the story hour. So she read from her second picture book, Alphabet Oops! H is for Halloween, which, given my boys’ enjoyment of monster movies and all things monster-related, I think would’ve been a good choice in any case. Her book is chock-full of charming illustrations (including hidden characters on each page which young readers are encouraged to find), and her story of the various letters of the alphabet all competing to stand for various symbols of Halloween certainly kept my kids’ attention. Any parent looking for a picture book for a young child who likes monsters can’t go wrong with this one.

MystiCon was the first time I had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Smith Ford, an actress, teacher, and writer from Florida. Things got a bit chaotic in the hotel lobby midway through the children’s story hour (not due to the kids, but to a bunch of adults who congregated there and were oblivious to the authors trying to read to little ears). But Levi, my oldest, wanted very much to hear Deborah’s book, so she very obligingly gave him a one-on-one reading of her picture book, The Little Apple, which is about her own upbringing on a farm. Levi and Deborah hit it off so well that she made him a present of her book, which came with an audio CD that features songs by sound-alikes of Johnny and June Cash. We haven’t had a chance yet to listen to the audio CD, but I’m looking forward to it (especially given that I’m a fan of the Cashes’ music).

Danny Birt is a fellow Loyola University of New Orleans grad and an all-around good guy. His book, Between a Roc and a Hard Place, is a chapter book aimed at middle school readers. I’ve heard him read excerpts from his tale of a baby dragon and enjoyed what I heard very much. Very charming and sweet. So I had my oldest son, Levi, aged 8, look at the book to see if it is something he can read and would be interested in. Affirmative on both questions! Danny very kindly inscribed a copy for him.

The proprietor of Oreilis Books, a used books shop that operates online and at conventions, is very interested in catering to the reading needs of young readers. I discovered to my delight that she had a copy of Evelyn Sibley Lampman’s 1955 classic children’s chapter book, The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek. Another parent was considering buying it for his seven-year-old son, but that kid ended up picking out another couple of books, so I snatched up the Lampman as soon as he put it down.

I’ve never read The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek, but when I was about Levi’s age, my mom bought me a copy of the sequel, The Shy Stegosaurus of Indian Springs, which I remember simply loving and reading over and over again. (The shy stegosaurus of the title, George, was always apologizing to his young human friends for the very small size of his brain and his limited intellect; he was an endearing character.) I thought I’d kept my old hardback copy, and not too long ago I went looking for it, hoping to give it to Levi. However, in one of my many moves over the years, I either gave it away or lost it (although I managed to hang onto some of my other favorite books from childhood, including J. B. Priestley’s Snoggle a precursor of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and my collection of Alfred Hitchcock’s oversized anthologies for young people). So I was thrilled to find a copy of the first book to give to Levi and his younger brothers (I’ll bet Judah, the dinosaur and Japanese monster fan, will be the book’s biggest enthusiast in our household). The Shy Stegosaurus of Cricket Creek has been reprinted fairly recently by Purple House Press, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find, if you know a little dinosaur-lover who needs a wonderful chapter book to read.

Pohl + Kornbluth (part 3): Search the Sky

Return to Part 1, Introduction

Return to Part 2, The Space Merchants

Search the Sky
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
Original book publication (simultaneous hardback and paperback): Ballantine Books, 1954
Most recent publication: (paperback) Baen Books, 1990; (Kindle) Wonder Publishing Group, 2009


By the time Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth turned to writing their second of four science fiction novels together, Search the Sky, written a year after The Space Merchants, they had worked out a new working mode for their writing partnership. This was a very challenging and efficient system, a kind of a forced march of alternating four-page writing stints around the clock until a project was completed – a working method which relied heavily on their friendship, their basic compatibility, their physical proximity, and the excitement each got out of setting up writing challenges for the other to overcome. Pohl vividly described their working partnership to Alfred Bester in a conversation recorded in 1978:

“…[W]ith Cyril, because we had this background of common experience and common attitudes, writing was almost painless on most of what we wrote. We published altogether I think, seven novels and maybe 30 or 40 short stories. … Mostly what we did was talk to each other for a while. He’d come out to my home in Red Bank, where we kept a room for him with his own typewriter, and we’d sit around and drink for a while, and when the booze ran out we’d start to talk seriously about what sort of book we’d plan to write. And we’d think about a situation and talk about a few characters and what might happen to them, and as long as the conversation was flowing we’d keep on talking. We didn’t put anything on paper.

“And then when we were beginning to flag, and it felt like it was ready to write, we’d flip a coin and the loser would go up to the third floor — Cyril’s typewriter was in one room there and mine was another — and he would write the first four pages. And then at the end of those four pages, which would stop in the middle of a line or a word sometimes, he’d come down or I’d come down, and say, ‘You’re on. ‘

“We called it the ‘Hot-Typewriter System’ — just keep the thing going day and night — and we did in fact usually work straight through. … A couple of times when we were towards the end of a novel and getting a little giddy we’d play tricks on each other. There was this scene at the end of one novel when, at the bottom of the last page I had somebody look through a microscope and the next line was, ‘What did he see?’ and I said it was Charlie Chaplin in a bowler hat. Then I went down and said, ‘Take it from there.’

“But he fooled me — he just crossed out that line. Usually we didn’t even cross out a line, we just drove from line to line. Page 5 to 8 would be Cyril’s and page 9 to 12 would be mine; we just kept on going until we came to the end of the book. This was rough draft and it always got rewritten all the way through, by one of us, almost always by myself except for the case of one novel, Wolfbane, which was the last writing Cyril did before he died, and there was quite a lot of revision involved in the rewriting. But basically, when we were finished, the novel was there, and it would sometimes only take five or six days to do a whole novel, because we’d work straight through for 24 hours a day.”

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in those rooms on the third story of the Pohl residence in Red Bank, New Jersey! Later in the conversation between Pohl and Bester, the latter asked how long each of the collaborators generally took to write his four pages. Pohl responded that the time taken averaged about two hours per shift, each writer being eager to hand the thing off to his partner. What quality of sleep could Pohl and Kornbluth have gotten during their two-hour respites? Imagine what sort of shape each man must’ve been in at the end of a week spent writing a novel around the clock!

Let’s take a look at their second novel-length collaboration, the first written using their “Hot-Typewriter System” – Search the Sky. This book has not received the acclaim accorded to The Space Merchants, Gladiator-at-Law, or Wolfbane. There’s a simple reason for that; it’s not as good a novel as those others. But even the runt of the litter has worthy qualities, considering the pedigree of the “puppies’” parents and the overall lofty standards of the litter as a whole.

Where does Search the Sky fall down in comparison with the other three Pohl-Kornbluth novel-length collaborations? In two key areas, I think – the characterization and motivation of the book’s protagonist (space trader, resident of Halsey’s Planet, and eventual starship pilot Ross), and the episodic structure of the plot, wherein the individual episodes don’t really build upon one another, but rather stand apart, almost like character-linked but otherwise separate short stories. (In fact, a great many science fiction novels have been what are called “fix-ups,” or amalgamations of related short stories that share characters and settings; even such classics as Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight started out as a series of stories – but not Search the Sky).

Ross, in my estimation, simply isn’t a very interesting, dynamic, or especially well-motivated character (certainly not in comparison with the protagonists of the other three Pohl-Konbluth SF novels). His primary motivation for setting out on his interstellar quest for fellow human planetary civilizations which have fallen out of contact is boredom, plain and simple. Boredom, by its nature, doesn’t make for a very interesting motivating force. Oh, and he gets tricked into boarding the faster-than-light scout vessel by the owner of the Haarland Trading Corporation, Halsey’s Planet’s chosen keeper of the secret of faster-than-light travel. (One of book’s key conceits is that the inventors of faster-than-light travel have kept the existence of FTL ships a secret from the entire human race, which had been spread across the galaxy by comparatively slow-moving generation ships, in order to avert the possibility of interstellar wars breaking out; only a single family on each inhabited planet has been made aware of the existence of FTL ships.)

Ross’s mission, as set forth by Mr. Haarland, is to reconnoiter with a FTL scout ship all or most of the planets inhabited by humans which have stopped trading and communicating with each other and determine the reason or reasons why this has happened. This plot device led to a novel which Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, in their May, 1954 review of Search the Sky in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, called “a series of Voyages imaginaires in the Eighteenth Century tradition” rather than a truly unified work of fiction (the standout example of the type of book they refer to is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Ross ends up visiting four planets once he leaves Halsey’s Planet, with his final stop being Earth. The inhabitants of each planet, in isolation both cultural and genetic, have fallen into differing sociopolitical or cultural dead-ends, which Boucher and McComas described as “cautionary exaggerations of certain sociopolitical trends.”

On the first planet, extreme age is worshipped and rewarded, to the great detriment of all citizens under the age of fifty. On the second planet, 1950s-style gender roles have been reversed, with the women all acting as domineering female chauvinists. On the third planet, a lack of genetic diversity has resulted in a war between the Joneses, who all look and think alike, and everyone else on their planet. On the fourth and final planet Ross visits, Earth, the future society of Kornbluth’s stories “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” is reprised and elaborated on, with a tiny, hidden cognitive elite trying to avert societal disaster for the great majority of inhabitants, who have moron-level intelligence. On each stop, Ross picks up a new fellow traveler, somewhat in the same fashion Dorothy picks up the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion as she travels about Oz in The Wizard of Oz. And on each stop, Ross gets in trouble with the locals, is either imprisoned or cast into some form of servitude, and must find a way to escape back to his FTL ship and continue his mission by traveling to the next planet on his list. The repetition of this pattern becomes a bit wearying to the reader (at least it did to this reader).

All of this is not to suggest that the book lacks its redeeming pleasures. Of the four planetary visitation episodes, my favorites are the first and the fourth. I heartily enjoyed the first segment, the visit to the planet where extreme age is venerated, because it so flies in the face of everything I’ve experienced in American society since I was a child (I was born in 1964, at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and all I have ever known is the idealization of youth and youthfulness and the efforts of marketers of all stripes to convince older Americans to adopt the attitudes and styles of the young). The humor is not overdone, and the elements of that off-kilter society are thoughtfully and intricately delineated (without becoming overly elaborated to the point of boring the reader). The fourth segment is also highly enjoyable, being a further exploration of the future world Kornbluth had earlier described in his classic short stories. The difficulties the book’s protagonists, all of high or at least average intelligence, find with blending into a society where the average IQ is fifty are humorously drawn; and the conundrums faced by the small group of relative geniuses who run things from behind the scenes are described both compellingly and with great compassion.

I found the two middle segments to be problematic, however. The second planetary visit, the one to the world dominated by female chauvinists, achieves the double whammy, to this twenty-first century reader, of both reflecting an extreme caricature of the out-of-date, stratified gender roles of the 1950s (think James Cagney mashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face for mouthing off in Public Enemy) and, in inverting it for satirical effect, making it even more grotesque than it was in the first place. The authors simply take the most brutal and simplistic portrayals of male chauvinists and make them women. This would not doom the segment, necessarily, were it not for rushed, unclever plotting which does not lead the protagonists nor the minor characters they meet to do anything interesting or particularly exciting.

The third planetary visit, the one to the world dominated by a society made up of persons of a near-identical genotype, promises more in the way of humor and social extrapolation than it manages to deliver. Virtually all the members of the society Ross and his friends find themselves in are named Jones and are tall, lanky, and have red hair. This segment comes across, unfortunately, as a joke which isn’t terribly funny the first time it is told and which is then subsequently repeated another dozen times.

It is reasonably likely that the two authors each contributed two ideas for “planetary social scenarios” apiece to the series of travels. Given that the fourth scenario pretty obviously comes from Kornbluth, my best guess is that they alternated their contributions, with Pohl dreaming up the age-worshipping planet and the Jones planet, and Kornbluth suggesting the female chauvinist planet and the “Marching Morons” planet (which is Earth). In this estimation, they each end up with one winner and one stinker of an idea (which isn’t a bad percentage, when one thinks about it). My second-best guess would be that Kornbluth suggested the fourth scenario and Pohl came up with the first three (since Pohl appears to have been the master plotter of the two of them).

In any event, this uneven book represents the nadir of the Pohl-Kornbluth collaboration (apart from their earliest shared short stories, most of which were hurriedly written in 1939-41 to fill holes in the various low-budget science fiction magazines which featured Futurians as editors). The next two books they wrote together, Gladiator-at-Law and Wolfbane, are each as satisfying and memorable in their own way as The Space Merchants.

But before we examine those two novels and their collections of shared short fiction, it might be profitable for us to take a look at two solo novels written by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth during the 1950s, in order to gain a better picture of their individual strengths and weaknesses as novelists and what each contributed to the partnership.

Next: The Syndic by C. M. Kornbluth and Drunkard’s Walk by Frederik Pohl

My List of Modern Science Fiction Classics

What makes a work a “classic?” More specifically, what make a work of science fiction or fantasy a “classic?”

I attended MystiCon in Roanoke, Virginia this past weekend and had an opportunity to ask myself these questions (the reason being that I was assigned to participate in a panel called “Modern SF Classics”). The con programmers who put together the panel defined “modern” as a work having been published in 1980 or later. In pulling together a list, I decided not to include any books that had been published within the last ten years (I also limited myself to novels, since including short fiction would stretch the discussion far beyond what could be covered in an hour). I reasoned that part of being a “classic” is having stood the test of time; a number of books which have been published since 2001 may end up entering the canon of essential science fiction and fantasy works, but it is simply too early to tell. This delineation on my part put a number of currently prominent writers’ works off my list, including all books by China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, and Charles Stross (so if you are fans of these folks, check back with me in another decade or so for my updated list).

The con programmers’ stipulation of 1980 as a starting point seemed arbitrary, until I had compiled the contents of my list and realized who wasn’t on it. 1980, it turns out, represented a generational shift in the ranks of those science fiction and fantasy writers who were turning out career-defining and genre-defining works. My list doesn’t contain any post-1979 works by any writers who came to prominence during the “magazine years” of science fiction, those decades when the most vital and essential science fiction was to be found in the pages of periodicals such as Astounding, Galaxy, Worlds of If, or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction rather than hardback or paperback books (or online). My list doesn’t include any books, for example, by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl (who came the closest to being included on the list, having published several of his classic novels in the late 1970s), Robert Sheckley, or Robert Silverberg. All of their most essential books were published prior to 1980. In contrast, all of the writers included on my list have made their bones primarily with hardback or paperback originals, rather than works published in monthly or bimonthly periodicals.

So, returning to my original question, what is it that makes a work of science fiction or fantasy a classic? I mentioned staying power, the test of time. Apart from a work’s popularity at the time of its original publication, has it managed to fairly consistently stay in print? Do readers continue to seek it out, even a decade or more after its first appearance? Has it been cited by critics as a noteworthy book or one which has been influential in the field’s subsequent development? Do current writers have the work in mind as they write their own books, either consciously or subconsciously, amplifying the earlier work’s themes and innovations, or reacting against them? (One of my fellow panelists suggested another criterion for defining a work as a classic, which is whether non-geeks recognize it when it is mentioned in casual conversation; but I think this tends to favor books which have the fortune or misfortune of being adapted into motion pictures or television series, more a marker of notoriety – or luck — than of quality or influence.)

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other types of literature, are the product of long-distance conversations which may occur over timespans of decades or even centuries. Many works in the field may be considered to be responses to earlier works. Let’s take the subject matter of robots and artificial intelligence as an example. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley tossed the ball into the air with her Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Carel Kapek returned her serve a century later, in 1920, with his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Then the ball was most ably fielded by Issac Asimov with his Robot stories, collected as I, Robot (1950). More recent parries and volleys have included those by Brian Aldiss (“Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” 1969) and David Gerrold (When Harlie Was One, 1972), to list just two of dozens of notable examples.

So another aspect of judging a work of science fiction or fantasy a classic is how ably and how significantly it has added to the ongoing conversation which sustains these genres over time.

I selected my choices for various reasons. Some I included because they promulgated a new, vital sub-genre of works (such as Neuromancer — cyberpunk – and The Anubis Gates — steampunk – and The Time Ships — the New Space Opera), others because they added fresh perspectives to established sub-genres and headed them in new directions (such as When Gravity Fails and Cryptonomicon). Some I listed because they introduced new concepts into the science fictional discussion (such as Blood Music did with nanotechnology). Others got the nod because they have been consistent best-sellers over long periods of time, proving their enduring attraction to successive generations of readers (such as Ender’s Game and Brin’s “Uplift War” series), or because their craft has been judged to be of such high quality that they have served as models and aspirations for writers who have read them (such as Little, Big and The Book of the New Sun quartet).

Without further ado, here is my list of modern science fiction and fantasy classics, listed in reverse order of publication.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (1999)
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (1996)
The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (1995)
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)
Hyperion by Dan Simmons (1989)
When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger (1986)
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Blood Music by Greg Bear (1985)
Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
Startide Rising by David Brin (1983)
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (1983)
Little, Big by John Crowley (1981)
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (4 volumes, 1980-83)

Are there any glaring omissions on my list? Please feel free to let me know!

Pohl + Kornbluth (part 2): The Space Merchants

The Space Merchants
Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
First published in serial form as Gravy Planet in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1952
Original book publication (simultaneous hardback and paperback): Ballantine Books, 1953
Most recent publication: (paperback) St. Martin’s Press, 2011


(return to Part 1: Introduction)

According to Frederik Pohl, one of the most significant literary collaborations in the history of the science fiction field got its start due to deadline pressure.

Pohl had started writing a mainstream novel about the advertising business while serving in the U.S. Army during World War Two, but he abandoned the project when he realized he really didn’t know anything about his subject. Following the war, he set out to rectify this. He worked for several years as a copywriter for the small advertising firm of Twing and Altman, mainly working book accounts. He ended up with a good bit of insider knowledge about the advertising business, but author Fred Wakeman had just published a novel called The Hucksters about advertising, so Pohl felt the idea of a story about the advertising business was no longer fresh; at least not as a mainstream novel. But as a science fiction novel…? That field was yet unplowed.

He spent a year or two writing the first 20,000 words, then showed what he had written to Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Gold had just finished serializing Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and was anxious for another high profile serial to follow it up with. He wanted to publish the first 20,000 words of Pohl’s novel immediately, in the upcoming issue of Galaxy – on the stipulation that Pohl could turn in the second and third installments of the novel in a week’s time.

Pohl was stuck, however. He didn’t know where to take the book’s plot next. Desperate to finish the novel within the very tight deadline he’d been given, he turned to his close friend, Cyril Kornbluth, who was then staying with the Pohls at their home in Red Bank, New Jersey. Kornbluth offered to help. They ended up working their collaboration on The Space Merchants (first titled Gravy Planet for the novel’s serialization in Galaxy, and expanded the following year for book publication by Ballantine) in a different fashion from the method they worked out for later shared works. Kornbluth read over the first 20,000 words and made some revisions. Then he wrote the middle third of the book on his own, which was in turn revised by Pohl. The two writers alternated four-page bursts of the last third. They made their deadline. (Pohl related the story in his introduction to His Share of Glory: the Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth.)

The future society which Pohl designed and which Kornbluth helped to flesh out is a sort of inverse of fascism. In the fascism of Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler, authoritarian central governments allowed private industry and commerce to continue, but placed their direction under state control. In the future society of The Space Merchants, government has been colonized and is being completely controlled by commercial interests, the most powerful of which are the giant advertising agencies. Things have reached the point where, rather than being identified as, say, the representative from North Dakota, an elected official is referred to as the representative from Fowler Shocken, the powerful ad firm which employs the novel’s protagonist, Mitch Courtenay, a “Copysmith Star-Class.” In this vastly overpopulated future society (where members of the middle class sleep in stairwells of the giant office towers in which they work and the most powerful and wealthy executives can afford only a two-room apartment; in this, The Space Merchants was a precursor of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!), the population is divided into executives, producers, and consumers, and the advertising agencies teach the vast majority of the swollen population from birth to dying day to be happy with their role as consumers. Virtually every bit of the Earth’s surface is devoted to either production or consumption, even the polar regions, which play host to resort and amusement areas where constricted populaces can briefly enjoy comparatively endless vistas out on the frozen tundra. This society does have its rebels, a secret society of saboteurs and terrorists called the Consies, or Conservationists. Named, of course, to remind readers of the Commies (the book was written in 1952), the Consies are remarkably predictive of the radical elements of the contemporary worldwide Green movement.

At the book’s outset, Mitch Courtenay is handed management of his company’s biggest and newest account — convincing thousands of Americans to become colonists on Venus, a harsh, forbidding world, which may remain an exceedingly inhospitable planet for human beings for generations, until planetary geo-engineering manages to transform Venus into something more akin to Earth. Only one man has previously set down on Venus and returned to Earth safely, a midget astronaut named Jack O’Shea. Pohl utilized his experience in the advertising business to great effect in his depiction of the early interactions between O’Shea and Courtenay, who has been assigned the task of extracting from the astronaut any useful information about the environment of Venus; useful for selling the desirability of serving as a colonist, that is. For Courtenay is selling “space” in two senses of the word — the excitement and romance of”outer space,” and the possibility for ordinary citizens to acquire “living space” far in excess of anything known by even the wealthiest men in America. In exchange for selling Venus to potential colonists, the firm of Fowler Shocken is promised all of the mineral and raw materials rights of Venus. Other ad firms also covet those rights, and they are willing to go to extreme measures to acquire them. Courtenay is opposed in his work by agents and saboteurs both from a rival ad agency, Taunton Associates, and the Consies. And he finds that these agents and saboteurs may include his friends, coworkers, and possibly even his wife.

Keen observers of science fiction recognized the significance of The Space Merchants almost immediately. The New York Times upon the book’s initial publication, at a time when major newspapers virtually never paid attention to science fiction, praised the two writers for their “slide rule precision” in their creation of a plausible future society and called the book “a novel of the future that the present must inevitably rank as a classic.” British novelist and critic Kingsley Amis devoted nine pages of his pioneering work of SF criticism from 1960, New Maps of Hell, to The Space Merchants, saying the book “has many claims to being the best science fiction novel so far.” Amis writes:

The Space Merchants, clearly, is an admonitory satire on certain aspects of our own society, mainly economic, but it is not only that. It does not simply show the already impending consequences of the growth of industrial and commercial power, and it does more than simply satirize or criticize existing habits in the advertising profession… Beyond all this, the book seems to be interested in the future as such, to inquire what might result from turns of events that are possible and are not invalidated by being unlikely, to confront men and women with a thing, as I put it, which may put them into a situation without precedence in our experience.”

Of particular relevance to the subject of my essay, which is an attempted disaggregation of the Pohl-Kornbluth partnership and the strengths contributed by both, Amis has this to say:

“I will leave to the L. Sprague de Camps of the future the final determination of which partner is responsible for which scenes, but a check of Kornbluth’s individual work — Not This August, in which America retrieves a total defeat by Russia and China, or [The] Syndic, a chronicle of minor wars following upon a major one — soon suggests that his part in The Space Merchants was roughly to provide the more violent action while Pohl filled in the social background and the satire. … The closing scenes, on which I suspect the hand of Kornbluth lies heavily, offer little but adequate excitement and are not altogether a conclusion to the issues raised in the opening chapters. To provide a solution to these is not what would be expected from Pohl, who like the best of his colleagues is far more concerned to state, with as much elaboration as possible, ‘the case against tomorrow’ than to suggest any straightforward mitigations. … Even The Space Merchants relies, as it goes on, more and more heavily upon Kornbluthian elements — there is a quite gratuitous scene with a female sadistic maniac who totes a sharpened knitting needle.”

Although I agree with Amis that The Space Merchants ranks high in the pantheon of significant SF works, I strongly disagree with him on his evaluation of what he terms the book’s “Kornbluthian elements.” A tremendous admirer of Frederik Pohl, he sought to downgrade Kornbluth’s contribution to the book to mere word padding and mixing in some thrills for the cheap seats (an assessment I’m sure Fred Pohl would be the first to disagree with). It seems clear, both from Amis’s judgement of what Cyril Kornbluth contributed to the partnership and the critic’s citing of Kornbluth’s novel-length works only, that Amis was unfamiliar with Kornbluth’s short fiction, where his writerly skills and his outlook on the world can be viewed in their clearest light. “The Little Black Bag,” perhaps Kornbluth’s finest story, is filled with wonderful prose, rich in felt physical detail and penetrating characterization. Its ending is the kind of ineluctable and entirely fitting horror to be found in the best of Poe. To judge from much of his best short fiction, including “The Marching Morons,” “The Silly Season,” and “The Luckiest Man in Denv,” Kornbluth did not have a very high regard for the morality and worthiness of his fellow human beings. His outlook could be described as misanthropic, but it was also very, very sharp and funny. For example, whether or not Kornbluth was indeed responsible for the scene late in The Space Merchants involving the woman sadist who tortures Mitchell Courtenay — and I believe it was likely this was a Kornbluth contribution (a number of his solo works feature scheming or malevolent women) — I disagree that the scene was gratuitous and added only for shock value. The scene and the warped character of Hedy both have a point to make (pun only partly intended). Taunton’s use of Hedy illustrates the advertising mogul’s ruthlessness. Also, in the world of The Space Merchants, men and women have become so trained to adhere to the pleasure principle by the world’s advertising agencies that Copysmith Star-Class Mitchell Courtenay reflects that murderers, assassins, and torturers have virtually disappeared, due to fear of punishment. Yet Taunton reminds him, just before deploying Hedy, that humanity has always contained rare individuals who actually seek out pain and punishment, and that with the enormously inflated population of the book’s future society, such extreme masochists are much more common than they once were. Such seekers of punishment are the deadly tools the advertising agencies utilize in their low-level wars with their rival agencies.

Also, I have the benefit of Pohl’s recollections of how he and Kornbluth tackled the writing of The Space Merchants, which were not available to Kingsley Amis in 1960. According to Pohl, he was primarily responsible for the book’s first third, and Kornbluth was primarily responsible for the middle third, with the final third having been split between them in small work increments of four or five pages. With this knowledge, we can perhaps better separate out what each man brought to the novel.

The book’s first third belongs primarily to Frederik Pohl. In it, he delineated the outlines of his future society, its economy, its politics, and its major social problems (according to him, working out all the details of the book’s first third took between one and two years, a very extended period of development for an otherwise quick writer; in contrast, the two collaborators finished the second two thirds of the novel in one week!). Pohl’s skills of social and economic extrapolation, also seen in his short works of the period, such as “The Midas Plague,” really shine in this section. He also makes very effective use of his insider knowledge of the advertising business, seasoning his descriptions of the Fowler Shocken Agency with telling bits of dialogue between coworkers, the rituals of advertising campaign proposals, and office infighting and politics. Some of his portrayals, particularly of the agency’s “yes men,” are overly broad, bordering on stock types and caricatures, but they work well in context. Interestingly, and not common for SF works of the period, the protagonist, Michael Courtenay, and his wife Kathy (apparently they are in the midst of a trial marriage, because Michael begs her to make it permanent at the end of the trial period in a few months), are shown to be in an unstable, tempestuous relationship, on the brink of foundering. I’m not sure whether this is a detail Pohl contributed, or an element which Kornbluth introduced in his revision of the first third. The reason I suspect it might be Kornbluth’s doing is that Kornbluth featured unhappy or rocky romances and marriages in many of his solo stories and longer works.

Pohl wrote this about his friend Cyril Kornbluth in his introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth:

“[Cyril] was also a sardonic soul. The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocricies and foolishnesses of mankind. His target was not always Man in the abstract and general. Sometimes it was one particular man, or woman, thinly disguised as a character in a story — and thinly sliced, into quivering bits. Once or twice it was me.”

Kornbluth was primarily responsible for the book’s middle third. This is the section of the novel, I’ll admit, that I found the most enjoyable and entertaining. In The Way the Future Was, Fred Pohl relates that at some point when he was struggling to come up with a way to continue the book beyond its initial twenty thousand words, Phil Klass (who wrote under the pen name William Tenn) suggested that one way to go might be to have Michael Courtenay lose his privileged position as a Star-Class Copysmith and experience the world from the vantage point of a lower class producer and consumer. Fred liked the idea, and when Cyril Kornbluth offered to help with finishing the book, Fred suggested Phil Klass’s idea, and Kornbluth liked it, as well. So Michael finds himself shanghaied by an untrustworthy coworker and dumped into steerage on a tramp freighter bringing menial workers to a gigantic food processing plant in Costa Rica, his identity erased and replaced by that of a peon virtually without rights of any kind. From the comparative lap of luxury, Michael is thrust into the lower depths; the reader can tell that Kornbluth had tremendous fun with this set-up, because the reader has tremendous fun along with him. The Space Merchants is meant to be a satire, a comedy. I found the book’s funniest bit to be when Michael finds himself gradually succumbing to a circular, triple addiction designed by his own advertising agency to ensnare the consumer class. The harsh physical labor dehydrates Michael, and the only beverage of any kind available to quench his thirst is Popsie, an addictive soda. The soda makes him hungry, and the only snack available is Crunchies, which cause withdrawal symptoms that can only be quelled by more sips of Popsie. But drinking too much Popsie makes Michael crave Starr cigarettes, and smoking those makes it impossible for him not to eat more Crunchies… As comedy, it’s brilliant, and as a satire of Western consumer mores, it is biting and spot-on.

The work unit Michael finds himself shanghaied into is the United Slime-Mold Protein Workers of Panamerica, working for Chlorella Proteins, whose principal product is a kind of genetically engineered poultry. Michael is comically exploited by both the company and his union. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consist primarily of slices of Chicken Little, the gigantic, headless, limbless chicken-thing that regrows its protein-saturated mass as quickly as workers of Chlorella Proteins can slice hunks of it off (Michael’s initial job is to harvest the slime molds which are utilized as Chicken Little’s feed stock). Around the book’s middle point, Kornbluth has Michael pretend to sign on with the secretive, underground Consies in order to gain a reassignment to New York City, so that he can reestablish his old identity and reclaim his place in his old advertising firm (where his bosses and most of his coworkers believe he is dead, killed in an accident at a resort at the South Pole). In one of the book’s strangest, most vividly described passages, Michael meets the Consies in their underground lair — the entrance to which is hidden beneath Chicken Little. The method with which Michael and his Consie handler make their way through Chicken Little to the hatchway is to utilize a hypersonic whistle, which, when blown, causes Chicken Little to involuntarily pull away from the vector in which the sound is directed. Thus, the two men travel through a “bubble” that moves through a hundred-ton mass of living protein… perhaps one of the weirdest images in the history of science fiction, and a minor triumph of Cyril Kornbluth’s fertile (and bizarre) imagination.

I found that the novel becomes somewhat less involving (and thrillingly strange) in its final third, when Michael returns to New York City. This is the third which Pohl and Kornbluth wrote together in alternating four-page sections (which Pohl then went back and revised). This is not to say that the book’s conclusion lacks its thrills and pleasures; the scenes set in the stairwells of the Taunton Associates Building are as strong as any earlier in the book. The Consies play an important role in the book’s climax. Interestingly, the environmental radicals are portrayed in a much different light within the novel’s final twenty pages than they were in the book’s middle third. Kornbluth portrayed the Consies as somewhat bumbling, rather comical extremists. Whoever wrote the novel’s last pages — and I suspect it was Pohl — showed the Consies to be mankind’s likeliest saviors, a secret alliance of the enlightened that would preserve a terraformed Venus as a pristine wilderness, one which can replace the Earth’s lost natural spaces, Terran wildernesses which were raped and processed out of existence by corporate entities such as Fowler Shocken. Frederik Pohl has always had an element of utopianism in his work. He vividly described the few years he spent in the late 1930s as a member of the Young Communist League in his memoir, The Way the Future Was. He abandoned the Communist Party after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, but he never abandoned his support for and belief in left-liberal causes. Cyril Kornbluth, however, to judge from his solo work, particularly his short fiction, was no believer in the gradual perfectability of human society. No utopian, he. He seemed to believe, rather, that men would always find a way to foul things up, no matter how advanced their technology might become.

This thematic tension between the collaborators, the tension between the optimistic utopian and the pessimistic misanthrope, is what gives The Space Merchants much of its zing and what sets it apart from nearly all of its contemporaries. It is a novel in argument with itself. This disagreement between the two writers’ outlooks is also a large part of what sets the three best collaborative novels of Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth shoulders above any of the solo novels either of them wrote during the 1950s. Kornbluth provided the ying to Pohl’s yang.

Next: Search the Sky

%d bloggers like this: