Archive for Reviews and Such

J. G. Ballard’s Oddly Superfluous Autobiography

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography
J. G. Ballard
Fourth Estate, 2008

In his peak writing years, those three decades between The Drowned World (1962) and The Kindness of Women (1991), J. G. Ballard was a writer who seldom failed to surprise. During his final decade of writing fiction, however, stretching from Cocaine Nights (1996) to Kingdom Come (2006), which bracketed Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), he seemed to be writing virtually the same book over and over again, retaining essentially the same cast of characters (but changing the names) and slightly altering the settings from vaguely fascistic suburban resort enclaves along the Mediterranean coast to vaguely fascistic English suburbs and shopping malls. Like Beethoven with his 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Ballard, with his final quartet of novels, obsessively pursued variations on a theme, far more narrowly than he had earlier in his career.

Yet, with the last book he completed prior to his death in 2009, Miracles of Life, Ballard managed to spring a final surprise on his reading public. Word that the writer was working on his autobiography raised excited anticipation – so much of Ballard’s fiction had either been heavily autobiographical (Empire of the Sun [1984] and The Kindness of Women) or fantastically extrapolated from incidents in his life (Crash [1973] and The Unlimited Dream Company [1979]), that his readers (this reader certainly included) could hardly wait to have the wizard pull aside the curtain and reveal, once and for all, which elements of his fictions had been based on his life experiences and which had been fully imagined.

The final surprise this prodigiously talented writer, with his unique voice and viewpoint, managed to spring was that he wrote such an unrevealing, limp, and therefore superfluous autobiography as his last testament. The scanty revelations the book contains could have been assembled into a medium-length magazine article. We do learn a good bit about his parents, who, as characters, remained mostly off-stage (for novelistic reasons) in Empire of the Sun. We learn that he met his wife, Mary, at a party given by fellow science fiction writers and fans, members of the circle surrounding New Worlds, not long after he started publishing his earliest stories in that magazine. We are also granted a fairly detailed portrait of Ballard’s long friendship with fellow writer Kingsley Amis (father of Martin), author of such post-war English classics as Lucky Jim, as well as an amusing anecdote regarding a lunch with the publisher of The Drowned World, Victor Gollancz, who assumed out loud that Ballard had cribbed his novel from Heart of Darkness (when Ballard hadn’t yet read a word of Joseph Conrad’s).

So the book has its pleasures. Yet, for any readers who are familiar with Empire of the Sun, based on Ballard’s childhood years in Shanghai and the Lunghua camp run by the Japanese military, and The Kindness of Women, based on his life from the last days of World War Two through the filming of Steven Spielberg’s movie version of Empire of the Sun in 1987, Miracles of Life will come as a repetitive, mostly airless reading experience. This is because, with the exceptions I’ve listed above, Ballard’s autobiography repeats the sequences of events in his two earlier novels, but in much less vividly described fashion.

When I recently read the autobiography, I hadn’t read either of the novels since they had first appeared in the U.S., twenty-eight and twenty-one years ago. Intrigued by many of the autobiography’s somewhat sketchy portraits of his friends and intimates during his years living in Shepperton, I decided to reread The Kindness of Women immediately afterward. I was very surprised – on the verge of shocked – to find that whole passages had been transposed, either verbatim or close to it, from the earlier novel to the autobiography. Ballard had plagiarized himself. Passages of The Kindness of Women which reappear in Miracles of Life include descriptions of Ballard’s service in the Royal Air Force, receiving flight training in rural Canada, and descriptions of his instigation of an art installation of crashed cars and his subsequent personal car crash, prior to the publication of Crash. The description of the filming of Shanghai-set scenes of Empire of the Sun in a suburban neighborhood adjoining Shepperton in Kindness is also repeated nearly verbatim in Miracles.

The autobiography also suffers from a lack of detail on matters not directly addressed in the two semi-autobiographical novels. Readers get very little sense of the personalities of Ballard’s wife Mary or his partner of forty years, Claire Bloom, and his three children are cyphers, not individualized at all (although he does spend a good deal of the book speaking to how grateful he was for their presence in his life). Particularly disappointing to science fiction fans (in The Kindness of Women, the Ballard-figure protagonist is not identified as having any connection with the literature of science fiction at all) has to be the author’s very sketchy portrayal of his most important and long-lasting friendship in the science fiction world, that with Michael Moorcock. Moorcock and Ballard were central to British participation in science fiction’s New Wave, and their friendship and collaboration thus has a good bit of historical interest attached. How sad, then, that this relationship is given such short shrift in Miracles of Life. I suppose we must now depend upon Michael Moorcock to provide a fuller picture, should he ever choose to do so.

Why did Ballard choose to write Miracles of Life during his last year, considering that, at best, it merely recapitulates scenarios previously (and far more vividly) described in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, offering very little in the way of additional insight into the famed writer? I can postulate as to a few possible motivations. Having been diagnosed with severe prostate cancer, he may have wanted to set out for himself a fresh project to devote his remaining energies to, a goal which would give him reason to continue getting out of his sick bed each morning; perhaps another novel was not forthcoming, and a career-capping autobiography seemed the only alternative. Knowing that interest in such an autobiography would be fairly high (although the book has yet to find an American publisher), he may have wanted to provide a final boost to the monetary inheritance he would provide for Claire Booth and his children. A third motive? Over the prior decade, Ballard had shown a proclivity towards playing variations on a theme. Perhaps Miracles of Life was a continuation of this proclivity, a (slight) variation on the themes he had already expressed in his two semi-autobiographical novels.

With Ballard having died a year after his writing of his autobiography, we will never know his actual motivation for what on the surface seems an odd choice for a project to cap his luminous career.

I’ve also written about J. G. Ballard’s works elsewhere:

It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It

The Thrill of the New: The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World

Theodore Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood: No Bats or Fangs Here

Some of Your Blood
by Theodore Sturgeon
Original printing: Ballantine Mystery, paperback original, 1961
Most recent printing: Centipede Press, paperback, 2006

I do believe Theodore Sturgeon’s 1961 psychological suspense thriller Some of Your Blood wins the “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” award, at least regarding its 1966 second paperback printing. I sought out this book because I had heard it referred to as “Ted Sturgeon’s offbeat vampire novel.” Well, anyone with any familiarity with the works of Theodore Sturgeon — with books such as The Dreaming Jewels and More Than Human or stories such as “Slow Sculpture” and “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” or the classic Star Trek episode “Amok Time” – could tell you that “Ted Sturgeon’s offbeat vampire novel” could mean any of several hundred different story concepts. The man was that unpredictable and inventive a writer.

But the cover to that 1966 second printing sure did sucker me. A wine glass filled with either a blush red wine or blood; a single rose lying beneath the wine glass; drops of red liquid, either wine or blood again, bracketing the rose… what does such a cover image make you think of?

I’ll tell you what it makes me think of, particularly in the realm of “offbeat vampire novels” – I figured Ted Sturgeon would be riffing on the Bram Stoker image of the vampire as irresistible seducer, subverting that popular twentieth century notion of vampire as suave, romantic, savage lover/conqueror. I’d done it myself with my novel Fat White Vampire Blues, and I looked forward to seeing how a master storyteller like Ted Sturgeon would pull off a similar trick to what I had done.

Well, boy howdy, was I ever wrong!

And delighted to be wrong, as things turned out.

There are no supernatural elements in Some of Your Blood. Many critics and reviewers have classified it as a horror novel. Anthony Boucher, in his cover blurb to the 1966 reprinting, describes it as “… his (Sturgeon’s) first, straight crime novel.” Personally, I wouldn’t call it either a horror novel or a straight crime novel. Crimes are committed by the protagonist, and they are horrific; but I feel the label “psychological suspense thriller” applies most aptly. Feel free to slap your own favored label on the book. But by all means, read it, because it is a wonderful example of whatever it happens to be.

Many aficionados of Sturgeon’s body of work have noted that his prime subject matter is love. Certainly, if he can be said to be predictable in any way as a writer, he is predictably empathetic to all expressions of love and to their progenitors, no matter how perverse or far from the mainstream. Ted Sturgeon, in his stories and novels, never recoiled. He always embraced, no matter how sticky or icky that embrace might be, and he encouraged his readers to surrender with him to that embrace.

The original 1961 Ballantine Mysteries cover

There are no despicable characters in Some of Your Blood. The closest any of the characters comes to despicableness is the protagonist’s brutal father, but, in true Sturgeon fashion, even he is allowed moments of humanity and shades of likability. The book has no villains; only victims of adverse environments. It features two Army doctors who struggle against harrowing Korean War-era resource limitations and bureaucratic resistance to do the right and proper thing by their charge and patient. Its protagonist is by turns clever, amoral, innocent, opaque, endearing, violent, infantile, volatile, and pathetic. But this reader, in the sure, steady hands of the author, stuck with the pseudonymous George Smith all the way through, never tempted to turn away in disgust or to reject the character as a monster beyond the pale.

I would like to have been the proverbial “fly on the wall” of a typical reader’s bedroom back in 1961, when the novel first appeared. The book’s key revelations would have seemed much more shocking and much less expected, I’m certain, than they do for a typical reader in 2012, fifty-one years later. Even so, our present time’s greater familiarity and degree of comfort with outliers on the range of psycho-sexual behaviors, with what used to be universally thought of as perversions, do not appreciably decrease the novel’s power and impact. If the book is less shocking today, it is all the more engaging as a character study and a sympathetic, in-depth visit with a damaged psyche.

I won’t spoil it for you. I won’t tell you what “George Smith” does or why he does it. Read the book. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Battleship: Big, Dumb Summer Action Flick Jumps, Licks My Face

People are divided in their reactions to Irish setters.

Some folks don’t mind when those big, enthusiastic, galumphing canines dance all around their legs and jump up and deliver a tongue bath to the face. They find it endearing and sweet, a nice change of pace that any creature should find them so enticing and exciting that it goes to such efforts.

Other folks think those dogs are a nuisance. Setters slobber on you. They get their fur all over your clothes. They don’t take no for an answer. They aren’t polite or introspective or quietly charming. They won’t hold still in your lap (or fit comfortably in your lap). They won’t sit nobly at your feet while you play a game of chess (being much more likely to turn the board over).

My reaction to Irish setters? It depends on my mood and what I’m wearing. If I’m in a hurry and dressed in a suit, I don’t want an Irish setter within ten feet of me. But generally, I put up with them with a slightly arch affection, at worst. Most of the time, I like them just fine.

I must’ve been in the right mood for Universal’s and Hasbro’s summer action blockbuster Battleship last night. It won me over. It helped that I had my kids with me; I’m generally more predisposed to like this sort of film if my main purpose is to entertain my kids, and the film does that (without being inappropriate). Honestly, I probably gave the picture at least one additional star just based on the fact that Judah was dancing on my lap with excitement and Levi and Asher were oohing and aahing next to me. On the other hand, I have previously blogged as a strong skeptic of major motion pictures based on toy and game properties. So there’s that. I could’ve gone either way in my reaction.

Oh, I’m not going to make a case for Battleship being a well-thought out extrapolation of alien invasion and/or the U.S. military’s response to said incursion. On that front, the 2012 film represents a definite slide backwards from prior Saturday matinee fodder such as 1956’s Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, which portrayed both the aliens and the U.S. military in a more intelligent light. I’m not going to bother pointing out the internal inconsistencies and implausibilities that pepper this movie (chief among them being that the U.S.S. Missouri could be transitioned from being a museum ship to an active combatant in the space of three hours or so). Plenty of other reviewers have carried out that task. And besides, doing so is no more sporting than shooting fish in a barrel (or toy battleships in a bathtub).

No, what won me over wasn’t the film’s logic. It was the film’s Irish setter-like enthusiasm and good naturedness. In Battleship, everyone gets their turn to be awesome. Bad-boy rebel hero? Awesome! Stick-in-the-mud, by-the-book older brother? Awesome! Tomboy woman sailor? Awesome! Japanese naval officers visiting for war games? Awesome! Paraplegic, African-American retired Army soldier who used to be a championship boxer? Awesome! Cowardly science nerd who the paraplegic retired soldier convinces to be a hero? Awesome! Old World War Two battleship dragged out of mothballs in record time to confront the aliens’ version of the I.J.N. Yamato? Awesome! A gaggle of eighty-five-year-old Navy veterans who volunteer to show the young ‘uns how to operate a sixty-eight-year-old battleship? Awesome! The fuddy-duddy admiral dad of the girlfriend of the bad-boy rebel hero? In the end, you guessed it – he’s AWESOME!

After a half-hour or so, a viewer (unless he or she is predisposed to harbor negative feelings about members of the U.S. military) is simply worn down by all of this awesome!ness. The repeated licks to the face force smiles in a Pavlovian fashion, particularly from a viewer (like myself) who waxes nostalgic for old-style 1940s war movies like Destination Tokyo, Action in the North Atlantic, and Wake Island. No ambiguity, no moral relativism, just plenty of action, action, action! And a dash of heartfelt patriotism, too. Even patriotism for the Japanese Navy — and this in a movie that prominently features the U.S.S. Missouri, site of Japan’s WW2 surrender!

Oh, and the SFX shots of the Missouri going into action are very good, as are the scenes of three guided missile destroyers being blown up and sunk.

The movie makes its sole stab at subtlety in its gossamer-thin connection to the Hasbro board game of the title. The aliens’ force field shuts down the U.S. Navy’s and Japanese Navy’s advanced radar systems, so a Japanese officer comes up with the notion of utilizing NOAA water depression readings as a substitute measure for tracking the locations of the attacking alien warships… and the resulting screen images look just like – you guessed it! – graphics from the board game. This Easter egg alone, the film’s “Rosebud,” may cause critics of the future to rank Battleship as the Citizen Kane of toy-and-game movie adaptations.

I predict that this film will do much better in the home video market than it did in the theaters (where it has been one of the year’s more notable box office bombs). It is the sort of picture kids (and many dads) will enjoy watching over and over again (maybe fast-forwarding to the things-go-BOOM! scenes).

My family’s rankings?

One ”This is the most AWESOME movie I’ve ever seen in my whole LIFE!” (Judah)
Two ”Pretty awesome”s (Levi and Asher)
One ”More entertaining than I’d expected it would be” (that would be me)

Worst Giant Ape Film of All Time? Konga vs. The Mighty Peking Man

Since I started writing this blog back in July, 2011, my youngest son, Judah, has become a giant monster fanatic (a chip off the old block; I adored all the same stuff at his age). My first “favorite movie” was King Kong Vs. Godzilla, which even at the age of six was a guilty pleasure for me, because I had seen the original King Kong and knew in my heart-of-hearts that Toho’s man in a gorilla suit could not compare to Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion animated Kong. Still, hokey as that guy in a gorilla suit seemed, I couldn’t resist the sheer fun of seeing Japan’s biggest, baddest radioactive dinosaur rumble with King Kong (who gained kind-of-cool electrical powers in the film, a bit of an equalizer to Godzilla’s radioactive breath).

Judah loves all the Godzilla films, from the classics and near-classics (Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Godzilla Vs. the Thing, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Mothra) to the really “awful” ones (Godzilla’s Revenge, thought by many to be the worst Godzilla film of all, but one which Judah and I both appreciate). He also really digs other giant monster films, favorites including The Deadly Mantis, Tarantula, the Gamera movies of the 1960s and 1970s, and South Korea’s only foray into the genre, Yongary, Monster From the Deep. He has even sat through the Mystery Theater 3000 version of The Giant Gila Monster, although the point of the snarking robots at the bottom of the screen escaped him.

Being five, he will happily watch his favorites over and over again (and I’ll generally comply with his pleas to watch with him, since many of those films never get old for me), but I do my best to “broaden his horizons” and introduce him to films he hasn’t seen before. Netflix is a great help with this parental mission. I saw that Konga, a 1961 collaboration between a British studio, Anglo Amalgamated, and an American studio, American International Pictures, was available for instant streaming. I hadn’t seen Konga since I was a kid, and my memories of the film were somewhat hazy. Still, it had a giant ape in it, rampaging through London, so I figured, what’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turned out. Interestingly, the big ape, Konga, was by far the worst thing about the film. The rest of the movie deserved a better monster. Somewhat unusually for a 1960s giant monster flick, the human performances are quite good, making the very lame FX and ape acting seem all the more limp by comparison. Michael Gough is very memorable as the increasingly deranged Professor Charles Decker, the scientist who mutates a friendly little chimpanzee, Konga, into a massive brute by injecting him with several doses of growth serum. Margo Johns is equally as good as Margaret, Decker’s lab assistant, who, in love with her boss, blackmails him into marrying her by agreeing to go along with his dangerous experiments and utilization of Konga to murder his academic and scientific rivals. The scenes between them crackle with dramatic tension, especially after Barbara learns of Decker’s horndog yearnings for Sandra (Claire Gordon), his young, pretty student.

"If you hadn't injected me with this damn growth formula, I could have stayed a lively little chimp, instead of a comatose giant gorilla!"

Where the film completely falls flat on its face is whenever the ape shows up. Oh, Konga is perfectly acceptable so long as he remains a chimp, portrayed by an actual chimpanzee. But once he is mutated into a full-grown gorilla, he is a black hole on the screen, sucking all of the film’s verisimilitude and audience involvement out and depositing them in some nether region on the far side of the galaxy. Simply put, aside (maybe) from some gorilla portrayals in Republic Pictures or Monogram Studios serials of the 1930s and 1940s, uncredited actor Paul Stockman delivers the most lackadaisical, unconvincing portrayal of a gorilla by a man in a gorilla suit on film. (Stockman has thirteen film and TV credits, none of the others being apes; his only named characters are Inspector Dales in two 1967 episodes of the TV series Adventures of the Seaspray and Steve Parker in Dr. Blood’s Coffin, made the same year as Konga, 1961.) George Barrows rented his gorilla suit to the makers of Konga; the suit had previously appeared in such cinema “classics” as Gorilla at Large and Robot Monster. They would have done as well to stuff a mannequin inside the gorilla suit as put Paul Stockman in there. Stockman makes no effort whatsoever to portray a gorilla. He simply walks around inside the suit, with all the verve and dynamism of a man trying to wipe a wad of chewing gum off the bottom of his shoe onto a patch of grass. Before being turned gigantic by Barbara’s final injection of the growth serum, Konga is directed by Decker to murder three of his rivals. None of the strangulation murders are filmed with any suspense, interesting camera angles, or cinematic energy at all. Stockman as Konga goes through the motions, as though Decker had sent him out to the local pharmacy for some antacid tablets.

Perhaps the film’s biggest surprise is that Konga, who grows to more than a hundred feet tall, doesn’t destroy anything, beyond his initial big growth spurt wherein he shoots through the roof of Decker’s house and stumbles through his greenhouse filled with carnivorous plants. He shambles through the outskirts and then the heart of London and somehow manages to avoid wrecking so much as a single building, smooshing a single civilian (apart from Barbara, whom he tosses to the carnivorous plants, and Decker, whom he flings to the soldiers as though he were discarding a candy wrapper), or trampling a single infantryman. I picture a little two-way radio inside the mask of Stockman’s gorilla suit, with the director constantly warning him, “Mind the budget, you! We can’t afford even a single mangled model car!”

The British Army's marksmanship has sadly declined since the glory days of El Alamein

Accordingly, none of the several dozen extras hired to run away from the giant ape appear to be in much of a hurry or evince much in the way of terror. “Big ponce won’t spend the effort to step on me,” seems to be the general attitude. When the British Army arrives on the scene, they don’t bother moving the crowds back, as though they are unconcerned by the possibility that a few dozen folks might get trampled or have their heads removed by a stray bullet. Speaking of stray bullets, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry of WWII couldn’t have done a more effective job of denigrating the deadliness of Britain’s armed forces than the makers of Konga. As Konga – over a hundred feet tall, mind you, not a small target – poses immobile next to London’s Big Ben, the assembled infantrymen fire several hundred rounds of tracer bullets and rockets at the giant gorilla, from a range of perhaps fifty yards. Every single tracer shell sails harmlessly over the ape’s head or shoulders. Finally, once the filmmakers have apparently grown tired of this incredible display of ineffectuality, and with Stockman in the gorilla suit just standing there and waving an improperly scaled doll of Professor Decker limply through the air, the Army men correct their aim and bring the big gorilla down. The closing shot, the big climax? Through the magic of a blur filter being placed in front of the camera lens, the giant gorilla shrinks back to his original form – which turns out to be a stuffed toy chimp bought from the local toy store. They couldn’t have sedated an actual live monkey for the shot, or at least used a miniature that doesn’t look like it belongs in an infant’s nursery? Supposedly the special effects, among the first giant monster effects to be filmed in color (although Ray Harryhausen had done it to immeasurably greater effect three years earlier with his The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), took eighteen months to complete. What did they do in all that time? Obviously not build miniatures capable of fooling even a three-year-old.

FX horror or horrible FX? Willis O'Brien rolls over in his grave

The most cringe-inducing FX shot comes right after Barbara gives Konga his super-sized injection of growth serum. We get that blur filter again, and Konga shoots up to about twelve feet tall, tall enough to fill much of Decker’s laboratory. He picks up Barbara in his expanded paw – and she is obviously a two-foot-tall doll, of the kind little girls get for Christmas so they can practice styling its hair with miniature plastic brushes. This shot doesn’t last a half-second, which might have ameliorated its awfulness, but a full four or five seconds, which can’t help but make the most casual viewer wonder if the filmmakers were even trying. The worst traveling matte effect would have been an improvement over this travesty – Ed Wood-level filmmaking, but without Ed Wood’s unintentional humor.

Beauty and the beast, Hong Kong-style

After Konga (thankfully) came to an inglorious end, Netflix, as it is wont to do, suggested a handful of similar films I might enjoy. One of them was a giant ape-man movie I had never heard of, a 1977 Hong Kong production called The Mighty Peking Man. Oh, what fun! I told my son and my wife. This sounds even worse than Konga! We can have a competition to decide the worst giant ape movie of all time! And so we settled in for the second entry in our inadvertent double feature.

I went into The Mighty Peking Man with no preconceptions whatsoever – aside from an expectation that it would be cheesy and generally awful, judging solely from its awkward title and the year of its filming (1977 was simply not a golden year for pop culture). This turned out to be a delightful way to watch this movie, as virtually every five minutes brought a fresh surprise and gasp of appreciation for the momentous heights of fantabulous cheesiness scaled by this film. A little history is in order. The Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong rushed The Mighty Peking Man into production to capitalize on the worldwide giant gorilla craze sparked by Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 remake of King Kong, which introduced moviegoers to Jessica Lange. The picture, starring Danny Lee as an archeologist/adventurer and blonde bombshell Evelyn Kraft as a female Tarzan named Samantha, wasn’t released in the U.S. market until 1980, under the title Goliathon. However, nineteen years later, in 1999, this obscure film got a second release in the U.S. market, this time under its original name, thanks to the efforts of Quentin Tarantino, who worked with Miramax to rerelease it through his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company. At which point it earned a grand total of $17,368.00 in the theaters before being swept away into the Blockbuster bins. I can only assume it has performed somewhat better on home video and cable TV. It certainly deserves to be seen.

Mighty Peking Man, unlike Konga, delivers the goods

From beginning to end, this movie is a hoot to watch, without a dull moment. It displays, in spades, all the cinematic energy which the “horror” scenes of Konga so miserably lack. All the atmospherics work in its favor – its disco-era costuming and soundtrack, as well as its performers’ extroverted acting styles, give it the feel of a Blaxploitation film without Black people (which I’m sure helped to endear it to Quentin Tarantino, that famed fanboy of Blaxploitation). Plus, the filmmakers take the hint of flirtatiousness between Jessica Lange’s Dwan and Rick Baker’s Kong from the hit movie of the prior year and dial it up to eleven, going where no giant ape movie had gone before. Kuang Ni, the scriptwriter, combines the stories of King Kong and Tarzan. Rather than the Great White Hunter/Filmmaker bringing his Blonde Goddess to the Giant Gorilla’s lair, in this instance, a Great Asian Archeologist discovers a Blonde Tarzanna already comfortably ensconced with the giant ape-man in the Himalayan wilderness. Samantha’s parents had perished in a small plane crash near the home of the Mighty Peking Man, and the giant ape-man rescued the tiny child from the wreck and raised her, somehow providing her with a skin-tight animal-skin bikini to wear. Samantha has the ability to communicate with all the large animals in her domain, including leopards and tigers, and she is quite… uh, familiar with the Mighty Peking Man, who she calls Utam. There are a couple of scenes wherein she climbs into Utam’s giant paw and sinuously rubs her pneumatic body up and down his big index finger, as tall as she is, up and down, up and down, those big breasts, barely contained by that animal-skin bikini top, giving Utam a voluptuous manicure… well, I’m sure you get the idea. Sailed right over Judah’s little head, but not my wife’s head. Or my head. Jesus, I need a cold shower after typing that…

Mighty Peking Man's miniatures put those of Konga to shame

Alas, things do not end well for Samantha and her Utam. Archeologist Johnny, doing his best Carl Denham imitation, drags them away from their jungle paradise across the South China Sea so that Utam can be put on public display in Hong Kong. Utam puts up with this in amiable fashion until one of the film’s heavies takes a rude interest in comely Samantha and attempts to rape her – in a hotel room with an open window that just happens to be overlooking the stadium where Utam, in chains, is watching. Utam, to put it mildly, does not take this lying down. Sadamasa Arikawa and Koichi Kawakita, the special effects directors, then put on a hell of a good show. Their miniatures of downtown Hong Kong rival the best 1950s and 1960s work of Toho Studios and are superior to the model work deployed by Daiei Motion Picture Company in their 1960s Gamera movies. The Mighty Peking Man costume is very ugly, reminiscent of the green gargantua costume used in Toho’s 1966 War of the Gargantuas, but the effects men manage to make the mask express a wide range of emotions, and the actor in the suit uses his body language about as effectively and expressively as Haruo Nakajima does as Kong in King Kong Escapes or as Shoichi Hirose does as Kong in King Kong vs. Godzilla — all three giant ape performances being head and shoulders above Paul Stockman’s shameless sleepwalking through Konga. In a revealing parallel with the English-American coproduction, Utam throws his tormentor, Samantha’s would-be rapist, to the ground, just as Konga tosses Decker to the street – only the vastly more energetic Mighty Peking Man then crushes his victim with his giant foot.

Once the closing credits rolled, my supposed contest for the worst giant ape movie of all time ended up as no contest at all. The Hong Kong production is far and away the better movie (Judah and Asher both agreed). Are there any other giant ape movies out there that can rival Konga for wretchedness? I’ve already mentioned the Toho trio of giant ape movies, War of the Gargantuas and the two Kong flicks. I would place them all above Konga due to the quality of their miniature work, the expressive suit performances delivered by their gorilla actors, and their never-boring, endearingly goofy antics and plot turns. I would be tempted to pit Dino De Laurentiss’ King Kong against Konga for the title, since I truly disliked that film, even as a kid, but the high quality of Rick Baker’s performance as Kong uplifts his film and gives it the edge (had De Laurentiss been able to stick with his original plan to solely utilize his life-size King Kong robot for the Kong performance, then we would have a real contest on our hands).

QUEEN KONG, which is also in the running for Least Convincing Portrayal of a Dinosaur on Film

I’ve never seen Queen Kong, a 1976 British comedy which got embroiled in a lawsuit with Dino De Laurentiss and never received a general theatrical release, appearing only in limited release in Germany and Italy. Apparently the film has a cult following in Japan, where it has received entirely new Japanese dialogue, done in the spirit of Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?. Sadly, neither version of Queen Kong is available on Netflix. The photos and screen grabs I’ve been able to view online look truly dreadful, so this one might be credible competition for Konga.

A*P*E, South Korea's entry in the Worst Giant Ape Movie of All Time competition

I also hear that a South Korean production, A*P*E (1976), made, like The Mighty Peking Man, to gobble up some of the box office crumbs left over from the De Laurentiss King Kong, is epically bad. Judge for yourself from the pair of “special” FX photos I’ve so kindly provided.

An adaptation much superior to the original

Konga did not sleepwalk in vain, however. This wretched film spawned a far superior offspring in a different medium – Charlton Comics’ 1960-66 comic book series Konga, illustrated by Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man. In Konga, Ditko found a character perfectly suited to his unique style of illustration (I would argue that Konga is a better fit for Ditko’s style than even Spider-Man). He took a character virtually devoid of expressive qualities (see my comments above concerning Paul Stockman’s “performance” as Konga) and made him, by turns, whimsical, affectionate, lovelorn, lonely, playful, affronted, and vengeful.

Yes, the comics version had 500% more personality than the movie original

The series was popular enough to last twenty-four issues (the final issue was retitled Fantastic Giants), and it spawned a spinoff miniseries and two companion monster series at Charlton, Gorgo and Reptilicus, both also illustrated by Steve Ditko. Highlights of the series have recently been reprinted in the black and white collection, The Lonely One, which offers terrific reproductions of Ditko’s line art without the distraction of the inferior, crude coloring common to comic books of the 1960s. The stories are absolutely charming and are gorgeous to look at. I highly recommend hunting down either the original comics or the reprint collection.

Even though the final issue of Konga (actually Fantastic Giants) came out when I was a year old, I ended up with a copy as a young boy. My dad worked in a cardboard box factory, and the boxes were made from recycled paper. Knowing how much I loved comic books, he gave instructions to the workers on the factory floor that if they ever saw a comic heading for the shredding machine, they should pull it out and bring it to him. That’s how I ended up with a coverless copy of Fantastic Giants #24, which reprinted the origin stories of Konga and Gorgo, plus two new giant monster stories by Steve Ditko. How I loved that big, fat, 64-page comic! I virtually read it to pieces. I loved it so much that I drew my own cover for it to replace the cover it had lost. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, the real cover of Fantastic Giants #24 is reproduced below:

Oodles of fantastic Steve Ditko art for only a quarter!

For those of you who are big fans of Charlton’s monster movie comics of the 1960s, here’s a link to the mother of all reference articles on the subject, a treasure trove of arcane trivia. Enjoy!

New Interview Online

Levi and me at RavenCon in Richmond, VA

Mark Covington of the James River Writers group recently did an interview with me that he posted on the group’s site. The James River Writers group, centered in Richmond, Virginia, is a terrific organization which sponsors monthly readings and signings for regional writers and numerous workshops and social events. Here’s an excerpt from the interview, some comments about my daily writing routine:

“I do nearly all of my writing on my commuter train to and from my job in Washington, D.C. Before moving to Northern Virginia, I did all my writing in coffee shops. Having a cup of coffee handy is helpful.

“Also very helpful is writing on an old laptop or palmtop computer which doesn’t provide access to the Internet. I know myself too well; if I were to try writing on a computer which had Internet access, I would spend 90% of my writing time screwing around.

“I used to head into large projects with firm notions of only how to begin the book and how to end it. However, I’ve found that to be a dangerous system for me because I tend to over-write a good bit. If I don’t plot out my middle, I can easily end up taking a couple of years writing a 200,000 word manuscript which I then have to cut back by 40%. So, nowadays, I outline my books rather thoroughly before starting them. I allow myself to wander away from my outline whenever my imagination heads me in another direction, but I like having the outline there as a safety rope.”

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

Wolfbane
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)

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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

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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)
“Introduction,”
“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

Pohl + Kornbluth Part 5: Gladiator-at-Law

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Gladiator-at-Law
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

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

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

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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

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

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(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

Pohl + Kornbluth (part 1)

Cyril Kornbluth

Frederik Pohl


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Introduction

Most science fiction critics and historians would agree, I believe, that the most significant writing team in the field’s history, most productive of enduring, classic works, was the unfortunately brief collaboration between Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. Their collaboration had its roots in the friendship they shared during their teen days in the late 1930s (Pohl was born in 1919 and Kornbluth in 1923); it reached its zenith in the 1950s before being cut tragically short by Kornbluth’s death at the age of 34 in 1958. I would venture to say the only SF collaboration which has come close in significance to that between Pohl and Kornbluth was the team of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Niven’s and Pournelle’s collaborative novels, best sellers all, have sold many multiples the copies sold of Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s four SF novels (although Pohl has pointed out that The Space Merchants has been translated into twenty-five languages, and he estimates that in its various editions, it has sold about ten million copies — so maybe the sales discrepancy between Pohl/Kornbluth and Niven/Pournelle isn’t as big as you’d think). But Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s shared works have had a far greater impact on the field’s development and the writers who followed.

Science fiction has long been rich in collaborations, much more so than most other realms of fiction. I think this is due to the fact that, at least since the 1920s and the commercialization of science fiction as a genre with the founding of Amazing Stories, science fiction writers and fans (many of whom grow up to become writers themselves) have been intensely social with one another (at least relative to writers in other genres). Their earliest efforts to reach out to one another were through the letters columns of the early science fiction magazines. From these remote connections, they formed clubs, and those clubs, beginning in the late 1930s, began sponsoring conventions. A group of fans who called themselves the Futurians even established communal living arrangements in the depths of the Depression. An amazingly high percentage of the Futurians went on to become prominent writers and editors in the science fiction field. Two of the most active Futurians, in terms of writing, editing, and reportage, were Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth. They were also very close friends.

During the 1950s, beginning with The Space Merchants in 1952 (first published in shorter form as Gravy Planet in Galaxy Science Fiction), they published seven novels together. Four of these were science fiction; The Space Merchants was followed by Search the Sky (1954), Gladiator-at-Law (1955), and Wolfbane (1957 in Galaxy; reprinted in longer form by Ballantine Books in 1959). The first of their novel-length collaborations (they also published numerous short stories together) and the latter two are considered classics; all three have been reprinted multiple times. A collection of their shared short fiction, The Wonder Effect, was published in 1962, four years after Kornbluth’s death.

During their six-year period of intensive collaboration, they both published novels and stories outside of their team, either with other collaborators or singly. Kornbluth published two science fiction novels in collaboration with Judith Merrill, Outpost Mars (1952) and Gunner Cade (1952). He also published three solo science fiction novels, Takeoff (1952), The Syndic (1953), and Not This August (1955). During his lifetime, his short fiction was collected in several volumes, The Explorers (1954), The Mindworm and Other Stories (1955), and A Mile Beyond the Moon (1958). Pohl wrote the Undersea Trilogy with Jack Williamson, another frequent Pohl collaborator; these were Undersea Quest (1954), Undersea Fleet (1956), and Undersea City (1958). He also wrote Preferred Risk (1955) with Lester del Rey (which, according to Pohl’s lengthy recorded conversation with Alfred Bester in June, 1978, was a much less pleasurable and frictionless experience than his collaborations with either Kornbluth or Williamson). Pohl’s solo novels during this decade included Slave Ship (1956) and Drunkard’s Walk (1960), and his story collections included Alternating Currents (1956), The Case Against Tomorrow (1957), Tomorrow Times Seven (1959), and The Man Who Ate the World (1960).

None of the novels Pohl and Kornbluth wrote during the decade of the 1950s, either singly or in collaboration with writers other than each other, achieved anywhere near the acclaim accorded three of their jointly written novels, and none of them are much remembered or read today. Pohl went on to write other novels on his own, starting with Man Plus in 1976 and including Gateway (1977) and Jem (1979), which could be considered the equal of his best collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth. But these were written two decades or more after the books he did with Kornbluth, in a renewed period of novel writing which followed fifteen years of serving as editor for Galaxy Science Fiction, Worlds of If, and Bantam Books.

What made the Pohl-Kornbluth collaboration so magical? What skills and attributes did each bring to the team, attributes which meshed so well and so memorably together? Why were neither of them able to capture that same magic when working separately in the 1950s, at least not in long-form works? (They were more successful as soloists on short pieces; at least half a dozen of Kornbluth’s short stories can be counted among the best short science fiction of the 1950s, and several of Pohl’s short pieces from the decade are very highly regarded, as well.)

Fred Pohl has written frequently about his collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth, in his memoir The Way the Future Was (1978), his introductions to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976), Our Best: The Best of Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1987), and His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth (1997), and on his very entertaining blog, The Way the Future Blogs. Cyril Kornbluth, unfortunately, did not live long enough to leave us with reminiscences of his working relationship with Fred Pohl (Kornbluth strained his heart carrying a fifty caliber machine gun throughout the Battle of the Bulge and died of a heart attack fourteen years later, after shoveling snow from his driveway and then running to catch a train). In the articles to follow, I will review their joint work and compare it with some of their contemporaneous solo work. Between that effort and taking into consideration some of Pohl’s remarks about their collaboration and Kornbluth’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer, I’ll attempt to separate out the elements that they each brought to their shared works. In this way, I’ll try to illustrate their differing but complementary modes of craftsmanship and explicate the magic of their collaboration.

Next: The Space Merchants

The Good Humor Man Gets 9 Star Review

A very complimentary review of The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501 appeared recently on the Canadian book review site BilblioBabes. They gave the book nine out of ten stars. Some of the language in their appraisal was a bit salty, but I’ll quote below the Family Friendly bits:

“It’s very well done weirdness, I can tell you that much. Every bizarre element wound up having an integral part in the story, somehow. Which is actually mighty impressive when you consider that some key plot points are: Elvis Presley’s belly fat in a jar; a mysterious government funded wasting disease; a 500lb food Nazi and his clones; and a church dedicated to the cannula. Imagine, if you will for a moment, being heavily intoxicated and lying in a bed with 3 other people while trying to explain this book. …”

And yes, I know I’m being a bit overly prudish for the guy who posted a photo of a young (and perky!) Alice Krige’s secondary sexual characteristics in my recent review of Ghost Story. No need to write any snarky comments on my hypocrisy, my friends (although snarky comments do help make this website more fun)…

And thanks to all my readers up there in the Great White North!

Geezers and Ghosts

Ghost Story
Universal Pictures, 1981
Directed by John Irvin
Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Peter Straub
Starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Alice Krige, and Patricia Neal
Music by Philippe Sarde

I’ve been curious to see the 1981 horror film Ghost Story for a long time. I’ve always enjoyed watching films featuring major Hollywood stars of the Studio Age in their advanced years (personal favorites of the “geezer genre” include Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City and Melvin Douglas in Being There, with an appreciative nod to Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green). Ghost Story is replete with major Hollywood stars in their dotage; it was the final film for Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Melvyn Douglas, and it also features Patricia Neal, who was the most amazingly unearthly aspect of When the Earth Stood Still. This past week, Dara and I changed our TV programming providers from Verizon Satellite to Comcast; when I discovered that Ghost Story was one of the “free movies” included with our package, I insisted that we watch it.

Ghost Story was released a year later than Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, also an adaptation of a popular horror novel by a bestselling American horror author (Stephen King, rather than Peter Straub), and also involving spectral doings, deaths from decades past, and insanity played out against a wintertime backdrop. The Kubrick version of The Shining, whatever its debatable merits as an adaptation of King’s novel, still retains the capacity to spook and unsettle me, even after repeated viewings. Ghost Story, on the other hand, provided me with no chills at all. Which is not to say the film was not enjoyable; simply that it wasn’t scary.

Horror is an interest of mine, so I did a little thinking regarding why Ghost Story, despite the considerable acting talents involved, failed to register at all on the Scare-O-Meter (unlike earlier films involving hauntings, such as The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House, based on novels by Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson, respectively). The film’s failing to rouse any sense of fright or even unease in me wasn’t due to the performances (with one exception — in the 1920s flashback scene, when each of the members of the Chowder Club is piss-faced drunk, they all giggle like little girls, indistinguishable from one another, which is extremely weird, but not in the way director John Irvin intended, I’m sure). Fred Astaire has never been a favorite of mine as a dramatic actor (as opposed to a dancing and singing romantic comedy star), although he isn’t bad in Ghost Story, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is given regrettably little to do in his final film role (he gets killed off early). Craig Wasson plays a dual role, two brothers, one of whom is the film’s earliest (and most graphically slain) casualty. A face many viewers of a certain age will remember from extensive TV roles in the 1970s (including recurring roles as good-natured schlubs in The Bob Newhart Show and M*A*S*H), he is perfectly adequate for his role here, which doesn’t ask too much from him (probably the most grueling aspect of his performance is the lingering embarrassment he must’ve suffered over having his groin exposed in a bizarrely gratuitous flash of full-frontal nudity as he tumbles forty stories to his death after a supernatural shock sends him crashing through the window of his luxury apartment in Manhattan; I muttered to Dara, “Well, there’s your R rating right there”).

Two of the film’s performances are very good, however. Melvyn Douglas, far more so than any of his three venerable male co-stars, conveys very poignantly the helpless terror and shame of becoming physically debilitated by advanced age, and because he portrays that helplessness so well, the build-up to his death scene is much more gripping than the lead-ins to the deaths of any of the other male characters.

By far the best thing about the film (and maybe the only reason to watch it, unless you are a diehard fan of Astaire, Fairbanks, Douglas, or Houseman) is the performance of Alice Krige as Eva Galli / Alma Mobley. She is stunningly gorgeous in this film, both in the 1920s flashback scenes and in the modern day scenes, but she is no porcelain doll. She is able to combine an outer beauty with an inner ravenousness, an impetuous, unpredictable erotic hunger she shows both as a mortal and as a ghost. This inner intensity, which she whips out like a rapier from a hidden scabbard, grants Ghost Story its only flashes of creepiness, which are unfortunately batted aside by the combined, countervailing efforts of the director, the screenwriter, and the score’s composer. Interestingly, Krige would receive near universal critical acclaim for her only other genre portrayal, in the otherwise mundane Star Trek: First Contact. Her Borg Queen is every bit as unpredictable, sexually dangerous, and alluringly lethal as her Alma Mobley. She should have done more roles of this type; she can do everything that Tilda Swinton can do, but isn’t nearly as well known or active.

So given these promising elements (including a perfectly serviceable story and set-up), why isn’t the film creepier? One choice the director, John Irvin (mostly known for war and action films, as well as period dramas made for British television), made which unfortunately hasn’t held up well was to go for shock rather than suspense. He relied almost entirely for his horror on the work of his makeup artists and special effects prosthetics craftsmen. Their work may have served quite well to shock back in 1981, but, like much of the horror makeup and prosthetics work of the period, it hasn’t aged well, having been technologically overtaken, first by improved makeup and prosthetics, and later by CGI effects. Also, his decision to go for shock rather than the slow build of suspense meant that he pretty much abandoned any stab at ambiguity early on. We viewers know quite clearly that the Eva of the 1920s and the Alma of the present are one and the same person, and that this specter is haunting the male characters of the film. The film’s creepiness would have been heightened if, at least for part of the film, the Eva-Alma connection had been uncertain. I haven’t read the Peter Straub novel, so I can’t say how Straub handled this in the source material. Similarly, I don’t know whether several face-plantingly-stupid acts on the parts of the main characters have their basis in the novel or were introduced by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. Yes, it is stupid for Astaire’s, Houseman’s, and Wasson’s characters to go by themselves to the abandoned house once rented by Alma (particularly since Astaire and Wasson have already had run-ins with Alma’s psychotic mortal assistants in that same ruined house). But characters do stupid things in horror films; I can accept that, sort of. What I found unacceptable is that these three characters (at least one of whom, Houseman’s lawyer character, is supposed to be smarter than the average bear) take that risk for no discernable reason at all; they never say a word about what they hope to accomplish by going to the haunted house, aside from maybe running into the ghost that has already killed three of their friends and relatives. They just go, because the movie is entering its final reel and so must move on to some sort of a climax.

One of the biggest detriments to any build of a creepy atmosphere is the film’s score, which seems almost to have been written for another movie entirely. It would have been appropriate, perhaps, for a straightforward period drama, maybe one of the shows John Irvin directed for British television. But a film that needed a spare, subtle score instead was saddled with a richly orchestral, string-heavy score straight out of one of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley movies. I’m tempted to think French composer Philippe Sarde phoned this one in. After all, he was incredibly busy in 1981, writing the scores for five other films aside from Ghost Story: Tales of Ordinary Madness (based on the short fiction of Charles Bukowski), Beau-pere (a Gallic riff on Nabokov’s Lolita, very well done), Coup de Torchon (based on Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled thriller Pop. 1280), the romantic drama Hotel des Ameriques, and the caveman potboiler Quest for Fire (based on a 1911 Belgian novel). A very eclectic set of motion pictures. I think he got his scores mixed up and sent over the sheet music for Hotel des Ameriques to Ghost Story producer Burt Weissbourd. Oh, well; accidents happen.

A Cozy, Humane Apocalypse: On the Beach

On the Beach
By Nevil Shute
Original edition: Heinemann, 1957
Most recent edition: Vintage International, 2010
Original film adaptation: United Artists, 1959; produced and directed by Stanley Kramer; screenplay by John Paxton; starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins

How can a novel about the man-induced extinction of all higher life forms on Earth be a ringing affirmation of the decency of humankind?

This may seem a very difficult – indeed, a peculiar – trick to pull off. But Nevil Shute’s 1957 bestselling novel about the aftermath of an atomic war manages to do it, and in resounding fashion.

The novel’s plot is straightforward; no clever plot twists will claim the reader’s attention, and the inevitable end of all animal life on the planet higher than that of the insects is not averted in the final pages by some Act of God or Act of Science. Shute, writing in the mid-1950s, set his novel only a decade hence, in 1964. By that time, he postulated, even small, poor, formerly insignificant nations would have atomic weapons. Bulgaria drops the first atomic bomb of the one-month-long World War Three, which occurs entirely in the Northern Hemisphere. Egypt uses Russian-made bombers to launch an atomic attack on an American city, which the Americans mistake for a Soviet attack. The Americans retaliate. In quick order, the USSR and China are launching cobalt bombs at each other, seeking to extinguish one another’s populations in North-Central Asia. The resulting radioactive dust clouds wipe out all human and most animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. Atmospheric exchanges gradually draw the radioactive clouds into the Southern Hemisphere. About two and a half years after the one-month war, the only remaining survivors of humanity live in the southernmost parts of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. The survivors in Oceania will last the longest. When the novel begins, the residents of Melbourne, Australia are aware that the cloud is scheduled to reach them in less than nine months.

The novel primarily focuses on five characters: Dwight Towers, captain of the American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, which he has placed under the command of the Royal Australian Navy; Moira Davidson, a young Australian woman who becomes Dwight’s companion; Peter Holmes, an Australian naval officer assigned to the Scorpion as a liaison officer, and his wife Mary, who reside with their infant daughter in a suburb outside Melbourne; and John Osborne, Moira’s cousin, an Australian scientist who joins the crew of the Scorpion on the submarine’s reconnaissance mission to the west coast of the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii. As skillfully as each of these major characters is delineated, one of the novel’s primary pleasures is Shute’s brief portrayals of minor characters and how they cope with the coming end of the world. This panoply of character sketches adds greatly to the novel’s rich texture and gives weight to Shute’s ultimately optimistic vision of his fellow men.

In Shute’s novel, contrary to depictions of societal chaos in the preponderance of post-atomic war and apocalyptic fiction and film, civilization does not break down in the face of the coming extinction of humanity. Life continues on mostly as it did pre-war in Melbourne and its surrounding suburbs and farms, the main difference being a lack of petrol, which has necessitated the replacement of most automobiles with bicycles or horse-drawn carts (although the local availability of coal means that the electric trains and trolleys have continued to run). The other major difference, unremarked upon by any characters in the book but obvious to the readers, is an increased kindness and thoughtfulness, expressed in words and acts shared between friends, family members, merchants and customers, and strangers. Virtually all of the characters, major and minor, determine for themselves to carry on as best they can to the end, remaining as true as possible to their best selves and to whatever they view as their most central duties and responsibilities. It is this quiet heroism, heroism in a minor key – not simply stoicism in the face of impending death but a nearly universal decision to try to brighten the remaining lives around them and to face the end with shared decency – that gives a novel which would otherwise be unrelentingly grim and dispiriting a powerful, memorable surge of uplift. Through his skillful use of understatement, Shute provides uplift without schmaltz (a feat the film version only rarely manages). One has the sense that even those characters who do not expect themselves to be judged by God in an afterlife expect to be judged by themselves in their final moments, and they attempt to live their last months accordingly.

I came to love and respect each of the characters in a way I have rarely loved and respected fictional characters. Most of the characters manage to get through their days in reasonably good psychological shape through heavy reliance on denial. They tell themselves the radioactive cloud will fail to reach Melbourne, or that the “Jorgensen Effect” will cleanse the atmosphere of most radioactivity before too much air is recirculated between the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Australia, or that death will be merely a prelude to a return home to beloved family. But Shute shows us that his people are very self-aware of their use of denial, and they very gently and compassionately support one another in that therapeutic deployment of fantasy. Moira, who has never married nor ever been meaningfully in love, falls deeply in love with Dwight. Dwight, however, left a wife, Sharon, and two young children behind in Connecticut. His sense of honor and his still very much alive feelings of love for and commitment to his family do not allow him to consummate a romance with Moira, despite the very strong attraction he feels toward her, and his growing gratitude for her kindnesses and nobility of spirit.

When they first meet, Moira is almost continuously drunk, having no notion what to do with herself in the few months remaining to her. Yet her relationship with Dwight quickly matures her. Despite her overwhelming desire for him, she refuses to degrade him and herself by pushing herself upon him before his grief has expended itself (which, given the few months left to them, it never will). He keeps himself from emotionally falling to pieces by pretending that his family are still alive and waiting for him back in Connecticut. Moira mends Dwight’s shirts and sweater for him, telling him she wouldn’t want to send him back to Sharon looking shabby, and she helps him find a fishing rod and a rare pogo stick as gifts for his son and daughter, gifts that he stores in his tiny quarters aboard the Scorpion. To his credit, Dwight recognizes the emotional strain his decision to remain faithful to his dead wife is placing upon Moira. Each time they make plans to do things together, he asks her if she will be all right with things, meaning a failure to consummate their romance. Near the end, when they take a weekend trip into the mountains for the first days of the trout fishing season, they book two separate cabins. Yet neither allows the awkwardness of their situation to diminish their enjoyment of the beautiful scenery, the challenges of catching fish, and the camaraderie they experience with the numerous other guests at the cabins. Once the cloud of radiation has settled thickly onto the Melbourne area, and only hours of life remain for most, Moira asks Dwight if she may accompany him and his crew aboard the Scorpion while they take the submarine into international waters to scuttle her and end their own lives. Dwight, in a decision that may come across as cruel, opts to remain true to the regulations of the U.S. Navy and refuses her request; he is also concerned about being fair to his men, whom he had not allowed to bring their own girlfriends along. Moira does not hold this against him, recognizing that he is remaining true to his code, and that if he were to abandon that code, even at the very end, he would no longer be the same man she had fallen in love with. She finds a place on a bluff overlooking the passage to the open sea where she can watch the Scorpion pass by.

Moira is not the only major character to show extraordinary kindness under conditions of duress. Throughout the book, Peter indulges his wife Mary’s desire to improve their garden, despite the fact that neither of them will get to see their newly planted bulbs bloom or the newly planted trees mature. One of Peter’s last acts, after he has already begun suffering the symptoms of radiation sickness, is to drive into downtown Melbourne and find the garden swing she has wanted so badly, so that she might be able to look at it through the window of their apartment while confined to bed in her final hours. The argument between Peter and Mary which takes place before he ships out on the Scorpion‘s two-month-long reconnaissance, sparked by Peter’s gentle insistence that Mary know how to properly administer poison to their infant daughter should he fail to return and be unavailable to do it when the deadly cloud arrives, is made much more stunning in its impact because it is virtually the only violent emotional outburst in the entire book. (Mary’s character was ill-served by the 1959 Stanley Kramer film version. Under the dictates of John Paxton’s screenplay, newcomer Donna Anderson played Mary as a neurotic, unstable, immature woman, who does not achieve the grace exhibited by the novel’s Mary until the film’s closing scenes.) Even John, the major character with the fewest emotional ties and the most detached personality, tenderly takes care of his elderly mother in her final, ailing hours.

Adherence to duty, responsibility, and personal code of conduct is exhibited nearly across the board. Shute makes reference to weekend crowds in Melbourne who become riotously drunk and to street sweepers who abandon their jobs in the last weeks, allowing the streets of Melbourne to become filthy and putrid, but the writer does not dwell on these persons who let their community and their fellows down. Instead, he focuses on the trolley driver who insists he will drive his trolley until he is no longer able to, particularly after having already done so for thirty-four years; and on the dairy farmer who promises Peter to make home deliveries of milk to Mary and the baby while Peter is on the other side of the world. There is an amusing, and at the same time very touching, debate in the government over whether or not trout fishing season should be opened a month early. Should the government stick to its traditional calendar, the season would not open until several weeks after the radioactive cloud is expected to arrive. However, if they opt to allow early fishing, the stock of fish could be damaged. They eventually decide to allow the earlier date, with misgivings, but justify their decision as being “just for this one year only.” When Dwight realizes the time has come to scuttle the Scorpion, he issues a formal request to the First Naval Member to withdraw the submarine from Australian command and return her to the U.S. Navy (of which she is the last surviving operational vessel). The elaborate courtesies and formalities the two of them exchange as the senior surviving members of their naval establishments, which have enjoyed a long history of cooperation and fellowship, form a perfect capstone to Shute’s portrayals of the two men. I found this scene to be intensely moving.

Much of this focus on duty, compassion, and the forgoing of satisfaction of immediate desires in favor of remaining true to strongly held personal codes went by the wayside in Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation, apparently to the dismay of Nevil Shute. Kramer tailored the story both to what he assumed to be American audiences’ expectations of a romantic drama and to his own desire to forge an unambiguously antiwar message. The character of John Osborne (renamed Julian Osborne in the script) is changed from an Australian scientist to a stranded British nuclear scientist, who had formerly worked on the British atomic bomb program, this so that Fred Astaire could wallow in drunken guilt over his role in abetting the nuclear holocaust. Kramer and screenwriter John Paxton also opted to spice things up a bit by giving Julian and Moira a failed romantic past (in the novel, they are distant cousins, affectionate with one another but never having shared a romance). The biggest change from the novel is that Dwight and Moira, after a bit of hesitation on Dwight’s part, consummate their romance. According to film lore, Kramer was apprehensive that audiences would not buy Gregory Peck’s ability to resist Ava Gardner’s charms throughout the whole movie, and ticket buyers might leave the show feeling disappointed if Peck and Gardner were not shown to get it on. Peck, reportedly, sided with Shute but was overruled by Kramer. I could have done with the Gregory Peck of his earlier film, Roman Holiday, when he portrayed an American reporter in Rome who becomes entangled with a slumming European princess but who manages to remain a gentleman throughout, recognizing that her duties of state would not allow for a romance with an American commoner. Peck was an absolute natural to play the duty- and memory-bound Dwight Towers; that the film’s producer/director insisted that the cores of both Peck’s and Gardner’s characters be carved out and discarded was a shame.

This is not to say that the 1959 film is without its merits. Its black and white cinematography is crisp, effective, and consistently well framed; the film is a pleasure to watch. Kramer made the decision to move the scene of the Scorpion‘s crew’s discovery of the source of mysterious Morse code transmissions from a naval installation in Seattle, as portrayed in the novel, to an oil refinery in San Diego, a wise choice. The long shots of a sole sailor in a radiation protection suit running down the streets of the massive, abandoned oil refinery are silently eloquent of the strange, quiet death of civilization. Most of the supporting and minor characters are marvelously cast (avoiding the pitfalls, for example, of Fred Astaire’s and Anthony Perkin’s weak English and Australian accents and the absence of any attempt on Ava Gardner’s part to vocalize an Australian accent at all). Several of my favorite scenes involve Paddy Moran’s Stevens, the wine steward of a private club where Julian, Peter, and Dwight go to dine. Stevens is constantly having to right the portraits on the club’s walls of various British royals and military heroes, which go askew any time the doors are pulled shut. Near the film’s end, when he is the last person alive in the club, Stevens takes the opportunity, which he has obviously pined for through decades of service, to have his turn at the billiards table. Filmed without any background music, it is a shattering moment, much more emotionally affecting than the final scene Kramer chose to hit his audiences over the head with, a shot of an abandoned Salvation Army rally with a banner that reads, “There is Still Time… Brother!”

Two minor characters appear in the film who were not present in the novel: Admiral Bridie of the Royal Australian Navy, played by John Tate, and the admiral’s secretary, Lieutenant Osgood, played by Lola Brooks. I have read nothing that states this was the case, but I suspect Kramer included these two as a sort of apology and amends to Nevil Shute for bowdlerizing the characters of Dwight and Moira. Whenever the two appear together, there are hints of attraction between the admiral and his young, pretty female secretary. Once they have both begun to come down with symptoms of radiation poisoning, after Dwight has pulled the Scorpion from Australian command and there is nothing left to be done in the headquarters of the Royal Australian Navy, Admiral Bridie asks Lieutenant Osgood if she would like to be relieved of her duties and return home. She opts to stay at her post, saying there is no one waiting for her at her home, no husband or boyfriend or family. The admiral asks her if she would care to share a glass of wine with an old man. She says, “No, but I would like to have a glass of wine with you.” The few words and the lingering look that pass between them as they each sip from their glasses of wine speak volumes about the intensity of their mutual attraction and the forbearance each has shown and will show to the end. Neither will step over the line of proper conduct between a senior officer and his subordinate, but they absolutely smolder together. Watching the intensity of their quiet, understated interaction, this viewer was struck by an intimation of what could have been the relationship between Gregory Peck’s Dwight and Ava Gardner’s Moira, a truer reflection of Nevil Shute’s devastatingly poignant novel.

I have not seen the 2000 television version, made for Australian TV. From the description, it seems Shute’s conceit that civilization in the Melbourne area survives, mostly intact, up until the deaths of its inhabitants was done away with. Civilization ends brutally, just as it does in the Mad Max films. Perhaps this choice by the filmmakers, who obviously did not consider Shute’s vision of the end to be plausible, is an indication of how far our faith in the durability of our Western social order has fallen in the half-century since Shute wrote his book.

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