Best of the Best Part 1
The Dark Visions of
C.M. Kornbluth

By Mark Ricard

C.M. Kornbluth is widely known for his collaborations with novelist Fredrick Pohl on the several novels, beginning with The Space Merchants (1953), a satire of the advertising industry.

While it is certainly a good work, I thought the book played it to safe. The story felt like something from an old Hollywood movie: too light and too neatly tied up. But “light” is one of thing the stories in this collection would not be accused of.

Cyril M. Kornbluth was something of a child prodigy – he graduated from high school at 13 and sold his first story at 16 -- and a writer from the science fiction's golden age of the 1940 and 50s. He and his close friend Fredrick Pohl were fellow members of the New York based science fiction fan club called the Futurian society. At 13 he started college but was kicked out for leading a student protest. After leaving college he became a writer until being drafted into World War Two. Afterwards he lived in Chicago and became a Journalist for a short time. He went back to writing science fiction in the early fifties where his darker more cynical views found a home in Horace Gold's Galaxy magazine. He died at the very young age of 34 from a heart attack brought on from shoveling snow.

Most of Kornbluth's novels were written in collaboration with other science fiction writers, especially his good friend Pohl. However his best work is probably in the short story form. In Pohl’s introduction to this collection, he explains that Kornbluth wrote for brevity. That is certainly true if you look at the table of contents. Many of these stories are quite short. That is perhaps a reason Kornbluth is not as well known today. The market for science fiction today is novel oriented as it has been for quite some time now. But in Kornbluth's day it was magazine oriented. More importantly Kornbluth was a better writer of short stories than he was a novelist. A book like this shows him at his full strength.

The Stories

This is a best of collection but the quality of the stories varies. Some of these stories seem to have been included for historical reasons. The first two in the collection, "The Rocket of 1955" and the "The Words of Guru", [1939 and 1941 respectively] are from very early in Kornbluth's career. And neither is very good. The first however shows some of the themes that he would develop later on with a story of swindlers trying to sell a fake rocket launch. Deception and con men are themes running through these stories. The problem here is the story is too brief to develop much plot or make the reader care about the situation. The Second is a fantasy story. A run of the mil tale about a boy who gets magical powers and uses them for evil. Nothing terribly original but not bad. Both seem to aim for shock value than anything else. No insightful observations or interesting people, which make his later stories great are found here. They are the only pre-World War Two stories in the book. The rest date from 1949 to 1958.

The next story is the first strong story in the collection. "The Only thing we Learn" from 1949,is a uniquely told story about why societies decay throughout history. You might not agree with Kornbluth but it is well told. I say it is a good not a great one. This makes many best of collections but it seems to lack the power of his best stories. The next one is "The Adventurer". How does one create a dictator who overthrows a bad government? If he could do this what be the results? This is a interesting idea with a very downbeat ending. Not a particularly surprising ending but a good one still.

"The Little Black Bag" tells the story of a doctor who has become a skid row alcoholic. A bag from the future comes into the present day and the ex-doctor uses it to make himself rich. Of course, things do not go as planned... It starts out good but is weaker in the end. This is also true of "Gomez", this is a story about a reporter who discovers a Latin-American teenage prodigy. It is well told but Kornbluth could have done more interesting things with the idea instead of the simple twist he provided.

"The Luckiest Man in Denv" was alright but little else. It may have influenced J.G. Ballard's novel High Rise. "The advent of Channel 12" is another one that does not quite work. Maybe it is just the author's taste. It is the shortest story in the book, but still should have been omitted. The final short short that does not work is "The Last Man in the Bar". This time the problem is the ambiguity of the conclusion. Maybe I just did not understand it.

"Dominoes", is another just ok story. It is about stock market manipulation and time travel. However the twist ending is easy to see for a reader familiar with science fiction. Another story like this in the decent but obvious ending category is "Friend to Man" Here a criminal gets his comeuppance in a unusual way on an alien planet. He almost learns to become a better person but….. read the story.

"The Silly Season" is an interesting twist on the alien invasion theme. It is also way ahead of its time with the idea of tabloid newspapers making stories about UFOs to sell newspapers. What makes this so well told is the science fiction element is entirely off stage. We never see the aliens. We only the events of the year from the eyes of a dishonest reporter. A good story.

Another story from the same year is "The Mindworm". Part science fiction part horror ,it is clever and eerie vampire story, told mostly from the point of view of the mutant/vampire himself. "The Remorseful" is a take on the last man in the world theme. Rather bland but short. It makes an interesting contrast to the superior "Mindworm" because it also has a supernatural element to it. The reason is one develops a single theme while the latter one tries to do two things at once and in a very short number of pages. Hence it does not work as well. The horror science fiction blend would soon be used other new writers such as Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumount.

"With these hands" is about how art and the artist are becoming obsolete due to technology. It is more relevant today than ever. The choice made by the lead character is both believable and sad. It could have been developed further but Kornbluth makes his point and chooses to end his story there. Science fiction has done a number of stories about technology and the creative arts – this is a very good one.

"The Marching Morons" is perhaps Kornbluth's most famous story. It is also one of his darkest. An advertising man from the fifties who was frozen cryogenically is accidentally brought back to life. He finds that the majority of Earth is inhabited by people who are literally morons. The more intelligent higher ups run society but find these people a burden. The ad man offers a solution that is devious and ruthless. Does he get away with it? The story is deeply cynical. Some are not sure on whose side Kornbluth was on. However it is safe to say the story does have someone who can be called a villain.

"Shark Ship" is another dystopian vision of the future. Most of America and other countries have adopted a puritan-like code of ethics -- Victorian but also very big on violence, with mixed results. The groups of society who did not want to follow this path have been living on ships for the last century. When one of them can no longer function independently the heads of the ship go to land to see what happened. The story does not offer any resolution to the problem. Kornbluth shows how corrupt this new repressive society has become. New York is a shadow of its former self. But what is going to happen to the ship culture is not shown. Still this is a powerful work that is not hurt by this. A well written cynical tale.

"The Altar at Midnight" tells the story of a rich man who hangs around seedy bars and mingles with the dregs of society. He befriends a younger fellow and former astronaut and spends the evening drinking with him. Nobody knows why he goes out and searches for these people. This is almost a ritual with him. An excellent story about guilt and moral responsibility. And maybe a sign of hope for humanity that is rarely seen in Kornbluth's work.

Finally we come to the last and longest story in this collection, "Two Dooms". I find this story interesting on a number of levels. It is as Pohl says one of the earliest visions of would happen if the allies had lost World War Two. It very well could have influenced Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle which came out four years after this. In fact it makes Dick's book look downright sunny by comparison. The use of drugs as a means of time travel is another aspect that presages Dick, whose 1966 novel Now Wait For Last Year used the idea of an experimental drug that allows people to travel in time. The plot of this novella is that a scientist working on the atomic bomb is having second thoughts. He sees and lives what the future would be like. Despite enjoying this story, I felt its history was questionable. The Allied forces had already won in Europe and were near victory on the other side. Atomic weapons may have hastened the fall of Japanese Military but were not a deciding factor. Regardless of how you question this Kornbluth tells a very compelling story. It is probably the darkest of all the dark visions in this collection. A classic story and the perfect send off for this collection.

Final Analysis

A few stories in this collection are classics. I include "The Marching Morons", "Two Dooms", "With these Hands", "The Altar at Midnight", "The Silly Season", "The Mindworm," and maybe "The Adventurer". Others like "The Only Thing we Learn" and "The Little Black Bag" and "Shark Ship" are close to classic stories. The rest are rather decent but unremarkable science fiction of their era. If you omit the first two stories it is roughly split between the classics and near classics on end and the average stories on the other. The good stories are good enough outweigh the bad in the end, especially "Morons", "Two Dooms", and "Altar". If you like upbeat science fiction this collection is not for you. If you like more technically oriented science fiction you will also be disappointed. Kornbluth did not write about heroes. He wrote stories with a social and political bent, like his often collaborator Fred Pohl. Kornbluth was almost certainly more of a pessimist about human nature than Pohl. That along with his preference for short stories probably kept him from the wider recognition he deserved in his short life. Here we have a collection of what he was capable of when he was at his best.

Mark Ricard

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