A Sense of Something in Him

George Zebrowski

C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, by Mark Rich (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, 2010, 9780786443932) 439 pp. Paper, $39.95.


Cyril M. Kornbluth, born in New York City in 1923, was educated at City College and the University of Chicago; received a Bronze Star for infantry service as an army machine gunner in Belgium, France, and Germany during World War II; married Mary G. Byers in 1944 (reportedly the “M” in his byline), with whom he had two sons; worked for Trans-Radio Press in Chicago from 1949–1951; and became a freelance writer from 1951 until his sudden death in 1958 from hypertension and lifelong heart problems that were worsened by his wartime exertions. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, as did his colleague, Philip Klass (writer William Tenn); both saw the results of Nazi atrocities.

He received a Hugo Award in 1973.

In C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, Mark Rich writes:

Important to realize, in understanding Kornbluth, is that while he was unusual, exceptional, and a solo brilliance, he was also in many ways representative of his chosen field . . . because of the experiences he went through, which were the defining ones for his generation; because of the wrongs he suffered; because of the difficulties he labored beneath; because of the frustrations, meager rewards and constant pressures to which he was subjected—all of which were aspects of his life that were thoroughly of his times.

Growing up during the American economic depression and surviving the Second World War, anti-Semitic prejudices, and the usual disgraces of becoming a writer and making a living at it—unchanged since the times of Herman Melville—did not deter Kornbluth. He was fortunate to write science fiction in a time of increasing literary maturity among its writers and a growing general respect for it fueled by technological developments (ironically brought by the atomic bomb and military rocketry). He also managed contributions to the noir crime novel of the 1950s and wrote for television’s early science-fiction programs.

He collaborated with Judith Merril on two well-reviewed novels, Gunner Cade (1952) and Outpost Mars (1952). Of his four collaborative novels with Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants (1953), satirizing advertising and consumerism, brought the greatest attention. His solo novels, Takeoff (1952), The Syndic (1953), and Not This August (1955), were admired by readers and the respected reviewers Algis Budrys and Damon Knight, among others. Takeoff was runner-up for the International Fantasy Award.

But Kornbluth’s finest work may have been in the shorter forms. “The Words of Guru” (1941), the precocious work of a teenager, was the first to be published under his own name. “The Marching Morons” (1951), perhaps his best-known story and voted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame by his fellow writers, looks to our dumbed-down world of today, later anticipated so fiercely by Philip K. Dick. “The Little Black Bag” (1950), a much-reprinted classic and a second Hall of Fame inductee, was adapted for television. In the words of a colleague, his elegant style shows us that he simply did not know how to write badly. Rich writes:

An impassioned curiosity takes hold of readers when they encounter Kornbluth’s work. The stories brightly entertain with rapier wit; they bewitch with stylistic and structural sophistication; they disarm with their lack of pretense; they charm with their backstreet cadences and their Everyman and Everywoman voices. They talk readers into accepting, however briefly, subversive and sometimes outrageous ideas; for they convince eye, ear, and mind of their veracity. Each sentence of every story conveys the sense of having been penned under the pressing need to bear witness. The sense of intense vision, even of urgent vision, remains undiminished by the passage of time.

Several reference works in recent decades have offered lists of science fiction’s “hundred best novels” onward from 1818’s Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; others list books from the last fifty years or so, proclaiming novels that have gone through a critical shakeout and sifting. But the curious result of this process is that for every such roll call of canonical titles, a parallel list might be drawn, title for title, with perhaps a dozen titles eligible from every decade of the twentieth century, with every entry having a reasonable case for inclusion, embarrassing judgments, and contrariness to the point of critical collapse and absurdity.

Further complicating the problem is the fact that some authors did their best work in shorter forms yet are judged by their novels; even more of a problem is the possibility that the short-form authors’ works may be superior to the novelists’ in content, execution, and significance. This last quality is of great importance, given the censorious tendency of commercial publishing with its demands for entertainment, in what is a highly critical form of writing in which everything is up for examination—past, present, and future—yet is so often reduced to adventure fiction and catering entertainment, as much by commercial demands as by the self-censorship of authors who need to eat. Much of the difficulty of defending science fiction may be suggested by asking whether it is possible to complain about the trivialization of science fiction—more an attitude than a genre—and be understood. The question hovers between the hopeful and the rhetorical.

Rich’s biography of C.M. Kornbluth calls our attention to a major writer who has been somewhat neglected by science-fiction readers and nearly invisible to the traditional literary culture, although Kornbluth is not alone in this. This “magisterial biography,” in Robert Silverberg’s words, benefits from a new dawning in which science fiction has permeated general culture, from its most commercial and popular forms to the heights of artfulness and poetic sensibility. Kornbluth is one such rediscovery, perhaps only a step behind Dick, cut short by an early death but still shining.

 

Some of science fiction’s reach and grasp, so often disguised by commerce (inevitable in a capitalist post-feudalism of corporate masters, vassals, and slaves in all but name) has always produced confusion and derision among literary critics and academics; but the disrespect has long been fading, as demonstrated by this biography and recent ones about Judith Merril, Robert Heinlein, and James Tiptree. The literati’s views have been scattered and shown to be incoherent, and the denials voiced by the great ones like Alfred Kazin are rarely defended. They came and went without noticing science fiction hoisting itself through its numerous practitioners, throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, into artfulness and serious content well beyond that of contemporary fiction. “Rooted as they are in the facts of contemprary life,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “the phantasies of even a second-rate writer of modern science fiction are incomparably richer, bolder, and stranger than the Utopian or Millennial imaginings of the Past” (Science and Literature, 1963). Even the field’s writerly shortcomings have never been worse than the failings of all fiction. A circle-the-wagons defensiveness that was once productive (as it was in the development of jazz and rock) has been set aside by the many gifted writers who never went west with the original settlers. The entrance of Dick and H.P. Lovecraft into the Library of America volumes confi
rms decades of rise and final triumph, with more to come as hindsight lifts the blinders from past detractors.

Two notices for Rich’s biography point to how much more can be said about Kornbluth. Silverberg (“Rereading Kornbluth,” Asimov’s SF Magazine, December, 2010), wrote:

The Rich book, 439 large, densely packed pages, is the product of fifteen years’ research. It follows this short-lived genius from his birth in 1923 through his adolescence as a science fiction fan, his eerily precocious ventures into writing, his boyhood friendships with such later great figures of the science fiction world as Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Damon Knight, Isaac Asimov, and Donald A. Wollheim, his arduous military service in Europe during World War II, and his glorious though troubled post-war career as a first-rate science fiction writer, on to his miserably early death, on a railway station in a suburb of New York, after he had overexerted a heart that most probably had been damaged by the stress of his military life. It’s a fascinating, chilling story, full of marvelous gossip about the science fiction world of the forties and fifties, some of it new and startling even to me, though I was part of that scene myself during the last four years of Cyril’s life (and was one of the many sources interviewed for the book).

Notes covering the vast sourcing of this book fill the oversized pages 383–439. Pohl’s material is drawn from his own papers and letters at the Special Collections Research Center of the Syracuse University Library.

James Sallis’s review in the July/August 2010 Fantasy & Science Fiction, an especially insightful look at Rich’s biography, points to the central importance of Kornbluth’s work:

I’ve long been curious about C.M. Kornbluth, who seems to have been from all the evidence one of the brightest of the early generation, revered by fellow writers and by editors, his loss at an early age lamented. Yet I knew almost nothing about him, had little but the stories and novels themselves and the sense of something in him, some engine or edge to his life, thought and work, that set him apart.

Rich’s biography shows us what that “something in him” turned out to be: a man and science-fiction writer. I say “science-fiction writer” because writer though he was, being a science-fiction writer put him on the shores of this most critical of human literatures, planetary, historical, and ahistorical in its reach, whose loyalties lie with civilization and with the mind and not even necessarily with the human species. The war sharpened Kornbluth’s critical intellect and darkened much of his outlook on the future, which for a science-fiction writer must always swing between utopian and dystopian hopes as the evidence justifying hope or despair in his or her times permits.

As the biography wends its way through the exigencies of a writer’s life—with all its drops, tugs, and soarings, and Rich’s insightful readings of Kornbluth’s short fiction and novels, especially the nearly forgotten but extraordinary pseudonymous contemporary novels—we arrive at the heart of Kornbluth’s work as he found his way with a growing deliberation to the “moral stance” so well-presented in the four-page final chapter of this book. As Kornbluth reached this outlook, his peers thinned out before a crafted style and a thinking outlook that can only be compared to Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, or Jonathan Swift.

 

Nearly three decades after his death, NESFA (New England Science Fiction Association) Press published His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth in 1997, and it remains in print today. His collaborative novels with Frederik Pohl come and go from print repeatedly, but Kornbluth’s solo novels have been nearly forgotten, as have his pseudonymous contemporary novels, which are worthy of attention. Rich offers an extensive bibliography of commentary on Kornbluth’s life and work and lists all his novels and stories with their titles and bylines, complete with sources for readers to search out and explore.

When I was hospitalized as a teenager, I received a package of books from the Science Fiction Book Club. One of them was A Mile Beyond the Moon, still a distinguished collection and a collector’s item today. I knew soon after that Kornbluth was not like the others and that one day I might want to write about his work. Rich has done the job for all of us in what may well be a chapter out of Barry Malzberg’s keenly envisioned and hoped for True and Terrible History of Science Fiction, which no one will ever write.

Those of us who write science fiction with high ambitions, not for money but for the challenge of the imaginative attitude we love and respect, must look to the example of Kornbluth (and too few others) for the critical stance inherent in science fiction.

As I finished the last chapter of Rich’s biography, I glimpsed the centrality of Kornbluth’s concerns and the centrality of science fiction’s “moral stance”—a concern for the future. Rich shows us how Kornbluth, along with his colleague Klass, accomplished the interplay of their life experiences with their art.

And then this biography shot me through the heart with its final chapter.

“The good of it,” in Klass’s words, came to the civilians of Germany; they did not fight, but they benefited. “And when they told me that they were not Nazis, they had nothing to do with it,” soldier Klass wrote, “I told them, ‘Yes, but you had the good of it, you had the food that was stolen from all over Europe.’ All over Europe there were kids with spindly shanks and long, bony faces. You got to Germany, you saw plump kids for the first time.”

“The good of it” came to Klass when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he, like Kornbluth, would not fight in the Pacific, but both came home with saddened eyes and looked to the future in their works.

For me, “the good of it” came when my parents, kidnapped from Poland and enslaved by Germany in their teen years, met and married after the Allied liberation and brought me to the United States, where we benefited from being young and white in a country built on invasion, slavery, and Native American genocide.

The moral stance admits and accepts the responsibility of benefit from the misery and deaths of other human beings, of refusing to lie to yourself by saying, “Before my time,” “I never owned slaves,” and “I killed no Indians”; of refusing to make a new compact with past crimes by ignoring their ills; and even more important, refusing to say, “I’ll be dead by the time the worst happens,” or “Let people worry about things a hundred years from now.” This last refusal marks the true science-fiction’s writer concern with the future.

We are all guilty in this world—except that some admit it and take the moral stance; you either achieve it or live blind and pass it on blindly. Well, yes, that’s most of us, isn’t it? Yes, there are degrees of knowing, degrees of what is possible for an individual to know. Kornbluth and Klass went to war and opened their eyes. Mark Twain traveled the world to pay his bills and saw that there were intelligent people all over, of all colors.

To know, truly, deeply—that is the moral stance and the first great step to change; it is the most positive weapon we may ever have a chance to use and the most difficult to wield. This was the “sense of something in him” that lived in Kornbluth.

And how far commerce distances science fiction from what
it should be, encouraging gratuitous, pointless extravagance rather than provoking thought and encouraging creative change. In the last chapter of this rich and meticulous biography, Klass mentions the few writers who have avoided the trivialization of science fiction by taking up the moral stance; too many still do not.

In Thanks

Mark Rich’s biography reminded me of how many members of the Futurian Society (the club to which Kornbluth belonged that existed from 1938–1945) and their associates later became influential novelists, editors, anthologists, editors, and publishers who helped me in one way or another. Donald Wollheim and Frederik Pohl published my first novel; James Blish, Judith Merril, and Isaac Asimov contributed to my amateur magazine; Asimov praised my 1979 novel, Macrolife, and encouraged my science writing; Damon Knight and Pohl rejected my early stories with insightful comments; Virginia Kidd, my first agent, edited and retyped an early story that would have been much worse otherwise; Algis Budrys, my distant Eastern European kindred soul, always seemed wary of praising me but then did.

And there is also Cyril M. Kornbluth, whom I never met but whose stories and novels gave me all that I needed and whom Asimov believed was the most brilliant writer of the group.

We never stand fully alone.

George Zebrowski

George Zebrowski is an award-winning novelist, story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and lecturer, with work in Nature and World Literature Today , among many other publications.


C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, by Mark Rich (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, 2010, 9780786443932) 439 pp. Paper, $39.95. Cyril M. Kornbluth, born in New York City in 1923, was educated at City College and the University of Chicago; received a Bronze Star for …

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