C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary

By Hassler, Donald M. | Extrapolation, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary


Hassler, Donald M., Extrapolation


The Noble Role for SF. Mark Rich. C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2010. 451 pp. ISBN 9780786443932, $39.95 pbk.

Reviewed by Donald M. Hassler

I write this review with some sadness shortly after the death of Fred Pohl, who survived his friend and co-worker by over half a century. As we know, Kornbluth and Pohl both began to work very young as writers and might have borne as their common motto the famous statement from Keats' letters: "what, if I live, I hope to do." And, like Keats, both triumphed over mortality and did very much in spite of the gradient in duration between their two stretches of activity. This excellent book by Rich makes it clear over and over how active Pohl was and how fine and careful a writer Kornbluth had become in the short time allotted to him. There is much else in the book on the whole circle of writers around the Futurians, as they called themselves, from Asimov and Wollheim to Judith Merril and James Blish. It was truly a seedbed for modern sf, and Rich touches on most of the seeds here. The interesting yoking and dynamic of Kornbluth and Pohl, however, may be most representative both of the Futurian program (for sf and for fandom) and of how writing and literature, indeed, may be a breeding ground for new developments-even the evolution of culture.

Kornbluth was only fifteen and Pohl three years older when the "Futurian Science Literary Society" held its first organizational meeting in Manhattan on 18 September 181938 and the turbulent history began of trying to make fandom and stories themselves practical and instrumental in social progress. These teenage writers loved the literature produced in the pulp magazines, but they were serious activists too. They labeled their political purposefulness "Michelism" after an original member, John Michel, who was the most adamant about Marxism of the time and about "the people." By early 1957, just a little over a year before his death, Cyril Kornbluth gave a speech at the University of Chicago, later published in The Science Fiction Novel (edited by Basil Davenport) in which he lamented the failure of sf as social criticism. He said he did not want their work to be socially impotent but acknowledged some glimmer of hope for Michelism, noting that The Space Merchants (1952) had received a long review in The Industrial Worker. The novel, of course, is a collaborative work by Pohl and him. So the story between those two poles- almost two "Pohls," to allow myself the cheapest of puns-is fascinating. It is one of the key rich stories in this valuable book. I ought to have posted my review of the book when it first appeared from McFarland. But in a way, I am glad I delayed in order to get a deeper perspective.

We have come to understand that at least two forces are necessary for active evolutionary development: on the one hand, a rich and even massive proliferation of detail and possibility, and on the other, a selection and survival process. Kornbluth learned to focus and to hone his major satiric motif, which Rich identifies as irony in the face of attacks on "the people" by large and powerful conglomerates. It was the combination of the fascist juggernaut that he fought against as an American infantryman as well as the high technology of the bomb that helped him focus this sense of the haunt of the conglomerate. Another huge conglomerate force was simply the commercial and word power of the hackish writer as Kornbluth knew that power. From the start, the Futurians believed in collaborative writing. Several of them continually positioned themselves as editors and agents for saleable stories. …

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