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July/August 2010
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by James Sallis

C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, by Mark Rich, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010, $39.95.

WHILE one of the great strengths of science fiction, and one of the attractions—for this reader as well as for many others—always has been its marginal, outlaw status, I've often lamented that, due to this marginality, we know so little about the field's history, and so much less about individual practitioners. Tell me everything you know about Henry Kuttner—I've got a minute or two.

No one paid much attention to them at the time.

Kuttner, Cyril Kornbluth, Robert Heinlein, Fredric Brown—these guys were selling tires out of the backs of their trucks, people, one eye on a penny a word, the other looking to see if they'd managed to change the world yet.

They were sure they were going to do that, you know, out there on the frontier one step ahead of the posse with two beans left for tomorrow night's dinner.

In their minds (and quite possibly in yours as well, since you're reading this magazine) they were heroes. And if they didn't quite change or save the world, they took a gangly, adolescent genre and ushered it, stumbling and stammering, toward maturity. They helped create new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing.

I've long been curious about C. M. Kornbluth, who seems from all evidence to have been one of the brightest stars of the early generation, revered by fellow writers and by editors, his loss at an early age universally 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.

There were appetizers, of course: in fan publications, in reminiscences from Judy Merril, Algis Budrys, Don Wollheim and others who knew him well, in Damon Knight's The Futurians and Fred Pohl's The Way the Future Was. And now we have the full meal.

Praise be to those with passion.

Passion is what it takes for a writer like Kornbluth to stay on the horse, to keep his cattle heading down the trail and deliver them again and again in the face of all adversity: bad weather, bandits, blithe disregard. Passion is what it takes for a writer like Mark Rich to take on years of research and the tough, plumber's work of turning out this biography dedicated to an obscure, forgotten artist. Never mind that it's a fine job, literate and imminently readable; it was, first of all, an awful lot of hard work. And then there is McFarland, who have published this beautifully produced, handsomely designed book.

Now, I do not know whether I will say that word, which was the last that Guru taught me, today or tomorrow or until a year has passed.
It is a word that will explode this planet like a stick of dynamite in a rotten apple.

—"The Words of Guru," 1941
Cyril Kornbluth died in 1958, collapsing of a heart attack as he waited on the platform for the commuter train into Manhattan, where he was to meet with Bob Mills, then publisher of this magazine. He had been shoveling snow that afternoon, and rushed to make the train. He was thirty-five.

By the time he reached his late teens, he was flooding genre magazines such as Astonishing Stories, Super Science Stories, Stirring SF, Future SF, Comet Stories, and Cosmic Stories with work under his own and various pen names. In all, there were at least ninety stories, with over twenty published in 1941 alone. No one is sure how many. Nor are we certain about the novels. There were a dozen above water, written solo and in collaboration with Judy Merril or Fred Pohl: The Syndic, The Space Merchants, Gladiator-at-Law, Gunner Cade, Not This August. In his introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976), Fred Pohl notes four mainstream paperback originals published under pen names, plus three upon which he and Kornbluth collaborated. At the time of his death Kornbluth was at work on a Civil War novel and had a contract for Dasius, a "bang-up yarn" (Cyril's own description) about the Roman soldier converted to Christianity, beheaded when he refused to participate in pagan rites, and ultimately canonized. The year before, which had seen such memorable tales as "MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie" and "The Last Man Left in the Bar," Kornbluth had also published an outstanding thriller, The Man of Cold Rages.

Rich begins his story, quite properly, with formation of the Futurians in 1938, one year after John Michel at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention called for "a rational outlook on the future" and "a new form of idealism, a fighting, practical idealism." The early emphasis on fandom, and the detailing of schisms among Futurians and other fans, may challenge the attention of the general reader. But most of that generation's writers arose from fandom; and this is (as it must be) as much a social history of commercial science fiction as it is a biography of Kornbluth. (It's notable, too, that biographer Mark Rich's championship of Kornbluth, which ultimately led to this book, first evidenced in his fanzine Kornblume: Kornbluthiana.)

The personal story of Cyril Kornbluth actually begins about page seventy-five, where he is reported saying to his parents "I want to leave college, leave home and write."

What becomes quite clear early on is the manner in which Kornbluth, hemmed in his entire life by physical debilities, financial crisis, and a burgeoning bitterness both at his sense of failure and the grievous faults of his fellow travelers—storms ever close on the horizon—nonetheless wrote (as Rich has it) "with increasing care and deliberation."

Was Kornbluth marked for life, physically and emotionally, by his wartime experience at the Battle of the Bulge, for which he was decorated? How could he not have been?

Was Kornbluth continuously distracted from what he wished to do, what he felt he could do, by the exigencies of his life: deadlines, scrambling for the next contract and check, bills and appointments and pain, a child with special needs? Of course he was.

Were his reliance on the marketplace and his drive to do great, enduring work in conflict? Of course.

And all that—being at the heart of his life—is what makes the story.

He could read the thoughts of the men quite clearly as they headed for him. Outrage, fear, and disgust blended in him and somehow turned inside-out and one of the men was dead on the dry ground, grasshoppers vaulting onto his flannel shirt, the others backing away, frightened now, not frightening.
At his leisure, he robbed the bodies of three dollars and twenty-four cents.

—"The Mindworm," 1950
The pot was boiling furiously all around Kornbluth. Astounding by 1939 had taken on new life with John Campbell's ascension to editor; A. E. van Vogt debuted there in July, Fritz Leiber and Robert A. Heinlein in August, Theodore Sturgeon in September. Astounding's sister magazine Unknown started up that same year. Alfred Bester's first story appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories. Futurians Pohl and Wollheim were at the helm of new pulps, and needing content.

As Mark Rich points out, Kornbluth's stories of the period mirror the field's increasing ambition and refinement; they also prefigure the signatures of all his mature work.

"Dead Center," for instance, pivots on the notion of the power behind, an entity that, out of sight beyond the curtains, controls everything. Here it's an ancient, technologically preserved old man; elsewhere, as in "The Marching Morons," an elitist group.

"The Words of Guru" and "Forgotten Tongues" deal in large part with the power of language. In others, that interest in language portends Kornbluth's fascination with advertising as a cultural marker, central elements in "The Marching Morons" and in The Space Merchants with congressmen representing not citizens but corporations, assassination of rivals as accepted business practice, addictive food additives, and a masterful corps of advertisers who pull the strings for all the puppets.

Many of these early stories, such as "Kazam Collects," center on the search for and acquisition of perilous knowledge, a theme that works forward with somewhat less mystical intonation to 1952's "The Altar at Midnight." Virtually a corollary to this theme of dangerous knowledge is that of the inability to return to "normal" life once having encountered, even fleetingly, other realities.

Most importantly, perhaps, we find Kornbluth's great divide: a hardline split between a dominant minority and a lower-class populace. It's here in "The Core," with its "superiors" and "ordinaries," or in "Forgotten Tongues" with its secret language, its Optimus Party, and its Lowers. And it would come forward into The Syndic (1953), the urban feudalism of "The Luckiest Man in Denv," and, of course, "The Little Black Bag" and "The Marching Morons."

Kind of a Morlock-Eloi thing, right? Tradition, rolling down the long halls of science fiction. Absolutely. But also the reflection of something implicit in fandom from the first, science fiction readers so often having thought of themselves as above the "mundane" and the preterite, a species of intellectual elite.

Clearly Kornbluth was reacting to the inordinate power that media and the mass culture were beginning to manifest in the late thirties and forties with the country's abrupt urbanization and radical changes in lifestyles. (See "The Advent on Channel 12" from 1958—oh, and honk if you love Disney.)

Quite possibly he was also addressing a great divide within himself, sneaking in by the back door a self-portrait of an ambitious intellectual writing commercial fiction to be sold in bus stations and on common newsstands—perhaps, invisibly, to change or to save the world?

Within a year or two of writing these stories, Kornbluth would be engaged in another, quite visible enterprise to save the world, as an infantryman in World War II.

Following the war, while also working profitably as a newswriter, Kornbluth turned his attention to mysteries and historical novels. His return to science fiction, when it came, was dramatic: "The Little Black Bag" in Astounding, "The Silly Season" in this magazine, "The Mindworm" in Worlds Beyond, all in the last half of 1950. "The Marching Morons" was on the runway at Galaxy, waiting to be cleared for take-off.

"Kornbluth was not the only writer to write stories of bitterness, quashed hopes, and disillusionment," Mark Rich notes of this period, "—and not always the writer on the scene considered to speak with the most deeply bitter of voices. He was, in many ways, simply one more writer within a larger literary scene, whose new work reflected the new times.

"Now, however, as of the end of 1950, he was also suddenly among the form's foremost practitioners."

Now that I'm a cranky, constipated old man.
—"Gomez," 1955
What, then, of the bitterness, this word that comes up again and again in reminiscences of C. M. Kornbluth?

Don Wollheim: "Cyril was so bitter in his last year that you knew that either the world would have to go away or he would. There was no compromise possible."

Little doubt that Kornbluth was a man driven to achieve, to produce, to excel. A man who perhaps expected too much, of himself and those around him; too much, finally, of the world.

Bitterness, yes. The bitterness of a man who saw his country, with all its grand promise, being commodified and sold off in pieces, its many heritages lost or waning, its spirit trivialized. The bitterness of a man who, peering into the well of his ambition, sees what little he has accomplished of all he intended, how poor a match are territory and map. Like old Dr. Full of "The Little Black Bag," Kornbluth felt the winter in his bones.

And all that—being at the heart of his life—is what makes the story.

Mark Rich: "Cyril Kornbluth was not himself inexhaustible, as his life surely demonstrated. Yet he had it within himself to produce works that—as pieces of writing, as works of art, as expressions of a life, of an outlook, of an intellect and a heart—are themselves richly, deeply, surprisingly and rewardingly inexhaustible." One can only hope that this biography will bring a fresh and richer attention to the work, will lure new readers out to the barn to look at Kornbluth's amazing livestock.

Young is relative, of course, but we remember other losses: Robert E. Howard gone at age thirty, Stanley Weinbaum at thirty-three, Charles Beaumont at thirty-eight, Henry Kuttner at forty-three. We don't know what any of them might have gone on to write, but we know beyond any doubt that, on that commuter train platform in 1958, with Cyril Kornbluth's death, the loss was huge—to the genre, to that bag of rattling oddments we call literature, and to every one of us who works in solitude and in silence here behind these strange machines.

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