01/03/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
C.M. Kornbluth: The Life And Works Of A Science Fiction Visionary by Mark Rich. pub: McFarland. 439 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 35.50 (UK), $39.95 (US) . ISBN: 978-0-7864-4393-2.
check out websites: www.mcfarlandpub.com and www.eurospanbookstore.com
The new generation of Science Fiction readers might not have heard of C.M. Kornbluth. Considering that he died in 1958, the year after I was born, that might not be surprising. He died young, was a prolific writer and probably known more for his collaborations with Frederick Pohl than his solo work. Try their joint work, ‘The Space Merchants’ (aka ‘Gravy Planet’) to see some quality and often humorous work. Oddly, it had nothing to do with outer space but the future of advertising, as both of them had worked in the industry at the time and wound it up in a brilliant future satire which is actually getting near the truth these days. I still use the coffiest gag as a demonstration of advert manipulation.
Reading this book, you not only learn about Cyril Kornbluth’s early life but the start of American Science Fiction fandom and the clique group he belonged to, The Futurians. Considering how so many of this group went on to become famous writers and editors, it’s amazing they stayed together for so long although the dissent, mostly on politics and egos, did splinter some of them off.
Kornbluth was more an infant terrible considering his young age of sixteen when joining them compared to the other Futurians and needed to make an impression with whomever he met, often hitting the likes of Ray Bradbury and Forest Ackerman in the stomach when he first met them. He was also deemed a lousy speller but a prolific interesting writer resorting to various pen-names. There’s some insight with when Frederick Pohl became an editor that with collaborations Pohl took a 60/40 cut and often a little more if the work needed intense proofing although this did change over time. This was also in the American Depression and if you wanted to earn as a writer then you had to put stories out there and hope an editor liked your work.
There’s a lot of insight into the people at the time. Forest Ackerman was the first to use fancy dress at a convention and it grew into a fancy dress parade in a few years where even the likes of EE ‘Doc’ Smith and his daughter took part.
The insights to the American draft for World War II where the soldiers were trained in one thing and then sent somewhere totally different with no suitable background we would call serious mismanagement let alone incompetency these days. I love the line on page 117 paraphrasing here that they were allowed to choose what they did in the army even if you didn’t get to do what you chose.
A demonstration of how prolific a writer Kornbluth was came from his day job of writing 15,000 words a day for a radio company and still going home to write stories which would most of us to shame today. The depth of his imagination comes when Kornbluth points out a truth that not creating a new reality with each story as being lazy.
I should point out that this book is warts and all which ensures that not only are you told what is going on but from different perspectives. For instance, Kornbluth as an aspiring Robert Silverberg explains was very encouraging at the start of his career but equally he would often be short with fans. Certainly, Frederick Pohl doesn’t come out in a good light and it’s made me think me think a lot about their collaborations since reading this book. Kornbluth collaborated with various writers during his life, including Judith Merril (which has prompted me to see out her autobiography for a different perspective), so they must have needed to learn something from their experience with him, even if it was how to be so prolific.
There is a lot of insight into various people like publisher Horace Gold being an agoraphobic but the one that gels the more with me is publisher Ian Ballantine on page 240. He explained that SF as a literary device for making the reading public look at the world from a fresh viewpoint which was often Kornbluth’s strength. It’s also noted that Kornbluth was an even stronger-willed person than Harlan Ellison who was in awe of him. There is a definite glimpse into newspaper review columnists in 1956 who didn’t want any association with Science Fiction.
Before his life was cut short when he died of a heart attack, Kornbluth was being lined up to become editor of ‘The Magazine Of Science Fiction And Fantasy’ and had commented that all writers should consider being editors as part of their basic training which still has some resonance today for me. There might not be that many editor’s jobs but a sub-editing would fulfil some of the same requirements.
James Blish commented that Science Fiction became of age when rockets were launched into space as the genre became the prophet of the future which is also quite enlightening. It’s a shame really that in 1958, after working long hours, clearing his house drive of snow, Kornbluth dropped dead at a railway station at the tender age of thirty-five. No age at all really. He wasn’t the first SF author to die at that time but reading this book, he certainly had an effect on many of the other SF writers around him.
I should point out that this book is an extremely depthy and long read and from my comments above, just highlighting some of the things that have stuck in my mind is only touching on the surface of the material in this book. About the only thing really missing from this book is a complete checklist of his stories but considering the number of pen-names he used, it might be seen as some tales could be missed. Even so, considering author Mark Rich’s communication with Kornbluth’s brother and such, something along those lines could have been drawn together.
A lot of Kornbluth’s material can be squeezed out of the earlier book releases. Certainly, that’s how I acquired his novels, ‘Gladiator-At-Law’, ‘The Syndic’ and ‘Wolfbane’, for my own collection and ‘The Space Merchants’ is still very much a classic. I’m hoping a lot more people will be reading this book, especially in the publishing field, and get a re-release of more of his material because I’m sure more people would benefit from reading it. In the meantime, get this book. It’s insightful and worth the expense, shows a lot of perspectives and shows the dawn of Science Fiction in the USA as well looking into the life of one of its earliest brightest lights, Cyril Kornbluth.
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