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Kornbluth, C M

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1923-1958) US author Cyril Kornbluth; the "M" for a non-existent middle name represents his wife Mary Kornbluth (1920-2007), in the thought that she would be collaborating with him. A member of the Futurians fan group, he published prolifically during the years 1940-1942 in magazines edited by fellow Futurians Donald A Wollheim and Frederik Pohl. His first sf publication was "Stepsons of Mars" for Astonishing Stories in April 1940 with Harry Dockweiler (see Dirk Wylie) and Richard Wilson, writing together as Ivar Towers; his first solo sf story was "King Cole of Pluto" (May 1940 Super Science Stories) as S D Gottesman. He used many other pseudonyms, both for solo work and for work written in collaboration with Pohl (and sometimes others, including Robert A W Lowndes); these included Gabriel Barclay, Arthur Cooke, Cecil Corwin, Walter C Davies, Simon Eisner, Kenneth Falconer, S D Gottesman, Paul Dennis Lavond and Scott Mariner. The best of this early work is assembled in Thirteen O'Clock and Other Zero Hours (coll 1970) edited by James Blish, which puts together the tales originally signed Cecil Corwin; and Before the Universe and Other Stories [for full subtitle see Checklist] (coll 1980) with Frederik Pohl.

After World War Two, in which he served as an infantryman and was decorated, Kornbluth went into journalism. He resumed writing sf in 1947, using his own name, and quickly established himself as a brilliant short story writer. Of the fifty-six stories that have been established as his total output (with some difficulty, given his use of various names), classic works include "The Little Black Bag" (July 1950 Astounding), about the misuse of a medical bag accidentally sent by Time Machine from the future (see Medicine), which won a Retro Hugo award in 2001; and the controversial Satire "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy), about a future centuries after the practice of birth control by the middle classes has led to an America dominated by the eponymous horde (see Devolution), victims of rampant consumerism, and serviced by a Pariah Elite bred for Intelligence (see Eugenics); the awakening of an avaricious realtor from Suspended Animation, who creates a scam to lure morons into fake (but in fact deadly) trips to Venus in order to lessen Overpopulation, further darkens the tale, which can be seen as a very early version of what soon became The Space Merchants (1953) (see below). Such stories as "With These Hands" (December 1951 Galaxy) and "The Goodly Creatures" (December 1952 F&SF) are delicate and sensitive, but much of his work is deeply ingrained with a bitter irony that generated considerable negative comment in the sf readership of the 1950s. Later stories include "The Cosmic Charge Account" (January 1956 F&SF), a black comedy about a little old lady who finds the power to remake her environs; "Reap the Dark Tide" (June 1958 Vanguard; vt "Shark Ship" in A Mile Beyond the Moon, coll 1958), an early dreadful-warning fantasy about Overpopulation and Pollution; and Alternate-History story "Two Dooms" (July 1958 Venture), one of the better studies of a world in which the Nazis won World War Two (see Hitler Wins).

Along with one non-sf novel in the early 1950s as Simon Eisner and four as Jordan Park, Kornbluth wrote two comparatively routine novels in collaboration with Judith Merril as Cyril Judd: Outpost Mars (May-July 1951 Galaxy as "Mars Child"; 1952; rev vt Sin in Space 1961), about the colonization of Mars, and Gunner Cade (March-May 1952 Astounding; 1952), about a time in which Future War is a spectator sport (see Games and Sports). His first solo sf novel, Takeoff (1952), is a weak Near-Future story about the building of the first Moon Rocket; but when Kornbluth began working again in collaboration with Frederik Pohl they produced a classic Satire, The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953), mostly set in New York, about a world run by Advertising agencies (see Media Landscape) which have become the de facto rulers of a world devoured by consumerism. This became the archetype of a whole generation of Dystopian sf novels which showed the world of the future dominated by one particular institution or power group, though its savage deprecation of the American space programme is alleviated by the eventual establishment of a colony on Venus; in the two final chapters of the tale, which appear only in the magazine version, the protagonist discovers a new life form which, on being fed anything, can Terraform the planet. Two other collaborations with Pohl – the episodic satirical comedy Search the Sky (1954; rev by Pohl 1985) and Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986) – belong to the same subspecies. The last novel Kornbluth wrote with Pohl was Wolfbane (October-November Galaxy; 1959; rev by Pohl 1986), in which the Earth is moved out of its orbit by Aliens who capture humans in order to use their bodies in a vast Computer complex; it is a precursor to some of the most ambitious work of authors like Stephen Baxter and Greg Bear. Kornbluth and Pohl also wrote two non-sf novels, A Town Is Drowning (1955) and Presidential Year (1956). The best understanding of their collaboration is that Pohl at this point of his own long career – he took until the mid 1970s to write novels as effective as the joint efforts here – was less fluent and competent at the construction of raw story than Kornbluth. Collaborative stories continued to appear for four years after Kornbluth's premature death, and Pohl wrote some more stories from Kornbluth's ideas in the early 1970s, one of which – "The Meeting" (November 1972 F&SF) – won a Hugo. Some of the collaborative short stories are reprinted in the overlapping collections The Wonder Effect (coll 1962), Critical Mass (coll 1977), Before the Universe (coll 1980) and Our Best (coll 1986).

Kornbluth's other solo novels have been perhaps wrongly seen as deficient, and both were revised after his death. The Syndic (December 1953-March 1954 Science Fiction Adventures; 1953; rev Frederik Pohl 1982) ironically depicts a future USA run by organized gangsterism in a semi-benevolent fashion: its most effective and even prophetic political point is that the Syndic, though threatened by a highly unpleasant US government-in-exile, ultimately refuses to abandon its own eccentric ideals to become a society dominated by security fears and military expenditure. Not This August (14 May-1 June 1955 Maclean's Magazine; 1955; vt Christmas Eve 1956; rev Frederik Pohl under original title 1981) describes a revolution in a future USA which has been conquered by communists. The best of Kornbluth's short work is collected in The Explorers (coll 1954; with 1 story cut and 4 added, vt The Mindworm and Other Stories 1955), A Mile Beyond the Moon (coll 1958; paperback omits 3 stories) and The Marching Morons (coll 1959). Eclectic selections from these volumes are Best SF Stories of Cyril M. Kornbluth (coll 1968) and The Best of C.M. Kornbluth (coll 1976), the latter edited by Pohl; both titles have been superseded by His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C M Kornbluth (coll 1997). Kornbluth's essay "The Failure of the Science Fiction novel as Social Criticism" (in The Science Fiction Novel coll 1959 intro by Basil Davenport) is an important early piece of sf criticism, sharply pointing out the genre's shortcomings. His widow, Mary Kornbluth, compiled Science Fiction Showcase (anth 1959) as a memorial. A consensus is growing that Kornbluth, who died at the age of thirty-four, had only begun to mature as a writer; much was lost by his departure. [BS/JC/DRL]

see also: Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Arts; Colonization of Other Worlds; Cybernetics; Ecology; Economics; Golden Age of SF; Heroes; History in SF; History of SF; Invasion; Leisure; Libertarian SF; Optimism and Pessimism; Paranoia; Psychology; Rays; SF in the Classroom; Scientists; Sociology; Space Stations; Time Travel; UFOs; Vampires.

Cyril Kornbluth

born New York: 23 July 1923

died Waverly, New York: 21 March 1958

works (selected)

  • Outpost Mars (New York: Abelard Press, 1952) with Judith Merril, as by Cyril Judd [first appeared May-July 1951 Galaxy as "Mars Child": hb/uncredited]
    • Sin in Space (New York: Beacon Books, 1961) with Judith Merril, as by Cyril Judd [rev vt of the above: in the publisher's Galaxy Science Fiction Novel series: pb/Robert Stanley]
    • Mars Child (Medford, Oregon: Armchair Fiction, 2014) [vt of the above: first appeared May-July 1951 Galaxy as "Mars Child": pb/Chesley Bonestell]
  • Gunner Cade (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952) with Judith Merril, writing together as Cyril Judd [first appeared March-May 1952 Astounding: hb/Paul Bacon]
  • Takeoff (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1952) [hb/A Shilstone]
    • Gunner Cade, Plus: Takeoff (New York: Tor, 1983) as by Cyril Judd [omni of the above two: real names are given after the pseudonym, and Takeoff is correctly credited to Kornbluth alone: pb/Tom Kidd]
  • The Space Merchants (New York: Ballantine Books, 1953) with Frederik Pohl [first version appeared July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet": hb/Richard Powers]
    • The Space Merchants (New York: St Martin's Press, 1985) with Frederik Pohl [rev by Pohl of the above: hb/]
      • Venus, Inc (Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1985) with Frederik Pohl [omni of the above plus The Merchants' War (1984) by Frederik Pohl alone: hb/Jack Woolhiser]
  • The Syndic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1953) [hb/Paul Galdone]
  • Search the Sky (New York: Ballantine Books, 1954) with Frederik Pohl [hb/Richard Powers]
  • Gladiator-at-Law (New York: Ballantine Books, 1955) with Frederik Pohl [first appeared June-August 1954 Galaxy as "Gladiator at Law": hb/Richard Powers]
  • Not This August (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1955) [hb/Mel Hunter]
    • Christmas Eve (London: Michael Joseph, 1956) [vt of the above: in the publisher's Novels of Tomorrow series: hb/Rex Pickering]
    • Not This August (New York: Tor, 1981) with Frederik Pohl [exp by Pohl of the above: pb/Tom Kidd]
  • A Town Is Drowning (New York: Ballantine Books, 1955) with Frederik Pohl [hb/]
  • Presidential Year (New York: Ballantine Books, 1956) with Frederik Pohl [pb/]
  • Wolfbane (New York: Ballantine Books, 1959) with Frederik Pohl [first half appeared October-November 1957 Galaxy: pb/Richard Powers]
    • Wolfbane (New York: Baen Books, 1986) with Frederik Pohl [rev by Pohl of the above: pb/Jael]
  • The Slave (Medford, Oregon: Armchair Fiction, 2012) [dos: first appeared September 1957 Science Fiction Adventures: pb/Ed Emshwiller]


further reading

  • Mary Kornbluth, editor. Science Fiction Showcase (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1959) [anth: memorial volume edited by his widow: hb/Richard Powers]

about the author


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