The Explorers

The Explorers – C. M. Kornbluth; Ballantine; cover: Jack Faragasso; 1963 edition

Still happily stuck in the 1950s, I finished The Explorers by C. M. Kornbluth well-past any respectable bedtime hour.  This is one of those reviews wherein I have to be fair and honest and give a mathematical rating that seems low and yucky.  However, the rating – though my math was correct – does not truly represent the value of this work.  So, an uncomfortable rating.  Therefore, reader, do not put too much emphasis on said rating.

The cover for this book is a delicious vintage cover by Jack Faragasso.  I read the second edition, but both the first and second use this same great artwork.  I suppose it is only slightly misleading because this is not a collection containing a whole lot of story about astronauts, per se. I feel like certain readers may be put off by such an overt (yet still awesome!) expression of “traditional” science fiction artwork.  Anyway, this is a collection of stories/novelettes [I still dislike that word] that were previously written and published – especially in genre magazines and periodicals.  At 145 pages, these nine stories are perfectly sized for a delightful weekend read.

This collection was first published as a unit in 1954.  The second edition, which I read, was published in 1963.  This is the first item that I have read by Kornbluth, although I am aware that he collaborated with fellow author Frederik Pohl.  The collection The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976) also contains five of the stories published in The Explorers.  Presumably, this suggests that this collection is a really good representation of Kornbluth’s skill/style.

  • Gomez – 3 stars – (1954)
  • The Mindworm – 4 stars – (1950)
  • The Rocket of 1955 – 1 star – (1941)
  • The Altar at Midnight – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Thirteen O’Clock – 3 stars – (1941)
  • The Goodly Creatures – 1 star – (1952)
  • Friend to Man – 4 stars – (1951)
  • With These Hands – 3 stars – (1951)
  • That Share of Glory – 5 stars – (1952)

 This comes out to be an average of 3 stars.  The fact that there are two 1-star stinkers brings that down quite a bit.  However, I have to say, one of those stinkers (The Rocket of 1955) is like a page and a half of text; ‘short story’ is overstating it.  So, that 1 star probably shouldn’t have much weight to it.  It’s also an early work of Kornbluth’s, so we can always argue that he had not yet found his writing comfort zone.

Gomez is a decent read – a bit longish, I feel.  It is average 1950s fare, it forces the reader to consider concepts like duty and nationalism in the scope of science.  The author probably wants the reader to empathize with the narrator and sympathize with the main (title) character, but I’m a hard case and my Grinch-heart wasn’t feeling this one.

The Mindworm, however, surprised me.  It is probably the darkest piece in the book – there is a hefty dose of “mysteriousness” which leaves a lot of the thing open to interpretation.  There is a sort of non-human entity (mindworm) who preys on the degenerate of society.  It escapes difficulty by continuously moving around the country in his “host” body. And no one really cares when criminals and scrubs are found dead.  However, this entity runs to West Virginia – where he encounters a new paradigm that does not react as all the other people in the past have acted.  This is a vampire-story extraordinaire.  Eastern Europeans, still speaking their Old World languages, “deal with the scenario.”  And there is this comparison within the story of insular cultures and also how “old” ethnic groups remember things – but its all really subtle.  Another subtle element:  in this locale, the Mindworm kills a virgin girl – in West Virginia.

The Altar at Midnight was great.  For me it recalled the recent James E. Gunn and Barry N. Malzberg that I had read.  It is has an excellent ending and the story is perfectly-sized and complete.  I really liked this one – mainly because it is, if nothing else, a powerful story.

Thirteen O’Clock got an average rating from me.  It is one of Kornbluth’s earliest works.  It is completely weird and pulpy.  It is far less science fiction and far more cruddy fantasy.  It has this heavy-handed morality lesson about Big Business and Tyranny that gets thrown at the reader.  The characters agree and we all go home. However, there are some elements in this story that had me chuckling.  I admit it, I like a little sarcasm and silliness.  So, this is not a good story, but it provides a good mid-book humor.  Also, a clock with 13 hours appeals to all of my autistic tendencies.

The Goodly Creatures seems really dated.  And I hated it.  I did not feel any sympathy for the main character.  I wanted the story to go somewhere, but it did not. I kept waiting for it to really go places, but instead loser main character has a moment. The end.

Friend to Man was the only story that actually got to my heartstrings and played a chord or two.  And then wham! Surprise ending! And then there was much cheering and celebration from me.  Like many of Kornbluth’s stories in this book, it is a ruminating on ethics/morality.  In this story we are no longer on Earth and we meet an interesting alien lifeform.  Great twist story, containing noir-esque plot.  Bravo!

With These Hands only got 3 stars from me because it is ridiculously dismal.  And maybe I have a different conception of “aesthetics” than Kornbluth?  Anyway, this is one sad, dark read.  In a sense Kornbluth does work hard to tie much of the plot to actual historical artworks, artists, and themes.  Even places (Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, etc.) but I am not sure it works? I wanted it to, but it fell a bit flat.  This is a bit disappointing because it is clear that Kornbluth is a learned and intelligent writer.  And this particular story showcases a reality that could happen today or tomorrow.

Finally, That Share of Glory is the masterpiece of this book.  It is a fantastic read – it appeals to my Catholicism and my Philosophical training and my love of linguistics and ethics and even the little Karl Marx in me thrilled at this.  Hello, all my friends: Machiavelli, Marx, John Stuart Mill, et al.  I loved this story – because the concept is exciting.  Kornbluth did not make a character with pathetic flaws – he made one that is consistent and strong – but yet causes him a crisis!  And adventure! This is a great story and I want more of it. I want a whole series of it, frankly.  Let’s just say a “monastic” order that operates as the galaxy’s “communicators/anthropologists” etc. and uses such for both political and economic structure – well, yes, hands down, 5 stars!

Overall, the stories are all unpredictable.  Kornbluth turns a critical eye on society and science.  However, what is great is that his eye, while critical, is not miserable.  He does not possess that dreary misanthropic feeling that so many authors seem to equate with “critical.”  Also, I enjoy his “morality tales” in this book.  He does a lot of interesting things hinging on ethics and ethical situations – but without any gross heaviness and obnoxiousness.  I recommend this for all those interested in vintage science fiction and for those people who like good stories with minimal (stereotypical) science fiction.

3 stars

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