C. M. Kornbluth

Search the Sky

search the skySearch the Sky is a jointly-authored novel by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl.  I am not a very big fan of Pohl’s writing, so at the outset, I  was probably not giving a totally fair shot to the novel.  It was published in 1954.  I read the paperback version with Richard Powers artwork. I bought my copy for a $1 at a local book hovel.

Well, overall I do not think this is a very good novel. The book really takes some time to get started; I feel like the first three chapters are very much spinning their wheels and not really directed anywhere specific. The reader is introduced to the main character, Ross, and his restlessness and struggle with living on Halsey’s Planet and working for Oldham Trading Company. Straightaway in the novel, we are told how disgruntled Ross is with his life and how the civilization on Halsey’s Planet is in “decay.”

Now, when I think of “in decay” I am thinking of some post-apocalyptic scene with weed-grasses growing in pavement, deserted buildings, mushrooms growing out of ex-living things, and nary a human in sight. I suppose some of that is sort of what is being described, but not to the same extent.  Basically, we are to understand that this planet’s civilization seems to have peaked and is now in a decline – how steep that decline is, is rather unclear.  Ross (who is melodramatic as all get out) seems to think it is very steep.

So the first 45 pages, or so, of this novel seem to not have a proper direction. We meet melodramatic Ross, but there are little scenes that take place that do not advance the storyline and sometimes seem to derail it. Several times I figured that a particular trajectory would be taken but it was ignored or forgotten. Penguin, Bantam, and Baen also republished this novel – though, one of the authors was deceased by then, the other author may have had the opportunity to edit it. Frankly, I would want to see this whole opening chunk edited and anything not truly related to the storyline should be excised.

Finally in chapter five, the storyline picks up and marches along what the reader has been expecting all along:  the faster-than-light spacecraft headed to exotic planets. Of course, not too exotic, this version of the kosmos seems to be populated mainly by humans. So, Ross and his ship head spaceward to visit a predetermined list of planets.  His mission is to discover the status of these planets – for the purposes of trade and for monitoring the “level of civilization” of humanity. We do not even get to see the first planet and join Ross as he lands on Gemser, the second planet on his list.

Everything the Internet says about the remainer of this novel is more or less true. Yes, the rest of it does seem like little, loosely-connected segments that show the reader interesting “infographics” of the planets that Ross visits. And if there is anything one reads on the Internet about this novel, it is that it is so very satirical.  Most of the people commenting on the novel online are people who have read the novel since 2000. So, there is a bit of a timeline scenario in that most reviewers did not read this when it was originally published. Living in the 1950s may have given this novel a different reader response; faster-than-light spacecraft, human civilizations stagnating, and gender equality all have a very different feel to them in 1955 versus 2016. Therefore, I think that this novel, being read nowadays, needs to be read with a sort of nuanced viewpoint.

The overarching premise is quite interesting to me. I like the idea of launching a character out into the galaxy to learn/re-learn about the status of human civilization on distant planets and to re-establish FTL science or jump-start their trading/commerce. Okay, this is a little ridiculous because this is a tall order for one fellow. And yes, it is a bit space opera-esque, zooming around the planets in this way. However, given a little tidying, this is not a horrific story-starter.

Instead, the authors approach these distant planets via Ross with a remarkably heavy-handed style. Certainly, we should all read this as satirical (Cp. Gulliver’s Travels or something), but I have never liked satire that was like a bludgeon.

So, the next two planets Ross visits are treated with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. In places, the writing is even cringe-worthy. There are, of course, some sections that are interesting and have potential for something more, but generally, this is heavy-handed direct satire that does not really pause to ever ask “what if?” or “how come, Hoss?”

One of the wretched things about this novel is that Ross, though he does not start off as a favored, honorable, awesome character, seems to degenerate into an impulsive, juvenile, melodramatic clown.  It is really wearying by the last few chapters and I rather wanted to punch his teeth out.

The last segment of the novel is not very good whatsoever and I had to muscle through it. It is confusing and disjointed throughout.  The “resolution” is really vague, idiotic, and also heavy-handed. The characters by the end are insufferable. And even if the reader considers some of the novel’s satirical points favorably, there still is not enough depth to make this a meaningful heavyweight of science fiction.

It has some good points. It has a lot of bad areas. Ultimately, it has not really aged well and does not give a lot of reason for recommendation. I blame it all on Pohl.

2 stars

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Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

The Explorers

ExplorersStill 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