The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
Published as a retrospective in 1976, this volume collects 19 of C. M. Kornbluth’s short stories written between 1941 and 1958. These stories show Kornbluth as a golden age writer whose themes predicted later trends in sf.
C. M. Kornbluth wrote from 1940 until his untimely death in 1958, attributed to lingering effects of his service in World War II. Kornbluth frequently collaborated with Frederik Pohl, who edited this collection, and others, however all of these stories are Korbluth’s alone.
For me, the most appealing story here was “Gomez”, about the discovery of a genius physicist working as a busboy and dishwasher in his immigrant family’s restaurant in inner-city New York. With breezy, linear narration, and characters developed through dialog (showing a variety of stock character types that ’50s authors relied on to populate their stories), the story makes its points clearly: that the search for genius should not be restricted to stereotypes, and scientists can’t be expected to work like equation-solving machines. The story ends with a satisfying trick ending that gives a poke in the eye to overbearing authority.
A more famous story is “The Marching Morons” in which a medical mishap puts real estate dealer John Barlow into suspended animation for hundreds of years. In the future, most of the population have degenerated into idiocy, but a small intellectual elite secretly run the world from a base in Antartica. The elite convince the masses that they are benefiting from advanced technology by various ruses, such as adding noise-makers to cars to make them seem to be running at 200 mph when in fact they top out at 30 or so. Barlow is no intellectual match for the future elites, but his deceitful salesmanship is something that neither the elite or the masses are capable of, so the elite use him to solve a pending crisis in overpopulation of the masses. Although there is some progressive nods, such as showing the multi-racial mix of the elite society, the way mass extermination of the population is treated as the obvious solution to the over-population problem is creepy and disturbing.
Another fine story, and perhaps the most forward-looking in structure, is “Mindworm”. This is an updated version of old legends, and except for the contemporary setting of the 1950’s, the kind of story that we are still reading today.
These and the others are character-driven stories, of the kind that only a few of the golden age writers seem to have produced. Rather than dryly expound the latest predictions on rocket-motor technology or nuclear power, Kornbluth’s characters at least complete their “as you know, Bob” moments with natural and unpedantic language, and indeed these expositions are found only in a few of the stories. In most of the stories, the technological underpinnings are only that, substructure supporting a plot revolving around characters.
Kornbluth’s work is sure to entertain, particularly if you’re looking into the development of current sf from its golden age roots.