Study Guide


by C. M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl

Wolfbane Essay - Critical Essays


C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl began their fruitful science-fiction collaborations in the early 1940’s and continued writing together, often under pseudonyms, until 1957. They published prolifically in magazines such as Galaxy, but their classic work proved to be the novel The Space Merchants (1953). Wolfbane was the final result of their true collaboration, although jointly produced works continued to appear after Kornbluth’s death in 1958 and Pohl continued publishing stories based on Kornbluth’s ideas into the 1970’s. “The Meeting” (1972), with Kornbluth listed as coauthor, won a Hugo Award in 1973.

Wolfbane is an early example of the substantial genre of science-fiction tales involving cybernetics, a word publicized by mathematician Norbert Weiner in 1947, only a decade before this Kornbluth and Pohl novel was published in serial form. Cybernetics, a term derived from the Greek word for “controller” or “helmsman,” refers to the study of general systems, the way they function, and how they process information. Cybernetic systems in science fiction frequently combine electrical, mechanical, and biological features, as does the one devised by the alien force in Wolfbane. It is by means of linking human mental and physical powers to the operation of the alien biomechanical complex that the alien planet dominating Earth nourishes itself.

As crude as Kornbluth and Pohl’s analogies to cybernetics were, they became part of a growing science-fiction literature featuring cyborgs, androids, computers, automation, robots, and artificial intelligence. This type of fiction, popularized in the 1950’s, featured varying degrees of accuracy regarding critical aspects of cybernetics. American author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., based his first novel, Player Piano (1952), on cybernetics, and British author Bernard Wolfe used the idea in Limbo (1952). Cybernetics then was still a fresh field of inquiry. Writers’ imaginations enjoyed free rein simply because specialization within the field scarcely had begun. Later novels in the cybernetics tradition include Raymond F. Jones’s The Cybernetic Brains (1962), Philip K. Dick’s Vulcan’s Hammer (1960), David Gerrold’s When Harlie Was One (1972), and Stanisaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (1965).

Critics have noted that Wolfbane embodies Kornbluth and Pohl’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses as collaborators. The novel clearly was written hastily, and its handful of characters are one-dimensional and unmemorable. Many science-fiction readers overlook such shortcomings and are satisfied by the quick-paced action centered on ingeniously arrayed technologies. These latter qualities, abundant in Wolfbane, lend the novel its verve. As testimony to its appeal, a revised edition was published in 1986.