The Best of C. M. Kornbluth Critical Essays

C. M. Kornbluth


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although Kornbluth received acclaim as a novelist, his reputation rests largely on his shorter works, which are recognized for their intelligence, incisive wit, and readability.

“The Marching Morons,” one of the most famous novelettes in science fiction, has prompted many critics to examine its future scenario of an intelligent but overwhelmed minority. Those focusing on its genetics, however, have tended to overlook, and inadvertently belittle, the social criticism explicit in the story. When the intellectuals turn to Barlow to solve their problem, they find themselves employing a veritable Adolf Hitler. Kornbluth takes a global view, however: He juxtaposes Nazi gas chambers and American bombings of Japanese civilians by having Barlow’s rockets lift off from Los Alamos. The intelligentsia appear as culpable as Honest John.

Kornbluth’s concern with the ethics of theoretical science underlies both “Two Dooms,” with its indecisive Royland, and “Gomez” (1954), whose protagonist, Julio Gomez, sits on a similar fence with regard to unified field theory, the implications of which terrify him. Both stories explore moral quandaries of the atomic age, as do such other works as “The Altar at Midnight,” Kornbluth’s fascinating first solo novel Takeoff (1952), and “The Remorseful” (1954).

Kornbluth’s concern with the impact of theoretical knowledge parallels his concern with history. Historical insight appears as a redemptive if sometimes dangerous force throughout Kornbluth’s works, notably here in “Shark Ship,” “The Luckiest Man in Denv” (1952), “The Mindworm,” and “The Adventurer” (1953).

Many of these stories shed light on other works. “The Rocket of 1955,” a vignette that first appeared in a 1939 fanzine, and “The Marching Morons” anticipate The Space Merchants (with Frederik Pohl, 1953), whereas “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” anticipate Search the Sky (with Pohl, 1954). “Two Dooms” bears comparison to Kornbluth’s Not This August (1955), depicting an America beneath Communist subjugation, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962). “With These Hands” bears comparison to Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “The Darfstellar” (1955).

Critics judging Kornbluth by this anthology, edited by Pohl, have seen a growing bitterness in his later stories. This reflects editorial choice more than reality, because Kornbluth also wrote delightful humor in his last years, in stories not collected here. These tales demonstrate Kornbluth’s effective use of everyday individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds as well as his well-tuned ear for dialect.