Everyone who loves imaginative fiction should raise their voice, frequently, in praise of NESFA, the venerable fan group whose press has been doing great work, putting out archival collections of classic sf in hardcovers. I was reminded of this earlier this week when reading Frederik Pohl’s pleasant reminiscence of his onetime collaborator Cyril Kornbluth (the fierce and witty genius who, too young, died a horrible suburban death right out of a Mad Men episode). I instantly went into graying-fan mode, whining that my old hero wasn’t sufficiently appreciated by the rising generation. It was swiftly and civilly pointed out to me that there is, in fact, a fair amount of CMK’s slender output still in print, including his complete short sf in the aptly titled NESFA collection, His Share of Glory (ably edited by Timothy P. Szczesuil). That’s not enough for an enthusiast for me, of course: I want an omnibus of all the Pohl/Kornbluth novels, and a reprint Kornbluth’s best book, The Syndic, and I want and I want and I want. But it was uncivil of me to ignore the existence of a book I liked so much, so I thought I’d review it here. As a bonus I’ll toss in some comments about the NESFA collection From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown (edited by Ben Yalow).
In summary: I read straight through the C.M. Kornbluth collection was constantly amused, and had lots to think about, even in the lesser stories. The Brown collection was more hit-and-miss for me: that’s the usual effect from reading a “Complete” anything/anyone.
Kornbluth was an endlessly, prodigally inventive creator. He never repeated himself; even when his backgrounds overlap (as “The Marching Morons” depicts the same future glimpsed in parts of “The Little Black Bag,” and a very similar future was used yet again in the Pohl/Kornbluth novel Search the Sky) he does something distinctly different with each story. The only time he gets tedious for me is when he affects a peculiarly 1950s pseudo-literary pseudo-realism: I am but a simple common man; there is this guy in my little family bar and he’s talking crazy talk (“The Last Man Left in the Bar”), Oh, shall mass-production squeeze all the juice from the grape of living? (“With These Hands”), etc. This is a science fiction writer corseting his story with the conventions of more generally accepted types of fiction, in an attempt to escape genre conventions. Eh. As experiments they can be justified, but I don’t think the experiments really succeeded. (It would be interesting to see what Kornbluth would have done in the 60s when some of his contemporaries, like “Cordwainer Smith” or Frederik Pohl, really began to stretch their wings.) But, in general, these stories maintain a high level of interest. “MS Found in a Fortune Cookie” is pretty funny, for instance, and even funnier with the Cecil Corwin stories in the same volume. (“Cecil Corwin” was one of many pen-names used by the pseudonymophilic Kornbluth for his early stories before WWII, and “MS Found in a Fortune Cookie” involves Corwin being confined to an insane asylum.)
CMK’s best story is, I think, “Shark Ship”. In this bleak future there’s a whole culture of shipbound people who’ve left the land never to return, sort of a watery Amish who’ve set themselves apart from a society they consider irredeemable. But over the centuries, attrition whittles away at the ships able to maintain the gruelling life. The story follows one ship’s crew who can no longer remain at sea, how they are exiled from the fleet and forced to make landfall. What they find there constitutes one of the darkest depictions of human nature I’ve ever read. But the story itself is not unhopeful, which seems to me a remarkable achievement.
The Brown book, as I mentioned above, is more hit-and-miss. Brown was nearer to the stereotypical pulp hack, grinding out junk at a penny per word to pay the rent. Sometimes he was golden and he wrote stuff like “The Geezenstacks”, “Arena” and “Placet Is a Crazy Place”.
But much of the early stuff is crap–textbook examples of how not to write a short story. In “Crisis, 1999” for instance the colorless main character spends two and a half pages establishing something that had already been established on the story’s third page (and ought to have been established on the story’s first page). That’s four and a half pages wasted in a story that’s nine pages long. The story’s plot (if that’s not too strong a word) rests on a set of assumptions more tenuous than open air (e.g. most crime is committed by a small class of professional criminals; people can be hypnotized out of criminality by being hypnotized to forget they ever committed a crime; etc.). Don’t get me started on “Daymare,” another relentlessly misconceived sf/crime story. As a storyteller I’d say there is some profit in taking stories like this apart and seeing why they don’t work. But there’s not a terrific amount of amusement in that, and you reach the point of diminishing returns pretty rapidly.
Plus, Brown repeated himself a lot. In “The Yehudi Principle” the story we read is a story written by the writer who is a character in the story we read. A rather thin conceit, if interesting, the first time around. He uses it again in the inferior story “All Good Bems” (which looks like a rather desperate attempt to write himself out of a writer’s block; it’s also an early example of what has come to be called “grubby apartment” stories: the writer writes about himself and his acquaintances). Also, in “All Good Bems” the alien beings animate terrestrial animals, including the protagonist’s dog. In “Mouse” an alien being animates terrestrial animals, including the protagonist’s cat. “Etaoin Shrdlu” is a pretty amusing story about a typesetting machine that comes alive. “The Angelic Angleworm” is a fantasy which also involves magical typesetting. This is perhaps terrifically engaging if you are a professional typesetter, as Brown was at the time. Not otherwise, though, or so it seems to me.
“Angelic Angleworm” is a pretty long story for its slight premise, anyway– Brown hadn’t yet learned the virtue of brevity. Same deal on “Pi in the Sky”, a one-punch joke story puffed up to novellette length by concerning itself with two characters who do nothing, but nothing, to advance the plot. 1 ¢ per word, pal: it doesn’t matter whether the word is the mot juste or the 4000th word too many: more words is more money.
These stories often display lapses of–it sounds unbearably pompous, but I can only call them lapses of taste. The hero in “Come and Go Mad” is a person with what seems to be a paranoid delusion, although no one around him is aware of it. He’s invited by his employer (he works as a newspaper reporter) to go undercover at an asylum as one of the inmates. Is it a plot by his friends to commit him to an insane asylum, because they know about his delusion? The twist within a twist is: he’s not crazy; his “paranoid delusion” is the truth. He comes into contact with the entities who rule the world. He is driven mad in a way that specifically fits him to rejoin society as if he were cured. There is some pretty impressive writing in this story; I should say Brown knew paranoia from the inside out.
But. The hero’s “delusion” about himself that turns out to be true: he thinks he’s Napoleon. It’s so corny! It’s so dated! A man who could think up the rest of this story could have thought of a much more creative and convincing “delusion” for his hero. But he slapped on a stereotype instead and called it good. The story could have been a classic, the sort of thing that justifies the existence of fantasy as a genre. As it stands it’s deeply flawed, hardly worth reading.
Brown got better as he got older, perfecting a shrewd, deadly style of short-short story, like “Nightmare in Blue” and its colorful siblings. (“Nightmare in Blue”: that’s my candidate for the most horrifying horror story ever told.) And some of the early stories (apart from the ones mentioned above I’d add the pretty amusing “Star Mouse” and the floridly titled but efficiently told “And the Gods Laughed”) are still good. But I think the easy market of the 40s and 50s was bad for Brown, not encouraging him to develop and sharpen his talent.
He could write badly later on, too. There is a story later on, “Cat Burglar” which hinges on the double meaning of “pussy.” On reading and rereading the story I felt like I’d been transported back to a bar in the 50s and was listening to an endlessly tedious “blue” joke told by some greasy travelling salesman. Nightmare in blue, indeed.
But when he was good, he was as good as anyone writing for the magazines. “Knock”, for instance, contains the greatest and shortest of great short horror stories–a story so short, Brown apparently had to write another story to embed it in so he could sell it. Then there’s “Puppet Show”, a nasty delight from its luminously repellent description of the alien in the story’s opener to the “I got your master race right here, JWC” conclusion.
Both of these books are worth reading and I’m glad they’re both in print, thanks to NESFA. But I have to admit that Brown would benefit from the “selected stories of…” treatment. The truth is that Brown is not one of those authors who, in T.S. Eliot’s snooty phrase “must be read entire.” Kornbluth is, at least for me.