16 April 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, December 2006

C.M. Kornbluth, 1939
C.M. Kornbluth, 1939 The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth (Ballantine, 180pp, hc) 1953. Cover by Richard Powers; (Gollancz 0-575-07528-7 £6.99, 186pp, pb) 1998.

His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth, C.M. Kornbluth (NESFA Press 0-915368-60-9, $6.99, 673pp, hc) 1997. Cover by Richard Powers.

Frederik Pohl, 1952
Frederik Pohl, 1952 Platinum Pohl: The Collected Best Stories, Frederik Pohl
(Tor 0-312-87527-4, $27.95, 464pp, pb) 2005.

Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (Random House, 215pp, hc) 1976;
(Gollancz 1-857-98946-5, £6.99, 215pp, pb) 2000.

Gateway, Frederik Pohl (St. Martin's, 313pp, hc) 1977. Cover by Boris Vallejo; (Del Rey 0-345-47583-6, $14.95, 288pp, pb) 2004; (Gollancz 0-57507-899-5, £7.99, 293pp, pb) 2006.

Start as you mean to go on. Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1953) kicks off on a note of such breezy cynicism that it's impossible to resist: "As I dressed that morning I ran over in my mind the long list of statistics, evasions, and exaggerations that they would expect in my report." The speaker, Mitchell Courtenay, is a high-flying executive in Fowler Schocken Associates, the advertising company that now owns Venus. The setting is a crowded, polluted Earth a couple of centuries from now that desperately needs more space — even on an inhospitable rock like Venus that will take generations to become anything approaching human-habitable. The book's tone is relentlessly, densely satirical, as when Courtenay muses on how Schocken managed through manipulation of government to get the Venus contract:

Our representative government now is perhaps more representative than it has ever been before in history. It is not necessarily more representative per capita, but it most surely is ad valorem. If you like philosophical problems, here is one for you: should each human being's vote register alike, as the law-books pretend and as some say the founders of our nation desired? Or should a vote be weighed according to the wisdom, the power, and the influence — that is, the money — of the voter? That is a philosophical problem for you, you understand; not for me. I am a pragmatist, and a pragmatist, moreover, on the pay-roll of Fowler Schocken.

The point, of course, is not about the future but about today. In effect we do have an ad valorem system of government, with the vast armature of lobbyists and spinners around the political world skewing things, as Mitch says, according to the power and the money of their clients. The only difference between us and Mitch is that he's dropped the pretence. Where The Space Merchants differs from a book like its almost-contemporary The Demolished Man, discussed here a few months ago, is that it lacks Bester's sense that a novel should be about everything that's exciting all at once. Pohl and Kornbluth's extrapolations are centred on one cluster of linked ideas: the effects of capitalism, of money, and of power. Fowler Schocken, as the successor of today's advertising agencies, is the handmaiden to all three.

The countervailing voice here is represented by the "Consies," a semi-underground movement who (says Courtenay), "pretended modern civilization was in some way 'plundering' our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soya-burgers ready." There's also, admittedly in the context of Venus, a reference to "the greenhouse effect." Reading words like those 50 years on, after the hottest British summer for 350 years, in our world of increasing scarcity, is as striking a piece of SF prophecy as I can think of.

Pohl & Kornbluth's methods for achieving their prophecy are, as I've said, basically satirical, and satire often achieves its ends through inversion of what we'd like to think. Mitch's boss, for instance, gets his credo from Lord Acton's famous dictum: "You know the old saying. Power ennobles. Absolute power ennobles absolutely." The authors' central insight was that advertising was the conduit between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-power-wants-us-to-believe-it-is. Once that's granted, the grotesque Venus boondoggle makes perfect sense, as does the way that even a smart, historically aware man like Mitch accepts the cramped and parched world he inhabits.

The switchbacks of the plot matter less than the world they rattle through. Mitch is double-crossed, spends some enforced time among the underclass, and fights his way back. To say that the characters are close to being plot-functions isn't a criticism: they do what they need to do make the story happen, and this isn't a book that's trying to be Tolstoy. If there's one thing a contemporary reader misses in the savagely hilarious world of The Space Merchants, it's the sense of the torrential flow of information that now governs our world. It would be impossible for a writer to attempt the same task now without the internet and its successors being at the heart of their vision. But so much else in the book is contemporary now, after half a century, that it feels like the rare prophecy that is slowly coming to pass.

Working out who wrote what bits of a collaboration is the sort of dumb parlour-game critics are prone to, but enticing all the same. Of the remaining Pohl and Kornbluth collaborations, Wolfbane (1959), the last finished before Kornbluth's death at the age of 34, seems to me the most interesting, though also the farthest from The Space Merchants. But we also have, thanks to the indefatigable NESFA Press, the definitive and hefty His Share of Glory (1997), collecting all of Kornbluth's short fiction. It should be said straight away that not everything in the book is top-drawer, and that it would be good to have a 250-page best of Kornbluth in paperback. (Or perhaps even a reprint of the old Ballantine Best Of, where I first read many of these stories in my teens.)

I don't want to end up diagnosing Kornbluth's work with one of those too-neat one-word summaries like "misanthropic" or "cynical," but it's hard at times not to think in those terms. In "The Little Black Bag" (1950), for instance, the drunk and derelict Dr. Full is rescued from a morning's hangover and attack of the DTs by the miraculous contents of a medical bag from the future: "He straightened up, his pains gone and his leg tremor stilled. That was great, he thought. He'd be able to run to the hock shop, pawn the little black bag and get some booze." The reaction is so instant, so automatic — a drunk, feeling well, will just want to get more drink more quickly. And it's barely commented on as the story proceeds to its memorably nasty conclusion, with everyone who's used the bag dead, and the bag itself destroyed and gushing "the foul gases of decomposition."

Misanthropy is an obvious charge to level at "The Marching Morons" (1951), and nowadays the story feels rather unwholesome. John Barlow is Rip-van-Winkled from the present into a future where the average IQ is 45. As he's told by one of the few remaining smart people, "While you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and short-sightedly having children — breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred!" The assumptions underlying that speech — not significantly challenged elsewhere in the story — are so close to pseudo-science eugenics that they don't need me to unpack them or to say why they're loathsome. (It's perhaps worth saying, though, that when Douglas Adams put a similar riff into his radio series The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978), the useless third of the population consigned to oblivion in the Golgafrincham B Ark were identified by profession, not class, so that society found it could get along perfectly well without management consultants and telephone sanitisers.) Here, no-one questions this account of how society got to be the way it is; Barlow, knowing his Hitler, proposes a solution to the problem but finds it costs him his life too. But the point about what's wrong with today remains hard to take.

In other stories, though, Kornbluth's bitterness is turned to a more palatable end, as in the short shocker "The Altar at Midnight" a bar story where the narrator's self-contained observation hides a darker secret. The late "Two Dooms" (1958), in which a worker on the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb is thrown into an alternate world where the Nazis and Japanese won WWII, shows how Kornbluth was learning to harness his gifts. The storytelling is less cramped, and the voice behind it has a moral sophistication that some of the earlier work lacked. It makes explicit what all alternate world stories discuss in some way: that choices matter, and have consequences. Even if the title is slightly bullying (were these the only two choices — a world with the bomb, or one where the bad guys won?), "Two Dooms" also gives off one of Kornbluth's more appealing characteristics: a respect for ordinary work and those who do it. There are descriptions of, for instance, a newspaper copydesk in "The Little Black Bag", or a potter's work in "The Marching Morons" that go beyond what the story requires, and show (perhaps) what this most sceptical of men found he could believe in.

His Share of Glory excludes Kornbluth's collaborations with Pohl, such as the Hugo-winning "The Meeting" (1972) — which is included in Platinum Pohl (2005), Tor's retrospective of Pohl's short fiction. Looking at the acknowledgment page brings home one obvious fact about Pohl's career. The oldest story was published in 1949, and the latest in 1996; but unlike many such retrospectives, it doesn't tail off from an initial youthful burst of energy. Included here are more recent stories like "Fermi and Frost" (1985), a Hugo winner, and the inventive alternate-world story "Waiting for the Olympians" (1988). For many, though, "Day Million" (1966) will remain Pohl's signature story. It's short (less than four pages in this reprinting), and astoundingly full of what Bruce Sterling called "eyeball kicks." It's a love story that gets down very quickly to its business of subverting our expectations about gender — a thousand years from now, boys will not be boys, and girls will not be girls. A couple of times, it throws up its hands as it attempts to explain what the future will be like: "I despair of telling you exactly what it was that Don did for a living — I don't mean for the sake of making money, I mean for the sake of giving purpose and meaning to his life, to keep him from going off his nut with boredom — except to say that it involved a lot of travelling." That's a neat trick for conveying the strangeness of the future, but probably only one that can work in a story as short and kinetic as this. At greater length, you have to put more of your cards on the table. But the quickness of Pohl's hand deceives the eye.

Another strand in Pohl's work is the political — or rather, showing how the political would affect the rest of a future world. There's plenty of this in the novella "The Gold at Starbow's End" (1972), where a space expedition is subject to some very pressing (and, in the Nixon era, topical) White House constraints. But, to my mind, even more effective is "The Day the Martians Came" (1967), Pohl's story from Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. It's largely a series of exchanges between a motel manager, Mr. Mandala, and his colored bell-captain, Ernest. Their motel is jammed full of reporters covering the recent arrival of the Martians; the reporters' main preoccupation is telling Martian jokes. ("How do you get a Martian female to give up sex? Marry her!") It becomes clear that the reporters, and the world as a whole, have found another Other to demonise. At the end of the story, Mandala muses that six months from now no-one will remember anything about the Martians, except the jokes. Ernest replies mildly: "Hate to disagree with you... Going to make a difference to some people. Going to make a damn big difference to me." The point is made delicately but precisely.

Any gathering like this is going to omit some stories that are personal favourites: "In the Problem Pit" (1976) is one, and "Outnumbering the Dead" (1991) another. But Platinum Pohl showcases its author's extraordinary versatility and range of concerns; I can think of no better one-volume introduction to his work.

Pohl's career as a novelist shows the same persistent energy, though Man Plus (1976) was his first book for more than a decade. It remains his strongest for me, but many would disagree (see below). Its premise is not a new one: it describes the near-future transformation of a human into a cyborg so that it can inhabit Mars. What Pohl brings to this idea is partly a sense of gritty realism: how much a change like that would hurt the person involved (in this case, a man called Roger Torraway), and those around him. But Pohl is also interested to describe the context that gives rise to the Man Plus programme: the political will, the scarcity-dominated planet, the media frenzy. It's not just that he strips the glamour from an old SF idea, though he clearly does. Nor is it that, as with "The Day the Martians Came", he sees that the dreams we've been dreaming in SF-land have political implications. It's that he manages to make his book alive to all these possibilities, without the story telling us that any one is more important than another. Later Pohl works like Jem (1979) and The Years of the City (1984) have something of the same quality. But Man Plus remains in the mind more readily because it's organised around a single image: the dream, and then the reality, of the lone man on an alien world.

There's one particularly traumatic point in the book, partway through Torraway's shift to cyborg. He has just woken from surgery to find that, without warning, his genitals have been amputated. He reacts so violently to this that the President comes to him to, in effect, beg for him to not give up. It's an extraordinary scene, all the President's charm and political skill brought to bear on a brute fact. His appeal is couched in the same terms as many science-fiction dreams: you alone can save the world by your example of exploration. Science, the personal, and the political, all converge in one moment, as they do in Torraway's person. That the cyborg conversion process works in the end is beside the point: the book's subject is the journey.

Man Plus won the Nebula; its follow-up, Gateway (1976) took both Hugo and Nebula, as well as spawning a series of sequels. Again, there's a straightforward SF premise. An alien artefact, the Gateway, has been discovered: an asteroid spaceport filled with ships which can take humans anywhere. But much of the technology left by the alien Heechee is unfathomable, so using the ships is a lottery. Some allow prospectors to find alien technology which makes them a fortune; some kill their users horribly.

On one level, Gateway works as an allegory of similar situations in human history, most obviously the colonisation of America. But it also gives Pohl a chance, again, to work out and show us a scarcity-driven economy. Food, sex, shelter and other basic human needs are constrained enormously on Gateway, and Pohl does a nice line in dropping into his text adverts, pamphlets and the like from the asteroid. This isn't a new trick — at least as old as Kipling's "With the Night Mail" (1905). But Pohl's fragments counterpoint and bounce off against the story, giving a kaleidoscope of this world that wouldn't be available even if he followed a dozen characters.

Moreover, Gateway allows Pohl to show the effects on humans of this kind of environment. The framing narrative depicts the protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, talking to his robot shrink after the time of his Gateway adventures. The centrepiece of his story is a relationship with a woman named Klara, in many ways an unconventional one. It's formed under unusual and stressful circumstances, and certainly doesn't conform to conventional templates of romantic love. Almost from the start, though, it becomes apparent that nothing matters more to Robinette than Klara. Some things don't change.

As I said, my own preference is for Man Plus over Gateway, partly because the former achieves its effects without any alien artefact to bootstrap us into the cosmos. But Gateway is the more readable of the two, and despite its intensely dark picture of human nature, the more expansive and playful. Both books could, I suppose, be described as cynical, expressions of realpolitik extended to every sphere of life. But Pohl is always willing to press on beyond cynicism, without ever kidding himself or us. SF is always, to some extent, about kidding ourselves: at least some of the speculation is beyond our present knowledge. So I mean it as high praise to say that among SF authors, Pohl is the great realist.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of the ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we cover over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


At Friday, April 20, 2007 9:50:00 AM, Todd Mason said...

"Colored" or even "coloured" isn't any longer the preferred term, at very least over here...particularly if we're supposed to think of the boss as "white" (when I read this story, "The Day [After the Day] the Martians Came" as a young'n, I didn't know what a mandala was, so I probably should revisit that to see if there's any new significance for me in that--the variant title, as Pohl noted in his memoirs, being a sort of payback prank Ellison played on Pohl for the latter's tendency to change the titles of stories he published in his magazines).

At Wednesday, April 25, 2007 11:14:00 PM, Graham said...

Re "Coloured", thanks, Todd - I'd not known this but no offence intended, of course.


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