C. M. Kornbluth
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
C. M Kornbluth's writing career began in 1940, when he was 17 and sold a poem to Super Science Stories and a story to Astonishing Science Fiction. Over the next eighteen years, Kornbluth sold scores of stories and several novels, often alone, but frequently with collaborators including Frederik Pohl, Judith Merril, Dirk Wylie, Donald Wollheim, and others. His most famous works are the short stories "The Marching Morons," "The Little Black Bag," and, with Pohl, The Space Merchants. In 1958, Kornbluth, only 34, died of an heart attack. In his new biography, C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, Mark Rich attempts to introduce Kornbluth to a broader readership.
Rich opens the book with a quick look at where Kornbluth grew up, on the extreme north end of Manhattan island. He quickly settles down to the period in which Kornbluth discovered science fiction and science fiction fandom, populating the book not only with Kornbluth, but also with a large support cast of the movers and shakers of science fiction fandom in the 1930. At the time, Kornbluth was involved with the Futurians. This affiliation limits Rich from presenting a full portrait of science fiction in New York since the Futurians were at odds with the Greater New York Science Fiction Club. To discuss both organizations is clearly beyond the scope of the work, and so, while Rich does give a strong indication of what was happening in New York at the time, it is not a complete view.1
Against this background, Rich examines the beginnings of Kornbluth's career as a writer. Kornbluth found himself spending quite a bit of time in the Ivory Tower, the home of several older Futurians who were already on their own. Rich shows a culture of collaboration, in which Kornbluth would frequently work with whomever happened to be in the room for both his fannish writing and his professional writing. At the same time, Rich is clear that Kornbluth was not relying on any co-author as a crutch. From the very beginning, Kornbluth was a competent author in his own right. Perhaps the most surprising part of the volume has little to do with Kornbluth, but rather Rich's portrayal of Pohl, whose collaborations with Kornbluth often come across as little more than a business arrangement.
Eventually, Kornbluth grew older and continued with his life, meeting his wife, Mary, joining the army during World War II, and leaving New York for a few years. Rich looks at how these changes helped him expand his view of the world beyond even what science fiction had done and influenced his writing. Unfortunately, Kornbluth's story is one of tragedy. Despite a career nearly twenty years long, just as Kornbluth was about to become the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he collapsed while shoveling his drive and died on March 22, 1958, just shy of his 35th birthday.
Of course, the primary purpose of C. M. Kornbluth is to provide a biography of the author, and Rich does an admirable job of it. The secondary purpose is to look at Kornbluth's literary output, and Rich does as well as he can given his constraints. However, as the work is non-fiction and does not contain any of the works Rich is discussing, it isn't complete, no matter how thorough a discussion Rich has of the works. For those who are reading Rich's autobiography of Kornbluth without the author's deep knowledge of Kornbluth's writings, the two volumes of Kornbluth's work published by NESFA Press are highly recommended for simultaneous exploration.2
Rich's work is a wonderful memorial to Cyril Kornbluth. Not only does Rich provide information about Kornbluth's professional life as a writer, but he also looks at the non-professional life, the friends, and the world that influenced and formed Kornbluth's writing. C. M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary succeeds admirably at being what other author biographies only hope to achieve. For anyone interested in the evolution of science fiction, as both a literary genre and a culture, Rich's work is required reading.
1For anyone interested in a more complete look at the world of New York fandom in the 1930s and 40s, see Jack Speer's Up To Now, Sam Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm, Damon Knight's The Futurians, Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was, Isaac Asimov's In Memory Yet Green, and Harry Warner, Jr.'s All Our Yesterdays.
2C. M. Kornbluth, His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth, edited Timothy Szczesuil. NESFA Press, 1997; and Judith Merril & C. M. Kornbluth, Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, edited by Elisabeth Carey & Rick Katze . NESFA Press, 2009.
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