Jul 022021

Today is the birthday (1923) of science fiction writer Cyril Kornbluth whose name probably draws a blank for most people because he died of a heart attack at age 35 in 1958.  I first came across his work when I found a copy of Gladiator-at-Law (co-authored with Fred Pohl) in the flat I was renting in Oxford as an undergraduate, at a time when I thought reading sci-fi was more useful than slogging through Hebrew or Greek Bible texts.  Later I found the rest of his limited oeuvre and lapped it up. He used a variety of pen-names, including Cecil Corwin, S. D. Gottesman, Edward J. Bellin, Kenneth Falconer, Walter C. Davies, Simon Eisner, Jordan Park, Arthur Cooke, Paul Dennis Lavond, and Scott Mariner, but tracking down his short stories is not too difficult these days because they have mostly been collected under his real name.

Kornbluth was born and grew up in the uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, in New York City. He was of Polish Jewish descent, the son of a World War I veteran and grandson of a tailor, a Jewish immigrant from Galicia. According to his widow, Kornbluth was a precocious child, learning to read by the age of three and writing his own stories by the time he was seven. He graduated from high school at thirteen, received a CCNY scholarship at fourteen, and was “thrown out for leading a student strike” without graduating.

As a teenager, he became a member of the Futurians, an influential group of science fiction fans and writers. While a member of the Futurians, he met and became friends with Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Robert A. W. Lowndes, and his future wife Mary Byers. He also participated in the Fantasy Amateur Press Association.

Kornbluth served in the US Army during World War II. He received a Bronze Star for his service in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was a member of a heavy machine gun crew. Upon his discharge, he returned to finish his education at the University of Chicago under the G.I. Bill. While living in Chicago he also worked at Trans-Radio Press, a news wire service. In 1951 he started writing full-time, returning to the East Coast where he collaborated on novels with his old Futurian friends Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril.

Kornbluth began writing for publication at 15. His first solo story, “The Rocket of 1955”, was published in Richard Wilson’s fanzine Escape (Vol. 1, No 2, August 1939); his first collaboration, “Stepsons of Mars,” written with Richard Wilson and published under the name Ivar Towers, appeared in the April 1940 Astonishing. His other short fiction includes “The Little Black Bag”, “The Marching Morons”, “The Altar at Midnight”, “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, “Gomez” and “The Advent on Channel Twelve”.

“The Little Black Bag” was first adapted for television live on the television show Tales of Tomorrow on May 30, 1952. It was later adapted for television by the BBC in 1969 for its Out of the Unknown series. In 1970, the same story was adapted by Rod Serling for an episode of his Night Gallery series. This dramatization starred Burgess Meredith as the alcoholic Dr. William Fall, who had long lost his doctor’s license and become a homeless alcoholic. He finds a bag containing advanced medical technology from the future, which, after an unsuccessful attempt to pawn it, he uses benevolently.

Many of Kornbluth’s novels were written as collaborations: either with Judith Merril (using the pseudonym Cyril Judd), or with Frederik Pohl. These latter include Gladiator-At-Law and The Space Merchants. The Space Merchants contributed significantly to the evolution of the genre of science fiction from a teenage and young adult audience to a broader and more mature fan base, partly because it was a massive jab in the eye for rabid consumer culture and its devastating effects on the environment – and this was first published sixty years ago !! One wonders what he might have produced had Kornbluth lived longer.  His collaboration with Pohl, Wolfbane (1959), reads like a prequel to The Matrix, and may well have been an inspiration. Dunno. First thing I thought when I saw The Matrix was, “This is a ripoff of Wolfbane” (and I have never seen any credits in this regard). The only problem a modern reader may have with his writing is Kornbluth’s aw-gee-shucks cornball 1950s writing manner. Men piloting rockets to the moon in the 23rd century sound like 1940s Brooklyn street hustlers. Besides collaborations, Kornbluth also wrote several novels under his own name, including The Syndic and Not This August.

The delectable New York pastry of Polish-Jewish origin (like Kornbluth himself) are rugelach. I used to buy them at New York bakeries, but you can make them yourself:


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