Saturday, March 22, 2014

Two early 1950s short stories by C. M. Kornbluth: "The Altar at Midnight" and "The Adventurer"

On March 12 of this year I explained why I avoid Cyril Kornbluth's work and panned his famous and influential story "The Marching Morons."  But I try to keep an open mind at this here blog, so today I read two more Kornbluth stories, both available for free to all us cheapskates at  The gutenberg versions are the original magazine versions, and include the original art by Freas and Ashman.

"The Altar at Midnight" (1952)  

This is sort of a hard-boiled story set in the Skid Row of some Earth town.  The narrator meets a spaceship crew member in a strip bar and takes him to a different bar, one inhabited by crippled drunks who enjoy telling the stories of how they were crippled working for the railroad.  The spacer explains how the regular changes in air pressure and the hard radiation in space have damaged his body, how being a spacer is risky, gets you involved in trouble with women, damages relationships with your family, weakens your religious faith, coarsens your morals, etc.  It turns out that the narrator is the scientist who made space travel possible.  He feels guilty about his accomplishment, because of how rough space travel is on people and (it is hinted) because Earth's Cold War tensions have spread to the moon (where there is some kind of missile base) and maybe Mars and Venus.  

The story is short and to the point, which I appreciated.  Its pessimism about space travel reminded me of Murray Leinster's Other Side of Nowhere (1964) and Edmond Hamilton's "What's it Like Out There?", also published in 1952.  Then there is the story's bleak view of the railroad.  It is remarkable how many science fiction writers and stories express ambiguous or even hostile attitudes towards technological advances - in just the last few days I read L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (1940), in which he blamed modern war on "machinery," and of course there are many more examples, even before talk about pollution and ecology and the environment became de rigueur around 1970.  

"The Altar at Midnight" is an effective story, even if you aren't some kind of Luddite who thinks that the locomotive and rocket ship were a mistake.  It is economical, the tone is consistent, and the style is not bad.  It is no great masterpiece, but it is worth reading.

"The Adventurer" (1953)

In the future the United States (called "the Republic") is a tyrannical hereditary monarchy, wracked by coup attempts and fights among the elite over succession, perhaps reminiscent of the struggles for succession we see in the Roman Empire.  The United States is still locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union; this conflict has extended out into the solar system, including on Io, which is half Soviet and half Republican.  The story follows events in Washington among the politicians and on Io, where a shooting war breaks out and a charismatic young officer becomes a hero.  Like Caesar or Napoleon, the young man turns on the Republic and makes himself ruler.  It is revealed that his rise was engineered by patriotic conspirators who wanted to end the current political system, but instead of embracing the conspirators, the young officer, who declares himself a god, has them all executed.

This story seems pointless.  The satirical elements, the adventure elements, and the trick ending elements are all weak.  Was Kornbluth just projecting a silly romantic theory of history (that on occasion great men rise up to take over and revive moribund empires) onto the future in order to ridicule it?      

Embedded in the story is an interesting idea, a future art form whose main focus is not line or form or color or composition (as in a painting or sculpture) but texture; one doesn't appreciate these art objects primarily by looking at them but instead by touching them.  I guess this is maybe a joke, perhaps an ironic reference to money (the art objects are called "fingering pieces") but I found it the most memorable part of a weak story.


So, one average story and one poor story.  There is a third Kornbluth piece available at gutenberg, The Syndic, but it is a full length novel and I'm not feeling up to it after the almost useless "The Adventurer."  The Syndic in 1986 received a Prometheus Award for being a "Classic Libertarian SF novel," which is intriguing, so I will probably read it someday, but not today.   

1 comment:

  1. I think the The Altar at Midnight should be considered in relation to the much more positive approach of pulp at the time. I mean, it is an outlier of a story... Technological critiques are, as you point out, something much more of the 60s.