In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never experienced before in order to get a feel for their style.
This month’s selection was voted on by subscribers to my monthly email newsletter from a short list I provided. Wolfe was first published in 1965, and quickly established himself as a regular in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies. (A quick word on Knight. Although I was not terribly impressed by his fiction, the man had impeccable taste when putting together original anthologies. If you ever come across an issue of Orbit do yourself a favor and give it a read.) Orbit stories tended to be avant-garde, which made them somewhat controversial among science fiction fans. (It didn’t take the advent of Star Trek, Star Wars, or the internet to make science fiction fans argumentative.) Through the 1970s, Wolfe’s style got more sophisticated and weird. His most famous work, The Book of the New Sun series, is a four book extended science fantasy novel, and is considered a stand-out of the genre.
But I’ve never read any of that.
For my first Gene Wolfe readings I picked two stories with neat sounding titles, concluded by one of Wolfe’s award winning novellas.
Originally published in Orbit 3 (1968)
Read in same
In Damon Knight’s introduction to this story in Orbit 3 he writes, “In my book of critical essays… I made a distinction between stories that make sense and those that mean something. I am unable to “make sense” out of this one – to make it add up neatly and come out even – but I strongly feel that it means something, just as Kafka’s The Trial or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery does.” I got a kick out of that because I’ve often been confused by stories in Orbit, which was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction characterized by more “literary” stories that experimented with form and style, often focused on “soft” as opposed to “hard” science fiction elements, and overall guided by a rejection of the pulp establishment. You might think that as a scientist I prefer hard science fiction, but honestly I love them both. My favorite kind of science fiction is heavy on metaphor and social commentary (which tends to occur more in “soft” science fiction), but I also love Asimov, who was one of the “hard” science fiction adherents (and often a dick about it).
The Changeling is absolutely great. We get a nice setup of a disgraced soldier returning to his home town for lack of any better options. His parents have long since passed away, but he runs across the family of a childhood friend who insist on housing him for a while, and that’s where things get weird. I don’t want to give anything else away, because the complete unpredictability of the story was part of what I really liked, but suffice it to say that – like Damon Knight – at the end I don’t think I really understand what happened, but whatever it was I dig it.
How the Whip Came Back
Originally published in Orbit 6 (1970)
Read in same
I picked this one because I was intrigued as to what the title could mean, and was surprised at how dark it turned. Like in the first story, Wolfe drops you into a world with little introduction, and you spend a good percentage of the story just finding your footing. Even in this, his most straightforward science fiction tale of the three I read, his writing has an unsettling quality where you are always left questioning the very nature of the world. Sadly, the world he described in 1970 is shockingly similar to the one in which we all now live. The story centers around only two characters, both “observers” with ceremonial rolls at the United Nations. The main character is a woman that represents the largest international charity organization in existence. The supporting character is the Pope of the Catholic church, which is essentially the last of the dying religions. The short narrative describes a single scene with our two characters discussing a proposed global law that will turn all prisoners into slaves, available for lease until their prison sentences are up. All nations are in agreement and support of the idea, but they would like the ceremonial support of these two individuals that, quite frankly, form the moral wing of the organization. To put it bluntly, “how the whip came back” refers to how the slave trade, long since abolished, returns with enthusiasm.
It is worth noting that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the nation, reads in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That legal loophole has been exploited to great success to this day as prisoners are routinely forced to perform work for the profit of the state and private business, receiving a paltry wage of pennies an hour for their efforts. Despite what you might have been told, slavery is still big business in the United States, and its existence is adamantly justified by those that believe that punishment is the sole purpose of incarceration.
In all fairness, it didn’t take a great prescient mind to look at forced prison labor and extrapolate it to its logical end. What it did take was someone who gave a shit about it in 1970, and for that simple fact I’m really starting to like Gene Wolfe.
The Death of Doctor Island
Originally published in Universe 3 (1973)
Read in Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Chronologically, this is where I suspect Wolfe had fully come into his weird (some would say “literary”) style. This story won both the Nebula and Lotus awards for Best Novella in 1974, so you’d be right to suspect that it is good. Though it does feel a bit 1970s sci-fi, I’d go so far as to say it holds up to modern standards. (As a counterpoint, How the Whip Came Back felt outdated to modern standards in that it lacked any metaphor in its oral argument, and The Changeling would read as cliché if it was published today.) Once again Wolfe throws us into a confusing world, this time one where up is literally down, and leaves us to find our own way for a good chunk of the story. Since this is a novella, that chunk is a lot of pages, and it is only through Wolfe’s skill to intrigue me that I was interested in continuing to read until more was revealed. This is a story of what lengths a society will go to in order to fix those with potential, at the ultimate expense of those with none. In that respect it is similar to How the Whip Came Back in that there is an element of society working to exploit those on the bottom to benefit those at the top, something that I suspect Wolfe touched on throughout his stories given its presence in these two (and to a small extent in the first one as well, contained in the reason for the soldier’s disgrace). The Death of Doctor Island is an outstanding novella, and definitely one of the best I’ve ever read, classic or modern.
Gene Wolfe flew under my radar for a long time, despite being well known even until his death in 2019 at the age of 87. Wolfe’s last book, published posthumously in 2020, was submitted to his publisher shortly before his death and is a sequel to his 2015 novel The Borrowed Man, and both seem to have been well received. It’s always nice to hear of a “vintage” author still finding a modern audience through new work that they are able to keep fresh.
A number of vintage science fiction writers well worthy of renown are undergoing a period of rediscovery, and Cyril M. Kornbluth is yet another example. Frequently writing with his childhood friend and fellow science fiction author Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth’s solo publications were mostly short stories. Pohl and Kornbluth had been friends since they were teenagers, when Pohl lived in Brooklyn just down the street from Isaac Asimov’s parent’s candy store; the same store where Asimov himself first read a science fiction magazine off the rack. (New York City in the 1920 was a major nexus point of science fiction, but even knowing that it’s a bit of a shock to learn that Asimov, Pohl, and Kornbluth knew each other as teens.)
Kornbluth is another example of an author I knew before I knew him, because one of my absolute favorite Night Gallery episodes was based on one of his short stories. The ability to convert a 1950 story into an early-1970s TV show gives you some idea how forward thinking Kornbluth was. The tone and quality of his stories would easily fit into the 1960s-1970s, and one has to keep in mind that he mostly wrote from 1940-1958 to appreciate his skill. Kornbluth passed away suddenly at the age of 34 of a heart attack when racing to catch a train that was to take him to a job interview for potentially taking over editorial duties for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I wonder what direction Kornbluth could have taken such a venerable publication, and it’s a shame we’ll never know what he could have accomplished, as he was clearly just getting started.
It’s hard to not assign at least partial blame for Kornbluth’s death to his personal habits. Even his friends (Pohl and Asimov among them) testify that he was a very odd man. Supposedly he never brushed his teeth, to the point that they were actually green. This fact struck me as there has long been a connection between oral hygiene and heart health. At a time of strange characters writing science fiction, Kornbluth was clearly one of the strangest.
The Rocket of 1955
Originally published in the fanzine Escape, August 1939
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This was Kornbluth’s first solo story publication, and appeared in a fanzine. Any time I have an author’s first story I like to add it to the Trifecta along with a later story to see any evolution. I might not have picked this story if I’d known how short it was – about a page and a half – but it did give me an indication of what seems to be a hallmark for Kornbluth, which is a vague hinting at what is happening rather than hitting the reader upside the head. Kornbluth wants the reader to think their way through the evidence he provides in the story to figure out what is happening, rather than putting it in plain black-and-white. This is something a lot of modern science fiction writers still don’t do (but I find is common in horror); there is always that drive to provide for the lowest common denominator of reader. Kornbluth seemed perfectly happy to swing above a reader’s head, which was definitely an uncommon approach in 1939 sci-fi. I have to admit that I was a little confused by this story and gave it a reread to pick up on it, and I think I got it the second time. Quite simply, this story tells the sordid tale of the world’s first rocket launch to space, which doesn’t go exactly as the passenger expects. Definitely worth a read, and you can do so online.
The Little Black Bag
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
This one probably has to be Kornbluth’s best based on its accolades. It won the 2001 Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novelette (of 1951), and has been adapted into at least three television episodes, including one of my favorite episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. This is the story of a drunk, disgraced doctor and a medical bag from the future so advanced that it is almost magical. The story is fairly similar to the Night Gallery episode, except that the sidekick character is a woman in the original story, which I think actually plays a lot better. Both the story and the episode are worth your time, especially since the episode stars the incomparable Burgess Meredith as the protagonist. It looks like Escape Pod has the story available online, as well as an audio version, if you’re into that kind of thing.
The Marching Morons
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951
Read in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth
I came across several mentions of this story when researching Kornbluth, and it is cited as a sequel to The Little Black Bag, so I had to give it a read. This story is notable because Kornbluth not only revisits the future world that created the titular “black bag” of the previous story, but he also utilizes the same vague hinting around that he did in The Rocket of 1955, though he makes it a bit clearer at the last moment here. I don’t know if Kornbluth originated the idea at the core of the film Idiocracy (I suspect he didn’t), but it is too similar to not have been an inspiration for the film. Kornbluth latches onto the idea that idiots have more kids than well educated people do, to the point that evolution basically splits the human species. The vast majority of the world is populated by barely functioning morons who are fooled by the super-intelligent, but numerically inferior, super-humans, into thinking that they run the world. Meanwhile the super-humans are at the mercy of the idiot masses, working themselves to death just to try to keep the world from going boom. In walks a cryogenically preserved “average man” of our time (yeah, it’s almost verbatim the same setup as Idiocracy) who the super-humans hope can find a solution to The Problem. Mild spoiler here, but The Problem they struggle to solve is essentially “How the fuck do we get rid of all these morons?!” Our man-from-the-present has a way, and it’s something none of the super-humans would ever think of. It’s an interesting read, and is considered by some to be one of the best science fiction novellas published before 1965. Since it first appeared in Galaxy this is yet another story you can read for free online. (See, I take good care of you, fine reader. All three stories this month are available just a click away.)
I think Pohl described his friend best when he wrote “Cyril was a wise as well as a talented man. He was also a sardonic soul. The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishness of mankind. His target was not always Man in the abstract and general. Sometimes it was one particular man, or woman, thinly disguised as a character in a story – and thinly sliced, into quivering bits. Once or twice it was me.”*
I have a feeling I would have got along really well with Kornbluth. Except maybe for his epically bad breath.
*From Pohl’s introduction to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, published 1976.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.