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.
There are so many writers that I can do Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta articles on that it usually doesn’t take much to tip me toward a specific author. The impetus for this article was too good to pass up. Jason Kehe has a recent article on Wired that is making the rounds about how R. A. Lafferty is the best science fiction short story writer that you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: I had heard of him. As Kehe argues, if you come across the name R. A. Lafferty it tends to stick with you, and indeed it did, as I recalled the name from browsing my vintage sci-fi anthologies. But even then I only knew him as one name among many, so after reading Kehe’s article I dug through my collection, using Kehe as a guide, and selected three stories. Each is mentioned at least in passing in Kehe’s article, and each was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine and is available for free on the Internet Archive! Which means you can join me in the fun this time, if you were so inclined.
Let’s dig in!
Primary Education of the Camiroi
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1966
Read in same
Kehe describes Lafferty’s writing as kind of punch-drunk satirical. I have to say that reading these stories I didn’t get the sense of his writing not making sense, as Kehe implied. I’ve read some 1970s sci-fi that is more about syllable beat than good sentence structure (I’m not a fan, for the most part), but I didn’t get that impression from Lafferty. In fact, I really liked his writing and found it had a nice poetic cadence. I absolutely did experience Lafferty’s timeless satire, especially in this story. I don’t often burst out laughing when reading, but I did during this story. The basic premise if that a group of humans travel to the Camiroi homeworld to observe their system of education at work. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve ever talked with any parents stuck up about how their kids go to the best schools… well, there’s a pretty clear indictment of cultural superiority complexes here. It felt as accurate and timely now as I’m sure it did in 1966. My only real criticism is that about a third of its ten page length is dedicated to a Camiori syllabus, which is little more than a bullet list. It got a bit tedious for me, but I did find some laughs throughout. I chalk that more up to the evolved taste of modern science fiction, as I’m pretty sure it was jabbingly clever in 1966.
Slow Tuesday Night
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1965
Read in same
This is oddity on full display. The sci-fi premise is dispensed with very quickly and in a sentence or two; some achievement blocker in the human brain has been removed in everyone, so now our full brain power is unlocked. Not the most original premise, but read enough science fiction and original premises are extremely rare; the trick is what an author does with it. Lafferty uses “unleashed human intellect” to describe a world where every night is an opportunity to live a lifetime. Fortunes are made and lost in minutes. A homeless man becomes the richest man on Earth seven times in a single night. The storytelling is factual and unemotional, which heightens the satire to an expert level. I consider satire the highest form of comedy, and science fiction the highest form of fiction (it’s my blog and I’m entitled to my opinions), so this story was stand out for me.
Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1967
Read in same
Kehe calls this one of Lafferty’s best, so of course I ended the trifecta with it. Again a satire, here I did start to see a bit of the confusing side of Lafferty’s writing, particularly in the climax. Essentially a protracted joke about the “smartest people on Earth” trying to alter history and watch it change before their eyes, only failing to realize that changing history changes their history as well. Kind of a “time travel for dummies” idiot plot, but rendered in a satirical way so as to be fun, not frustrating. (For more on idiot plots see my article on Damon Knight, which I admit is not a flattering statement.)
One thing that struck me about all three of these R. A. Lafferty stories is just how short they were – around ten pages each. He clearly realized his own talent at the short story form, and by my accounts he was a master at it. Kehe is right, it really is a tragedy that more science fiction readers aren’t familiar with Lafferty, and I’ll definitely be reading every one of his short stories that I can get my hands on. Kehe’s article seems timed to coincide with the release last month of Tor’s The Best of R. A. Lafferty which features a list of introductions that reads as a who’s who of not only sci-fi but Western culture: Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Harlan Ellison, and Patton Oswalt, to name a few. (I can see Patton Oswalt totally loving Lafferty, the style fits.) So here’s my plug. Read the above stories for free, and if you liked them, consider picking up that new Tor book. Despite having quite a few Lafferty stories randomly sprinkled through my collection I’m strongly considering ordering it at my local book store. There’s something nice about a curated collection.
It’s been a few months since my first round of recommendations for the horror streaming service Shudder so I thought I’d throw together another five films to watch if you’re looking for some clever entertainment off the beaten path. Most of these are either Shudder Originals or exclusive to the streaming site, but a few are also on Amazon Prime or available to rent, so check around.
I watched this one prior to its appearance on Shudder, but I was happy to see it show up there. More of a suspenseful sci-fi drama than a horror movie, Coherence follows a group of friends at a dinner party that just happens to coincide with the passing of a comet that turns out to have the ability to shatter the walls between parallel universes. Past wrongs, personal failings, and dark secrets collide in this creative and well executed indy film. Fans of Buffy may get a kick out of Nicholas Brendon’s performance, especially if they’re familiar with the actor’s personal history. Looks like this one is also available on Amazon Prime, and can be rented.
The Mortuary Collection
A movie so fun I watched it twice. Within a week. A great anthology film with an even better framing sequence tying it all together. Excellent writing, directing, acting, and music… yeah, it’s basically perfect. Fans of the original Creepshow movie will love this one. Evidently my opinion is not an island, as there are rumors of a sequel – or even a franchise – in the works. Yes, please.
Probably the weakest entry on this list, it is still a film worthy of your time, but to explain why I feel that way might require a short rant. (This is a blog, after all.) My biggest peeve when watching a movie is bad writing. This isn’t, as you might suspect, because I’m a writer. It is a pure economic objection. Beyond a doubt, when it comes to filmmaking the absolute cheapest component is the script. To hire even three actors will generally cost more than the script. The time investment of the cast and crew is immense. Supplying sets? Expensive. I contend that this scales. Big budget movies are built on big names and big set pieces. Small movies are built on small names and small sets. No matter the scale though, the writing is the cheapest part, and is only limited by one or more people sitting around imagining and typing. Knowing that immense time and money is going to go into filming the script, what’s the justification for a crummy one? I’ve seen five minute films that were better than some two hour Hollywood “blockbusters.”
Okay, so Head Count. This is not a perfect movie, and to be honest I didn’t love the ending. That being said, I have a soft spot for any film that even closely approaches a one room drama (it is probably worth mentioning that Coherence also fits into this category). Head Count largely takes place in an Air BnB vacation home occupied by a bunch of college kids. The college kid drama is actually minimal, and we’re shown a generally welcoming group of young adults who are partying on spring break. Into this scene comes a supernatural entity, invited through a minimalistic – though clever – plot technique. What ensues is a fun head scratcher with lots of enjoyable twists and turns, with quality writing and directing. Also available on Amazon Prime.
Color Out of Space
Adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories are perhaps more numerous than the stories themselves, but good adaptations are more rare than an unracist Lovecraft story. One exception to the quality aspect is adaptations of The Colour Out of Space. It is undoubtedly one of his best stories, and easy to adapt while still being true to the original. The basic premise is that a weird-noncorporeal-space-thing comes down from the stars to live in a farmer’s well, poisoning the land and his family. Of course, we’re talking Lovecraft here, so the poisoning is of their minds and souls. That story presents a very fertile ground (pun intended) to play in. Add to that setup the possibility of another film featuring a screaming mad Nicholas Cage (re. Mandy, also available on Shudder) and you have the makings of one hell of a crazy ride. This one is classic Lovecraftian fun, and is actually a great movie on its own.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another outstanding Colour adaptation which precedes this one. Die Farbe is an underappreciated German adaptation which delivers a much more toned down and sinister experience. To my knowledge this one can only be seen if purchased as a DVD from the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society store, but if you’re a die hard Lovecraft fan and movie buff it’s worth it.
One Cut of the Dead
My opinion of this film is summed up in two points. First, it is a perfectly executed ode to passionate filmmaking that is practically a masterpiece. Second, this is not a zombie movie. It’s hardly even a horror movie, but given the fact that humans like categories a horror streaming service is the natural home for this film. This Japanese film was made on a slim budget of $25,000 with an unknown cast. At last estimate it had grossed nearly $27,000,000 internationally. This is exactly what I was ranting about: it has a stellar script, quality acting (from prior unknowns), and skilled directing. One of its claims to fame is that the movie starts with a single camera – uncut – 37 minute long zombie film. This is a real uncut sequence, not some camera trickery, and it is incredible. That gets you about 40% of the way through the film, so what is the rest of the runtime about? That’s where the genius of this movie comes in. I’m not going to spoil it because I knew nothing but the above going in, and the discovery was a lot of fun for me. What I do think has to be said is that there are no “real” zombies in this movie, since we’re talking about a movie about making a zombie movie. This means that all the tropes familiar to zombie movie fans don’t play out, but I can’t hold that against such an amazing accomplishment. Highly recommended.
That’s all for now, but I managed to sneak more than five movie recommendations into this post, so I’ve left you all with plenty of extra credit work.
My selection of Kate Wilhelm for this column is something of a companion piece, as I’d just recently read my first three stories by her husband, Damon Knight. After not liking Knight’s work I wasn’t sure how his wife would fair (in my experience husband and wife writers tend to converge to the same style) but I was pleasantly surprised by Wilhelm’s offerings.
Kate Wilhelm, apart from having a fifty year writing career, is perhaps best known to science fiction writers as the co-founder (along with Damon Knight) of the Clarion Writers Workshop which has produced many of the world’s leading science fiction writers of the last few decades. Something you might notice about our three stories is that they all appeared in the original science fiction anthology series Orbit. This made me a little weary at first, as Orbit was edited by Damon Knight, so there’s clearly some back patting going on. That fear was not justified as these are all top quality, even by today’s standards.
Baby, You Were Great
Originally published in Orbit 2
Read in The Future is Female
This story was reprinted in several anthologies I own, and that’s generally an indicator that it is among the author’s best, so what better place to start?
One of the many definitions of science fiction floating around is that the genre explores mankind’s relationship to technology. This story takes that view quite literally, exploring man’s – and through what is done to them, women’s – relationship to technology to a logical peak. The story opens with an audition where two men are trying to find a woman who will react in a suitably emotional manner to being raped. (Suitably emotional because some women simply shut down, not feeling what was going on, which is not what they are after.) Believe it or not, from there the story gets even darker. Predicated on a technology that allows for the recording and broadcasting of emotional responses, the most successful television show in the world is a Truman Show like experience where a particular woman is subjected to various emotional highs and lows. I don’t want to give more away, as I went into this one cold and was deeply shaken by it, but if you have the chance to read this one definitely do so. It’s not an entirely comfortable or enjoyable ride, but it’s an exemplary story.
It’s no surprise that this story was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1968, which led me to wonder what it lost to. The culprit was Samuel R. Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah… which sounds like a perfect candidate for a future edition of this column.
Originally published in Orbit 3
Read in same
Having been robbed of the Nebula the year before, Wilhelm took the prize home in 1969 for this short story. I have to admit with substantial embarrassment that I didn’t really understand this story. As a testament to her writing, I don’t think it was bad, and I did enjoy reading it, but I wasn’t able to pull all the strings together in my head. It does give off a heavy Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Flowers for Algernon vibe, which I enjoyed a lot and I suspect are part of why it got the Nebula. This story did succeed in cementing in my mind a perception of Wilhelm’s fiction as visceral. Her writing bleeds emotion that touched raw nerves within me.
April Fool’s Day Forever
Originally published in Orbit 7
Read in same
This one was a random selection based on the title, and though I’m not sure what I was expecting it definitely wasn’t this. A long and meandering story (definitely novella length), April Fool’s Day Forever takes its time to get where it’s going, but the journey is enjoyable. Once revealed, the plot is intriguing, and the slow roll of the story makes it all the more natural it the way it comes out. For that reason I’m not even going to tell you what the plot is, just that in the end I was left shaken once again by Wilhelm’s raw emotional undercurrents.
There’s lots of reasons to read science fiction, but my love of sci-fi comes from its ability to hold a funhouse mirror to society and show us the best and worst parts of ourselves. Often when that is done the writing lacks emotion. Kate Wilhelm succeeds in showing us the absolute worst parts of ourselves in stories steeped in science fiction tradition, while still managing to make us feel something. As a closing, I found this delightful short clip of an interview where she talks about selling her first short story. I have to say that the technical skill of her writing is definitely high craft, so her statement that “I can do that” rings true across time.
Largely lost to modern science fiction fans, Damon Knight was influential in sci-fi from the 1950s-1970s, not so much as a writer but as one of the early critics advocating that science fiction be taken as a literary art form and held to the same standards as “straight” literature. The introduction to The Best of Damon Knight claims that Knight first became known in science fiction circles after “a classic demolition in a fan magazine (despite the fact that the magazine had a circulation of no more than two hundred, the review had significant consequences upon two careers)”. I have no idea who he reviewed in that take-down, but I would sure love to read it!
We’ll get to some more autobiographical details through the lens of our three stories. First up could be none other than –
To Serve Man
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950 (click to read the issue on the Internet Archive)
Read in The Best of Damon Knight
If Damon Knight is known by name to any science fiction fans of my generation it would undoubtedly be for his short story To Serve Man which was the basis for the classic Twilight Zone episode of the same name. This is such a classic episode that even those that haven’t seen it will know the ending (“It’s a cookbook!”), perhaps from the excellent Simpsons parody. As such, I have no reservations about spoiling the story’s twist ending. Knight’s story starts quite brilliantly, with the Kanamit portrayed visually differently than in the Twilight Zone episode. I absolutely love the opening paragraph.
The Kanamit were not very pretty, it’s true. They looked something like pigs and something like people, and that is not an attractive combination. Seeing them for the first time shocked you; that was their handicap. When a thing with the countenance of a fiend comes from the stars and offers a gift, you are disinclined to accept.
As opening paragraphs go this is basically perfect. In four sentences we know that the story is about an alien race called the Kanamit, that they are vaguely humanoid and repulsive in appearance, and that they want to give humanity some form of gift. Not to mention the brilliance of making the alien race that wants to eat people look like pigs. Outstanding!
Unfortunately, the story declines in quality after that. Everything holds together well enough, but the story is written as a very short stream of consciousness, with the entire thing racing by at breakneck pace. As a result, the ending falls pretty flat because of its abrupt reveal and muted emotions. I’m sorry to say that I think the plot was better executed in the Twilight Zone. Perhaps we should forgive Knight, because The Best of Damon Knight comes with brief story introductions by the author, and this one reads, in its entirety,
‘To Serve Man’ was written in 1950, when I was living in Greenwich Village and my unhappy first marriage was breaking up. I wrote it in one afternoon, while my wife was out with another man.
An Eye for a What?
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, March 1957 (click to read the issue on the Internet Archive)
Read in The World That Couldn’t Be (a collection of novellas that first appeared in Galaxy)
One of Knight’s contributions to literary criticism was to popularize the excellent term “idiot plot,” defined as a plot which only functions because everybody in the story is an idiot. A prominent example of this is Back to the Future II, in which Doc recklessly uses self-evidently dangerous time travel to help his friend stop his unborn child from making a bad decision. (Could Doc not just have told Marty to do a better job raising his kid?) Mentioning the idiot plot is appropriate here because this story has a one hundred percent idiot plot.
The novella revolves around a vaguely defined group of humans aboard a space station orbiting an alien world which they hope to rape for all its natural resources. Native to this world is a species of intelligent gelatinous balls, one of which lives on the space station as a sort of exchange, the goal of which is to get the gelatinous elders to agree to massive strip-mining or their planet. While at a state dinner, the normally polite resident ball attacks the commander’s wife, who, being a woman, is in hysterics for the rest of the story. The alien society says that the humans must punish their resident alien for his transgression, and if the humans don’t do it, then the alien society will attack all of the humans presently on the planet. So the humans must punish the alien, not knowing why he did what he did or even what a suitable punishment is.
This is where the idiot plot comes in, since brief and unbelievable excuses are made as to why they can’t just ask what the hell is going on. Instead, the story degenerates into a quest to torture this alien, not knowing what methods will even work. Oh, but the first idea they have amounts to water boarding! The story gets increasingly dumb from there, and not in a fun way. In the end, the entire thing basically amounts to a fat joke directed at the commander’s wife, which along with “automatic whistles” at a few passing women on page one, really sets a tone for this story that can fuck right off.
Overall this one is disjointed, confusing, objectionable, and just plain bad.
Originally published in Playboy, July 1968
Read in The Best of Damon Knight
In the introduction to this story in The Best of Damon Knight, the author mentions that he discovered that there were many new areas of science that were not being written about in science fiction, one of them being the (then new) field of prosthesis development. Masks was Knight’s attempt to write a story on the subject, one which he notes in the introduction feels “jagged and lumpy” to him, which is interesting because I find it to be the best written of the three. (An Eye for a What? in particular suffers from some abrupt and confusing scene changes.) This story has what I can now assume to be Knight’s characteristic minimal world building and setup, but the basic idea is an inspection of a ridiculously expensive government program to outfit a single wounded soldier with multiple prosthesis. (Think Johnny Got His Gun level of bodily injury.) In the end, the story takes the stance that someone with a prosthesis is automatically less than a man, which is undoubtedly offensive to anyone with a prosthesis. I will defend Knight a bit here in that he was holding up the lens of science fiction to this new technology of mechanical replacements for human limbs and organs in order to challenge the obvious belief that repairing a damaged body is always good. The story does raise a valid question about how much medical treatment a wounded soldier deserves, and at some point are you doing more harm than good? The story doesn’t really deliver on all its promise, but I do hand it to Knight for trying to poke a new branch of science and engineering with the sci-fi stick.
In the end it’s not hard to see why Knight has fallen to the wayside. Some of science fiction’s pioneers are forgotten for no good reason (my best example being Clifford Simak), but others didn’t so much disappear as they were surpassed by better writers that followed. For what it’s worth, it seems that Knight’s written criticisms had a strong positive impact on science fiction as a legitimate literary enterprise, and for that we can only thank him. I have to say that I found the mechanics of his writing to be inferior to almost everything published these days in Analog, Asimov’s, or Fantasy and Science Fiction, so the genre has clearly come a long way.
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.