Book Review: The Explorers, C. M. Kornbluth (1954)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)

collated rating: 4/5 (Good)

I’ve stayed away from C. M. Kornbluth for far too long.  I read Kornbluth and Pohl’s The Space Merchants (1953) when I was quite young and was put off for some unexplainable reason.  What a shame!  This collection of short stories and novelettes contains some of the best short works I’ve ever read from the 50s (a few of Philip K. Dick’s early works are just as good).  As with The Space Merchants, Kornbluth exposes (in an often satirical manner) the dark underbelly of the usually glamourous 50s accounts of space travel, interplanetary trade, and the devastating social ramifications of technology on astronauts, new cultures, etc.  Kornbluth is equally adept at infusing his work with devastating commentary on American society.

This collection is brilliant throughout — only the annoying silly ‘Thirteen O’Clock’ (1941) (capitalism ruining happy fairy land) weakens the effort.  ‘Gomez’ (1954),  ‘The Altar at Midnight’ (1952), ‘That Share of Glory’ (1952) were spine-tingling good.  The few “horror sci-fi” (evil aliens, vengeful alien? kids, etc), not my normal fair, are rescued by poignant (if simplistic) social commentary.

Short Story Summaries (some spoilers)

‘Gomez’ (1954) (27 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good):  The collection starts out with a bang — Gomez is a touching, and heartbreaking tale of a Puerto Rican dishwasher living in New York who, in his spare time, applies his genius to atomic physics.  Kornbluth’s satirical dissecting edge uncovers the injustices of the military who treat the teen as little more than a chess piece, a material asset in the fight against Communism.  The first person narration, and frame story (the narrator writing down the Julio Gomez’s deeds after his untimely death) add a level of complexity — the narrator himself, who looked after Julio when he was in the employ of the military, is also a troubled individual seeking to make sense of the exploitation of the kid.  Remember, this is the 50s and the main subject of the story is a Puerto Rican teen dishwasher genius!  Kornbluth’s prose is filled with vigor, sarcasm, and focuses on profoundly uncomfortable human failings.

‘The Mindworm’ (1950) (14 pages) 4/5 (Good): Kornbluth tries his hand at sci-fi horror and succeeds.  Not only is the story dark, disturbed, and spine tingling but a good strain of social commentary winds throughout — a child (The Mindworm), who is probably an alien, is abandoned at an orphanage.  He is eventually fostered but ignored by his foster parents — he runs away in his boyscout uniform and figures out he can kill broken people with his mind.  He wanders around preying on the destitute and downtrodden (prostitutes, teen runaways, etc).  How society reacts to the deaths of the community’s “undesirables” — in this case, complete apathy — is Kornbluth’s overarching point.  Only when The Mindworm’s victims change, a young virginal women, is his rampage halted.  Again, searing social commentary at its finest!

‘The Rocket of 1955’ (1939) (2 pages) 3/5 (Average): Kornbluth’s first published story is an odd little tale.  Two con artists employ an unknowing professor, in a scheme to build a rocket, who waxes poetic about space travel — huge amounts of money is raised, the rocket built, a pilot climbs in, the controls are fakes, the rocket launches and blows up killing spectators.  The professor commits suicide, one con artist is hung, the second (the narrator) is handed a rope at the end of the story.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of this dark piece of sci-fi flash fiction.

‘The Altar at Midnight’ (1952) (7 pages) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  A gem in the vein of Delany’s short story ‘Aye, and Gomorrah’ (1967)– perhaps Delany was influenced by Kornbluth’s story.  The narrator, the inventor of the space drive, wanders around the bars frequented by spacemen.  The drive has an unfortunate side effect, red veins cover the pilots’ faces which results in intense social stigma.  He follows a particularly troubled pilot who laments, “spacers have all kinds of trouble, Doc.  Woman trouble. Hotel trouble.  Fam’ly trouble.  Religious trouble” (48).  In the 50s era, such “deglamization” of space travel is shocking.  As with a few of the other stories, the narrator is plagued by his own role ruining the lives of the returning spacers.  His institute colleagues lament, “The places he frequents.  Doctor Francis Bowman, the man who made space-flight a reality.  The man who made space-flight a reality.  I’m sure I don’t know what ails him (49).”  Wander down to the bars and find out…

‘Thirteen O’Clock’ (1941) (23 pages) 2/5 (Terrible): A boy discovers a clock with thirteen hours in his grandfather’s attic.  Predictably he’s transported to a weird world when the clock strikes thirteen replete a girl sorceress with a blast finger, strange monsters, and an evil thug.  Standard, dull, and unimaginative 40s magazine fare mixed with an anti-capitalist rant — nothing more.  Avoid.

‘The Goodly Creatures’ (1952) (14 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): Farwell, who works for an ad agency selling space related technology etc, employs an aimless boy interested in writing prose poems about space.  Farwell’s clearly sees the boy as younger version of himself.  Eventually the boy saves up enough money and declares his intention to join the space program in order to gain experience so he can write a novel — Farwell reacts negatively but again, because of his own past literary ambitions which never came to fruition.  A readable but rather banal story.

‘Friend to Man’ (1951) (8 pages) 4/5 (Good): Smith, a fugitive con man arrives on an alien planet (settled by humans) and immediately starts blackmailing people (for example, drugging women and filming them tottering around and then showing the footage to their fathers).  Soon his is captured by an alien — who slowly “takes a liking” to him.  Smith himself, due to the ministrations of the creature, begins to rethink his own terrible actions and seeks to make reprations for all the loss he has inflicted — and then of course, the seemingly nice alien has other ideas.  Another disturbing and well-crafted tale…

‘With These Hands’ (1951) (18 pages) 4/5 (Good): A classic new artform resisted by practitioners of the old arts story — in this case, a sculptor who runs a faltering studio with uninterested students rants against the new S.P.G “art” — think programing a machine which squirts out plastic forms according a computer program inputted with current societal profiles.  So, in goes the “domestic” and “burly” settings and out comes a sculture reflecting/blending the current societal makeup of those two adjectives….  Well, a girl stops by at his studio seeking lessons — rather than fall into the same trend of young girl seeks troubled artist the sculptor does something else…  The tale is interesting but didn’t resonate as much as some of the others.

‘That Share of Glory’ (1952) (32 pages) 5/5 (Very Good): The collection ends on an great note — Alen is a novice for an Order (which follows Machiavelli’s The Prince) of ostensibly pacifist linguists who facilitate interplanetary trade for immense profit (by memorizing the cultural features and the languages of the galaxy).  I.e. if there wasn’t a Universal Translator à la Star Trek…  Alen sets of with a trader trying to sell gems on a world without metal.  Alen successfully navigates various cultural impasses, impulsive crewmen who violate cultural norms, etc.  Of course, the consequences of a successful tripe are immense, and completely unexpected.  The premise is so tantalizing/fascinating that I wish he wrote a novel…  The decay of Alen’s order and slow reorientation of values and purposes is the central conflict of the work.  The best of the collection!

Final Thoughts

If you like 50s science fiction (or old sci-fi in general), BUY THIS VOLUME (but skip ‘Thirteen O’Clock’).

Highly recommended (and how can you resist Powers’ amazing cover?)

That is all.

Science Fiction Book Review Index

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Explorers, C. M. Kornbluth (1954)

    • I recommend them highly — be warned, some might not “seem” that inventive etc, however, such dark tales (often in the satirical vein) about space travel and the effects of space travel on families etc is unusual for the 50s…

  1. I checked and my local library has The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, so I’ll give him a try. I used to read Kornbluth back in the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s been so long I can’t remember anything. If I like it I might get His Share of Glory, the Complete Short Science Fiction of C. M. Kornbluth. I’m tempted by the original paperback because of the cover, but I don’t like to read paperbacks anymore. His estate should reprint his stories for the Kindle.

  2. ‘That Share of Glory’ is one of the best of his shorts that I’ve read so far. The subject is so interesting that it could have been a novel — it’s more in the space opera mold.

    I refuse to buy a kindle. I like more gorgeous paperbacks 😉 In their neat rows, and orderly piles, and to read piles, and have read but need to review piles, and nice smelling paper, and old cigarette ads — HAHA…

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