Book Review: Gladiator-At-Law, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (magazine publication 1954)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1955 edition)

3.25/5 (Good)

In honor of Frederik Pohl, who recently passed away, I decided to pick up one of his works from the dark maw that is my extensive and overwhelming to read pile.  The last Pohl novel I attempted was a complete disappointment — Slave Ship (1956) — but his collaborations with one of my favorite 50s short story authors, C. M. Kornbluth (who died in 1958 at 34), are often highly readable.   Perhaps the most famous writing duo in SF history, Kornbluth and Pohl produced five novels together including the SF classic The Space Merchants (1953) and multiple short story collections.  The dystopian satire Gladiator-At-Law (1954), although far from the heights of The Space Merchants, is a fine example of their fruitful collaboration.

The world they create is downright fantastic: A future where youth gangs rule the tough streets of Belle Rave (known as Belly Rave), fantastically brutal arena spectacles where old people clubbing each other draw large crowds, lavish bubble houses that supply virtually all needs and are given only to a special elite who hold “contract” jobs, and the lawyers for the largest companies are among are among the most powerful people in the world.  Those with the most tenuous contract jobs desperately hold onto their whim granting ultra-sophisticated bubble houses knowing that the alternative is Belly Rave….

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

The narrative follows two main characters.  Norvell Bright designs the vast game spectacles (old people hitting each other with clubs, youths “recruited” from the slums who fight with knifes, octogenarians with flamethrowers, etc) for a rather lower than high-end company.  He runs afoul of his bus and is ejected — with his family — from his GML bubble house.  He is forced to live in Belly Rave.  Little does he know that all his family issues with his wife and daughter are solved by the hard life…

The other main character, Charles Mundin, is a lowly author who manages to eke out a living in criminal practice.  The wealthiest, and the only really successful layers, work for the big companies that are the real power in the world (I realized that no real central government is mentioned).  Soon Charles Mundin comes into contact with Norma and Donald Lavin who stand to inherit a large share of the GML company that creates the luxurious, programable, ever-changing bubble houses.  Unfortunately, their lawyer, although brilliant, can only function while on opium….  And they have been forced to live in Belly Rave, which was constructed on a landfill, as they try to conjure a plan to seize that is rightfully theirs.

Both Norvell Bright and Charles Mundin meet in Belly Rave and hatch a plan.  Soon they discover the secret behind the powers that be — the dreaded and mysterious firm that goes by the name Green, Charlesworth.

Final Thoughts

I found that the satire on the whole is rather timeless although some targets were extrapolated from post-war American society.  For example, a few years after C. M. Kornbluth returned from WWII (where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge) he moved into what is considered the first mass produced suburban community, Levittown, New York.  It is clear that Gladiator-At-Law’s vast future slum community of Belly Rave is a searing condemnation of the promises that such a Levittown-type community offered: “Their house was built; their hour had struck! The kids wailed, ‘Is that it?’ and began to cry.  Whichever was weaker, the wife or husband, sagged shoulders and stared in horror at the sea of mud, the minute house riding it like an ark, like one ark in a fleet of identical arks drawn up rank by rank for review by a snickering deity” (28).  I am rather inclined that scenes like these were written by Kornbluth and reflect (with hyperbole of course!) his own experience in the new American sprawl.

Kornbluth and Pohl’s world is more interesting than the characters or plot and a tendency to ramble on about the character’s business machinations regarding stocks and sham business meetings ” etc weakens the effort.  Likewise, some passages are just too silly, especially relating to the Goering Grenadiers (comprised of teenage and younger girl in Belly Rave) and other youth gangs….  But on the whole the work is witty and often hilarious, especially the portions that occur within the bubble houses (see below for John Berkey’s fun artistic interpretation).

Recommended for fans of 50s satirical and dystopian SF.  And of course, for any fans of Pohl and Korbluth’s other collaborations.

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1962 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)

(John Berkey’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1974 edition)

(Sandy Kossin’s cover for the 1977 edition)

(Jael Ashton’s cover for the 1986 edition)

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Gladiator-At-Law, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (magazine publication 1954)

  1. The prescience of ’50s-era SF satires of consumerism/capitalism astounds, impresses, and somewhat worries me. Agree with your assessment on Kornbluth, probably the most underrated of all the forgotten masters. I have yet to read this one so I only skimmed the review, but I’ve enjoyed the Pohl + Kornbluth collaborations so far.

    The Powers cover is brilliant (both of them), but I’m strangely drawn to the Kossin cover.

    • Why do these critiques worry you? Kornbluth was exposed to the post-War world (and the war itself) and the promise of a new life in suburbia and responded to it…. Such types social critiques are a product of almost every time — especially as SF took on more interest in social issues. If anything, Kornbluth should be considered one of the proponents of this type of SF. Most of his work I’ve read, including really early stories, has some sort of social component.

      • Worries in a joking way—I don’t lie away at night worrying about it—regarding their prescience in that they’re still applicable to our society and culture some fifty-sixty years later. Nothing to do with the social critique element at all. That post-War fiction critiques are timeless is, much as Max Cairnduff put it, a bit depressing.

        You ought to know from my reviews that I love SF social satires in the vein of Kornbluth + Pohl, Sheckley, Tenn, Vonnegut, Dick, etc., and I just called Kornbluth “the most underrated of all the forgotten masters” because of his brilliance and skill in that department.

  2. I just read his short story “The Altar at Midnight,” which is available for free on Kindle. A really amazing short piece, with an ending that hits like a punch in the face. Well worth reading for anyone with a Kindle account.

  3. Yes, sad seeing Pohl pass away. He was one of the under-appreciated giants of the field and, I think, the last sf writer/editor alive who saw nearly the entire evolution of sci-fi in literary form.

    I’m about to ask a stupid question: have you read Gateway by Pohl? If you haven’t, run-run-run to get this book. It uses a science fiction premise in a way 99% of the genre doesn’t, and 100% of literary realism can’t, to investigate the human mind in intelligent fashion. Great book.

      • If Freud is not interesting subject matter, then I understand if the half of Gateway in which Robin (the protagonist) is in consultation rubs the wrong way. But what about the other half, the scenes on the asteroid in the auto-pilot Heechee spaceships? Pohl seems to do a good job of presenting a man’s descent into self-destruction for reasons of guilt and existential uncertainty – facets captured nicely by the Russian roulette of traveling in an alien vessel nobody fully understands…

        But I digress, I am not such a big fan of Bester’s The Demolished Man for the same reason you are not a fan of Gateway… 🙂

        • You know, since I read Gateway I’ve started enjoying Freud more in SF — Malzberg, one of my favorites, uses him for example. I should give it a reread for sure.

          Hehe, I thought The Demolished Man was great fun — even better than Stars My Destination.

  4. I prefer the Powers covers, of course! Though Kossin’s is good as well, and the uncredited one from ’66 is not too bad either.

    Did you ever read Pohl’s blog ? Lots of humorous anecdotes about the ‘golden age’. He was putting up posts right up to the end, apparently there are some additional posts waiting to be put up still.

  5. In both Gateway and The Demolished Man (I liked both) I had to laugh off the Freudian plot points; pop psychology at its clunkiest!

    Offhand, I can’t think of any science fiction off that deals well with psychology as a science that progresses. I’m not even asking for accuracy, just some sense of a science that describes behavior better than the science did last year, last decade, etc.

    Can anybody think of any?

  6. The only Pohl I’ve read was Man Plus, and I found it quite wonderful in its technology, especially for a book from that era, and psychologically disturbing and compelling. I think he makes a good run at showing us that we don’t know what we are doing when we are doing it, but we just go ahead and do it anyway. It had an interesting if somewhat cheesy (from this 2013 vantage point) ending, and I am sure you would not find it disappointing.

  7. Some great concepts here, although it did run out of steam for a brief time somewhere in the middle. Loved the deterioration of suburbia, hugely relevant at the time of publication. Kornbluth seems to live largely in the shadow of Pohl, but when you read his and Pohl’s solo efforts you can see that the verve is largely his.

    Check out Kornbluth’s The Syndic if you haven’t already. It’s a minor masterpiece of mobocracy with some fantastic world-building.

    • It’s sort of a scattershot type satire, it constantly moves from one topic to another. And could have used some focus….

      I have Syndic with its odd Powers covers on the shelf. I’ve picked it up a few times but never read more than a few pages… I will! I will!

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