(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1955 edition)
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.
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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