Book Review: The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories, C. M. Kornbluth (1959)

(Uncredited cover for the 1959 edition)

3.5/5 (collated rating: Good)

C. M. Kornbluth has long been one of my favorite short story authors of the 50s due to his first collection The Explorers (1954).  The Marching Morons (1959) contains two novelettes and seven short stories including some of his most famous works: namely, “The Marching Morons” (1951) and my personal favorite of his oeuvre so far, “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” (1957).

Ultimately, this is a more uneven collection than The Explorers (1954).  Despite duds such as “I Never Ast No Favors” (1954), I still recommend the collection to fans of 50s SF and satirical masterworks such as Kornbluth’s co-authored novel (with the late Frederik Pohl) The Space Merchants  (1952).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*spoilers*)

“The Marching Morons” (1951) novelette, 4/5 (Good) is easily Kornbluth’s most famous short story.  In part because it is genuinely difficult to uncover his aims… A satire of anti-intellectualism?  Or a strange attempt to justify eugenics?  Satires often deploy hyperbolic scenarios to make their point and I cannot help but think that Kornbluth’s Swiftian look at an overpopulated future where the median IQ has dropped to 46 is one of these moments.  Not only does he ridicule common SF tropes such as man from the present who accidentally time travels to the future but also shows his incredible disenchantment with modern man and what future modern man is creating.  Worthwhile.

“Dominoes” (1953)  short story, 2/5 (Bad):  A time travel story that treads familiar and uninteresting ground—the moral of the story, always listen to your wife!  W. J. Born is the head of W. J. Born Associates who are major beneficiaries of the Great Boom of 1975.  His warns him about hte detrimental effect the quest for ultra wealth is causing: “You’re killing yourself, Will.  Pull out of the market and let’s go some place where we can live like human—” (41).”  And he wants more money…  And when time travel technology is discovered he sees the potential for making even more.  Little does he know that the Great Depression will happen all over again, and time has a peculiar way of getting its revenge.  If you read SF you have already read this story in countless, similarly banal, permutations.  Best avoided.

“The Luckiest Man in Denv” (1952) short story, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  My second favorite in the collection is a fascinating look at future urbanization.  The story reads as a parable of the generational differences—in part based on Kornbluth’s own experiences coming back from WWII (received a Bronze Star for participation in the Battle of the Bulge) into a society soon embroiled in a potentially violent conflict with the USSR.  Kornbluth’s often profound disenchantment with modern society sets him apart from many other authors of the 50s.

“The Luckiest Man in Denv” follows the upward trajectory of Reuben, “of the eighty-third level” (51) of a massive urban city tower.  The towers are engaged in continuous warfare with other cities.  He aspires to ascend upwards in status and thus city level.  Through various schemes he gains the confidence of numerous powerful officials.  And one of them has a secret of how the world used to be…  Will Reuben listen?

“The Silly Season” (1950) short story, 3/5 (Average):  The silly season of the title refers to a few months in the summer where news stories without much import proliferate: UFO stories, alien abduction, monsters in the Florida everglades, and the like.  The story itself ultimately winds up being a silly season type story as the narrator, a newsman, is sent to investigate a series of dubious alien-themed claims.  Of course, there was an alien plan all along…  A fun and lighthearted 50s newsman uncovers aliens SF pulp story!

“MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” (1957) short story, 5/5 (Masterpiece) is my favorite of Kornbluth’s short fiction.  And considering he died (at 34) only a year after publishing this gem, I can only imagine what he would have produced.  A meta-fictional labyrinth containing a recursive version of himself, Cecil Corwin (one of Kornbluth’s pen names),  that satirizes SF and the business of SF publishing.  Entirely on purpose the story begins with a stock phrase, “They say I am mad, but I am not mad” (83).  The person in question is Cecil Corwin, a successful author “of two million words of fiction” (83) who is passing notes in Chinese Fortune Cookies.  The intended recipient is Kornbluth himself, Corwin’s literary executor, who narrates the story including all the fragments Corwin is transmitting.  Corwin claims to have found The Answer, i.e. some magical thing that solves everything.  Discovering The Answer might be the reason he has “turned paranoid” because this plot device/way of thinking about the world is very common “in science fiction” (85).

I will not spoil the twist ending, but is delightful the way that Kornbluth satirizes stock SF/literary tropes.  Highly recommended.  I can imagine that Barry N. Malzberg’s recursive/metafictional SF was inspired by this story…

“The Only Thing We Learn” (1949) short story, 4/5 (Good):  Another intriguing and original story…  In the far future a professor teaching “Archaeo-Literature 203” (97) warns about the subversive nature of his lectures: the fact that the old epic poems that they are studying will have two sides.  Hints are dropped throughout about the political situation.  Those that remained in the home system (s) and those that spread out.  Warfare between the two generated substantial cultural production: “Then battle broke / and high the blinding blast / sight-searing leaped / while folk in fear below / cowered in caverns” (99).  An intriguing story about historical memory, the nature of learning about the past via literature, and finally, the cyclicality of time.

“The Cosmic Charge Account” (1956) novelette, 3.5/5 (Good):  Another comedic story that satirizes the publishing industry.  Unlike “I Never Ast No Favors” (below), “The Cosmic Charge Account” is actually funny.  A Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Göttigen and a member of the faculty of the University of Basle is brought to the US as a last ditch attempt by a publisher to produce a best seller.  A proponent of Functional Epistemology, Leuten is considered a complete crackpot.  The only person who has really read his text and attempted to apply its theories seems to have put them to practice and brainwashed a variety of followers… Leuten and his publisher must trek out an stop the growing “epidemic.”

“I Never Ast No Favors” (1954) short story, 2/5 (Bad) is easily the worst story in the collection.  A “comic” goofy tale that takes the form of a letter from a trouble-causing Italian tough-guy to his probation officer.  Tough Tony is sent to a country farm to work as part of his sentence.  However, he uncovers some mystical, witch-craft hoopla and rather spend his time in jail.  It is as painful as it sounds.  Avoid.

“The Remorseful” (1953) short story, 3.5/5 (Good):  A lone man wanders the post-apocalyptical landscape brooding incessantly over “pictures of women, preferring leggy, high-breasted types” (151).  We learn about a strange alien Visitor, “each of the Visitors was a billion lives as you are a billion lives—the billion lives, that is, of your cells” (152).  Kornbluth turns the two plots—man wandering post-apocalyptical landscape recounting alien Visitors on its head.  Because, they are not even responsible for humankind’s destruction.

(Uncredited cover for the 1963 edition)

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories, C. M. Kornbluth (1959)

  1. Great review.

    I’ve read Ballantine Books’ The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, but a lot of these stories weren’t there or in the NESFA collection of his work.

    His old partner, Frederik Pohl, said more than once that, if Kornbluth would have lived longer, he would have won a Nobel prize.

    • Pohl edited and wrote story notes for the Ballantine “Best of” anthology (1976). Pohl’s note at the beginning of “The Remorseful” says that he himself edited the original publication of the story (in Star Science Fiction #2, the early-1950s Ballantine anthology series) so that Kornbluth’s “masturbated incessantly” became “brooded incessantly”; Pohl later regretted the edit and changed it back for the “Best of” version, which reads:

      …pored over pictures of women, preferring leggy, high-breasted
      types. They haunted his dreams; he masturbated incessantly with closed eyes, tears leaking from them…

      I can see why that would have been dangerous to contemplate publishing in 1953.

  2. Great review. I love Kornbluth when he’s on form. Such a clever writer. ‘The Marching Morons’ and ‘The Little Black Bag’ are amongst my most favourite short stories.

    • Thanks. I think my favorite are “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” and “The Altar at Midnight.” The latter is a remarkably dark take on space travel and the effects of technology on astronauts who return home. It’s hard not read a lot of these stories as profoundly influenced by his experience in WWII.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this. It brings back memories. Kornbluth & Phol’s “Space Merchants” was one of the first sci-fi books I read back in the ’60s, and is a big part of why I kept reading science fiction.

    It’s also the first example I can think of in what’s now called “social science fiction.” . Can you recommend any earlier books in that subgenre?

    • You’re welcome. Well, I’d call Foundation (1951) social SF, or at least profoundly interested in the soft sciences (“psychohistory” + sociology etc) which often characterize social SF. I suspect there are numerous early short stories which probably qualify in someway. I am definitely more knowledgeable about post-50s… But perhaps my readers can come up with some examples (obviously stuff like Yevgeny Zamyatin ‘s We (1921) and Brave New World (1932) have social SF elements).

      • Yes, you’re right about “We” — I’d forgotten about it. I’d also agree about “Brave New World,” though it’s social/political viewpoint is in the main reactionary. But I don’t think “Foundation” qualifies, because as I remember it–it’s been a long time–it wasn’t a critique in any way of then-current social or political trends, or the effects technological change will have on politics or society..

        I’d be interested in any other early social sci-fi examples commenters can contribute.

        • The first one to write “social SF” was probably David H. Keller from 1928 to about 1935. IMO the most interesting of the pulp SF writers before Stanly Weimbaum.

            • Revolt of the Pedestrians from 1928 is a natural starting point.
              A bizarre story, but Keller was just about the only one not writing gadget stories or super-science/space opera, but instead focusing on how technology would change society.

              I wonder if A. E Van Vogt read the story, ’cause the beginning scene was quite similar to the one in Slan.

      • If you enjoyed the Space Merchants, you might like Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man, or the 50’s stories of Robert Sheckley – Sheckley wrote some great 50’s social criticism through SF.

  4. I generally enjoy Kornbluth stories, but it is hard reading them to avoid the impression that he deeply disliked people. And not just people he happened to know, but people as a concept, as if we couldn’t be done right in any circumstance.

    “The Marching Morons” has an interesting footnote in that it — and “The Little Black Bag”, which is in the same continuity — might just be the latest SFnal prediction for the existence of the United States as an intact, coherent entity: the eponymous Little Black Bag is patented 2450 AD, and at least a couple years ago nobody on rec.arts.sf.written was able to find a later date in which the United States definitely exists with an organized government and everything.

    • My favorite Kornbluth moment (not the full novel) is actually in his co-written novel Gladiator-At-Law: from my review, “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.”

      So, not only does he go and fight in WWII but returns and seems to buy into this vision of America—he lived in one of the first planned suburban communities. of course, the novel contains plenty of sequences where the Levittown-esque communities are worthless, crumbling, shoddy, utterly terrible places… So, incredibly disenchantment with humankind is definitely against the grain for the 50s.

    • Kornbluth was a child prodigy who wen to college at the age of 13 or 14. He was kicked out for leading a protest his first year. Asimov speculates that his feeling different and more intelligent was the source for his contempt towards other people. Though Asimov admits he may have been jealous of Kornbluth’s brains. The two of them and Fred Pohl belonged to the Futurian science fiction fan society. Many authors and at least one famous editor came after it.

      • Thanks for the comment. Definitely.

        I read Damon Knight’s The Futurians (1977) a while back… fascinating look at the group. From a rather bias perspective of course — waiting for a more academic book on the subject.

      • Jochiam,I may be getting a review of the 70s Best of Kornbluth collection published. Would you be interesting in running it as a guest if the editors allow it?

        • Thank you for the offer. I have qualms for the following reasons. 1) I do not know who you are other than that you comment occasionally on posts. 2) I tend to ask people for guest posts not the other way around. 3) When I ask for guest posts they are usually for a very specific series — a retrospective on an author, or another sort of theme. I am reluctant to break from that pattern at this juncture in time.

          If you want to discuss it further please contact me at ciceroplatobooks (at) gmail (dot) com

  5. The B.A.C.H. quartet is who modern readers associate with 50’s SF. It’s too bad that writers like Kornbluth – and Sturgeon, Kuttner/Moore, Blish, and Sheckley (and many others – MacLean, Merril… ) are almost unknown except among aficionados or those who remember reading them in the 50’s. Give me Kornbluth any day over Asimov.

  6. Joachim. Thanks for keeping these great stories alive. Very much enjoy your reviews. Wonder if I could reblog this one on my site Happy to return the favour for reviews that I write should you wish to re-use them. All the best, Tim White

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