(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)