Future Media Short Story Reviews: C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve” (1958) and Alice Eleanor Jones’ “The Happy Clown” (1955)

Today I’ve reviewed the eighteenth and nineteenth stories in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Alice Eleanor Jones and C. M. Kornbluth conjure a media-saturated world and cartoon characters that generate cultish adoration. Both authors respond to the rapid growth of television in the United States over the 1950s and multimedia conglomerates like Disney.

Previously: John Brunner’s “Fair” in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (March 1956) under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott. You can read it online here

Up Next: Frederik Pohl’s “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” in Galaxy Magazine, ed. H. L. Gold (October 1958). You can read it online here.

4.5/5 (Very Good)

C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve” first appeared in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4, ed. Frederik Pohl (1958). You can read it online here if you have an Internet Archive account. Nominated for the 1959 Hugo for Best Short Story. Lost to Robert Bloch’s “That Hell-Bound Train” (1958).

In the short intro to the story in The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976), Frederik Pohl explains that Kornbluth’s two young sons (and their father) never missed an episode of the The Mikey Mouse Club (1955-1958). The iconic Disney TV show generated a “national mania” with kids everywhere singing the Mouseketeer song and wearing mouse-ear hats. In 1955, the wider Disney craze would see the creation of their first theme park–Disneyland. Expanding on earlier ruminations on media and the masses in The Space Merchants (1953), “The Advent on Channel Twelve” imagines the dystopic elevation of cartoon character to an altogether new pedestal in the American consciousness.

Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve,” the final story published before his early death, takes the form of an unhinged gospel of the origins and ascendancy of the Poopy Panda cult. The story parallels the Poopy Panda TV show with the rituals of religious faith: “you have created a liturgy of opening hymn and closing benediction” (131). Kornbluth lays out all the disturbing strategies of consumerism: the creation of characters that fulfill adolescent desires, products that advertise other products, merchandizing, spinoffs, and a good dose of loveable cute to appeal to children. Soon Poopy Panda, “stolen from the Winnie the Pooh illustrations,” takes on a life of its own (131).

I adore this story. It’s a condensed two-page religious screed told with pure maniacal thrust that distills so many of the 50s worries about the Cold War warrior as beholden to the throne of consumerism. Multimedia entities like Disney–with their movies, TV spinoffs, theme parks, merchandise–seek to perpetuate themselves by advertising their component parts: “And the Poopy Panda Pals plug the Poopy Panda Magazine, and the Poopy Panda Magazines plus the Poopy Pandaland, and the Poopy Pandaland plugs the Poopy Panda Pals” (131). Like some grotesque late 19th century cartoon trust leaking money, Poopy Panda escapes from its creators and commands its legions of followers to buy buy buy.

Highly recommended.

3.5/5 (Good)

Alice Eleanor Jones’ “The Happy Clown” first appeared in If, ed. James L. Quinn (December 1955). You can read it online here.

I recently reviewed Alice Eleanor Jones’ masterpiece of post-apocalyptic terror of a different variety “Created He Them” (1955). Re-obsessed with 50s SF by female authors, I decided to track down Lisa Yaszek’s wonderful Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008) which explores how women authors “rewrote midcentury culture’s assumptions about women’s domestic, political, and scientific lives” long before the women’s liberation movement. The monograph contains a far more adept analysis of Jones’ “Created He Them” (1955) than what I wrote–in part as it is in dialogue with her non-SF publications–and tons of interesting autobiographical details of Jones’ life. Yaszek also pointed out that “The Happy Clown” fits the definition of a “media landscape story” and thus, straight into the queue it went [1]. I highly recommend tracking down a copy of Galactic Suburbia if you haven’t already.

First, a few autobiographical details about the author….

Jones received a PhD in English from University of Pennsylvania in 1944 on seventeenth-century dramatist Shakerly Marmion [2]. In the first year of her writing career, Alice Eleanor Jones “published five SF stories and two slick romance narrative.” Despite Anthony Boucher’s prediction that she’d be successful in both fields, Jones never returned to science fiction but continued to publish in the leading women’s magazines of the day and wrote a column for the trade magazine The Writer “well into the 1960s” [2]. Yaszek argues that Jones’ “stories about housewife heroines and other domestic figures” do not reiterate conservative ideologues of the day but rather, through the construction of “offbeat” situations, examine how new scientific and social relations would impact women [4]. As I mentioned before, I plan on reading all five of Jones’ 1955 science fiction stories.

“The Happy Clown” is a satire in the mold of The Space Merchants (1953) that follows the life of an iconoclastic child named Steven. The majority of society believes that the twenty-first century is “perfect” (105) with kind, “duly and fairly elected” leaders, a gospel of “efficiency and conformity,” and so many “wonderful things to make and buy and consume (all wonderfully advertised)” (111). The housewife no longer needs to coax a child to sleep, a joggler (with built-in TV), does it for you (107). Like Ann Warren Griffith’s “Captive Audience” (1953), the American mind is turned into malleable putty by an inundation of advertisements that populate the world with their whimsical and cute phrases and mascots. The Happy Clown looms the biggest. He’s on silverware for children and like Mickey Mouse, has his own TV show. More than just advertising, The Happy Clown slips in “gems of wisdom” that promote a homogeneous society–“We’re all alike inside, folks, and we ought to be all alike outside” (106).

Steven, a saint of the outsiders, demonstrates from a young age an aversion to The Happy Clown and all that he represents. Steven turns away from the TV. He likes eating off old silverware avoiding the rituals of “community living” practiced in the kiddie-garden (107). Soon he ascertains the potential criminality of his actions and the toll on his family and begins to act the part of happy adjusted modern boy. And the only profession where acting is a benefit is the world of TV–and position of The Happy Clown pays best of all.

Similar to the argument put forward by William Whyte’s later The Organizational Man (1956)–in which American suburbanites increasingly “lose their identity” due to the “conscious desire to keep up with the Joneses” and community standards of clothing and home décor [5]–“The Happy Clown” argues that these capitalistic forces, as manifested through TV, will soon impact behavior. And those who do not conform will be labeled as psychopathic and a threat to the status quo.



[1] Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008), 47.

[2] Source

[3] Yaszek, 43.

[4] Yaszek 52.

[5] Matthew W. Dunne in A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (2013), 188.

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26 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Reviews: C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve” (1958) and Alice Eleanor Jones’ “The Happy Clown” (1955)

  1. Just read “The Advent on Channel Twelve” (by the way, you may wanna cross-check that title in your post, since you also have it as “The Advent of Channel Twelve), and why not, it took about five minutes. Despite its brevity (it maaaaybe reaches 1,000 words), this is about as hysterical an anti-capitalist rant as we’re to get from Kornbluth. Much of Kornbluth’s fiction is concerned with the impending dominance of companies on people’s lives, even their psyches, and this may be the ultimate demonstration of that concern.

    • Fixed!

      I agree. I am all for hysterical anti-capitalist rants with silly scatological references and pseudo-religious terminology and meter. I loved the reference to spherical trusts in The Space Merchants — I have a soft spot for strategic recursive touches. It’s absolutely hilarious. I can imagine Kornbluth and his kids watching and (hey, let’s admit it, probably enjoying) The Mickey Mouse Club and the Poopy Panda jingles popped into his head. He probably saw his kids completely caught up in the show.

      • I’ve seen people be put off by how morbid Kornbluth can be (and yeah, he was definitely a bit of a misanthrope, and probably also pro-eugenics), but this is a short and very silly story that I think more people would get.

        • And what do people use as evidence of his views on eugenics? I’m assuming that it has something to do with his story “The Marching Morons” (1951)? Looking back at my review, I read it more as a satire of the time travel story than reflective of his views but I voiced some confusion as to his intentions. But I could be wrong of course. I have a monograph on Kornbluth by Mark Rich that I plan on reading soon — supposedly a bit controversial as it poos (hey, I got the Poopy Panda stuff in my head now) a bit on Pohl — and I wonder if it touches on the issue.

          • There’s that, but I’m also thinking of his story “The Meeting,” which Pohl wrote but which was apparently based on Kornbluth’s outline. Without getting too specific it’s about disabled people basically serving as organ doners, which is, wow. Speaking of Pohl, he would go back and revise his collaborations with Kornbluth decades after the fact (he “fixed” The Space Merchants by updating company names and a couple other things, which is meaningless), but he even meddled with some of what Kornbluth wrote by himself, so yeah, he might not look great lol.

            • Yeah, Pohl certainly rewrote fragments of Kornbluth’s for a long time after his death. I recently read an abysmal one: “Mute Inglorious Tam” (1974) https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2022/04/02/book-review-best-science-fiction-stories-of-the-year-fourth-annual-collection-ed-lester-del-rey-1975-r-a-lafferty-harlan-ellison-robert-silverberg-vonda-n-mcintyre-et-al/

              In the monograph I think Pohl comes off as taking advantage of Kornbluth when Kornbluth was alive — I don’t think they had an even pay spit for the stories they wrote together. But I shall see! Again, all of what I say is based of my memory.

            • Brian Collins: *There’s that, but I’m also thinking of his story “The Meeting,” which Pohl wrote but which was apparently based on Kornbluth’s outline. *

              Nah. Fairly definitive scuttlebutt is that ‘The Meeting’ wasn’t an outline, but a Kornbluth mainstream story, or fragment thereof, which couldn’t sell to mainstream markets as was — not clear if this was while Kornbluth was alive, or later with Pohl’s agenting — so eventually , with the permission of Kornbluth’s widow Mary, Pohl came up with the SF angle, the ‘disabled people serving as organ donors,’ which doesn’t emerge till the story’s final segment. He thus could sell it to F&SF and it won a Hugo in 1973.

              It’s a good story. Pohl did this kind of SF fixup with a half-dozen manuscripts left after Kornbluth’s death. The least successful was when he took a fragment of historical fiction set in medieval England that Kornbluth left and turned it into ‘Mute, Inglorious Tam,’ which is really pretty much a dog.

              @ JB –

              I’ll be interested in what you say about the Mark Rich Kornbluth book.

              The price in paper form — and even now in Kindle at $19.99 — I found a little too steep to pay sight unseen when it apparently spends so much time being a tendentious attack on Fred Pohl. Also, a lot of the ground that it covers would be familiar to me because it’s also been covered by people who were actually there, most conspicuously the book-length accounts THE FUTURIANS by Damon Knight and THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS by Pohl.

            • First a funny tidbit about Pohl and Merril’s divorce. Pohl recounts that Merril got the house and he got Kornbluth! hah.

              Accounts of people who were witnesses/participants vs. scholarly modern analysis are two utterly different things. The former is the material for analysis — and, of course, the tricky issues of memory and perspective. You can’t exactly compare the two. As for its supposed “attack on Pohl,” I’ll have to read it to know what that actually means. I recently read Page’s monograph on Pohl that went the opposite direction — it contained tons of quality information but tended to be a bit (I think) too laudatory… although it did acknowledge many of Pohl’s faults. It’s also a bit cheaper at $10 used.

    • I’m a Kornbluth fan and it’s sad he didn’t live long enough to write many more stories. “The Advent on Channel Twelve” is just a great read that propels you along with the quasi-religious style surrounding some great word play. He had it right about teaching consumerism to kids at a young age to hook them early.

      • Check the Jones story in this review out as well! It has the same basic underlying argument. But goes in another perhaps more sinister direction as it explores how radicals are still “used” by the system…

        • I looked around and found that “The Happy Clown” is available on Project Gutenberg for free to download. I got a copy and put it in my Calibre library to read later.

            • I saw the link to the Internet Archive but I was unfamiliar with that site and I generally use Gutenberg because it has a Kindle version and I do most of my reading on a Kindle. I looked at the Internet Archive again and saw all they had was a PDF and ePub. I store my books and stories on my Calibre library on my PC and then transfer the ones I want to read next onto my Kindle. I used to read actual books either from the library or paperbacks that I purchased but I have been doing less of that since the pandemic. I do miss out on having a physical book with, hopefully, a cool cover but I can find the covers on the internet if I want to se them. Using ebooks reduces cost (an important consideration for me) and the requirement for a lot of shelf space although I do occasionally miss having a physical book in my hand.

            • No problem. I use Internet Archive to reduce cost and shelf space but often end up buying a collection or anthology with the story anyway…. but for the stories that only appeared in one magazine it’s a lifesaver as I have not started (and don’t plan on it as they’ve almost all be digitized) collecting magazines.

              As for a Kindle, I don’t use one but if I ended up spending substantial time abroad I probably would acquire one. I wish I had one when I conducted graduate research in Paris for months and months!

            • I read “The Happy Clown” and it was a good story about rebellion against an oppressive, forced homogenized existence, but I was a little letdown by the ending. I guess I was sad to see the individual being beaten by the status quo. While not that similar it did remind me of Harrison Bergeron.

  2. JB: ‘Accounts of people who were witnesses/participants vs. scholarly modern analysis are two utterly different things.’

    And there you are: it’s unclear to me how much Mark Rich really is a scholar and, indeed, whether or not what he’s produced is much more than a fan hagiography of Kornbluth with Pohl simplistically cast as the devil. As I say, let me know your opinion of the book.

    • Fair point. Thinking back to when I worked at various medieval journals in grad school, McFarland Press always sent us books that we struggled to place with reviewers due to their often suspect quality. There were a few gems though!

  3. Kornbluth’s short fiction from the 1950s is one of the standouts of SF. Particularly with an eye to the coming–and already arrived–deprivations of technology and mass culture. I’ve mentioned ‘Shark Ship’ to you (a great take down of mass culture, but with an oddly satisfying sfnal framing story). ‘Iteration’ is another wonderfully short and dense work like ‘The Advent on Channel Twelve’.

    What do you think of Kornbluth’s infamous misanthropy? Behind his cutting insight on the changed landscape of mass media and consumption lies a fundamentally dim view of human nature. It’s not tech per se that is the problem for Kornbluth, but rather the way it amplifies an already existing tendency to mediocrity and etc. In a more psychoanalytic mode, and with less of the moral opprobrium, is J. G. Ballard’s similar thesis that the depths of the unconscious find their grim realisation in modernity, rather than an eclipse or elevation.

    • Considering I’m a bit misanthropic at heart, I find it endearing. hah. But in all seriousness, I feel like Kornbluth is the perfect anecdote to 50s narratives of progress and conquest. He’s a needed and appreciated counterbalance. And these examples of maniacal evisceration of the 50s capitalistic landscape are relentlessly intriguing.

      I wish Illinois University press would release a monograph on him in their masters series ASAP! They have Pohl, Ballard, Brunner, et al. already.

      • Sure, aren’t we all? The subjectivity du jour!
        I agree that he’s a counterbalance to “narratives of progress and conquest”. However, I would also like to nuance this story somewhat, considering you can find Kornbluth, Jones et al scattered across what we often assume is simply the rampant techno optimism of the mainstream of SF. This, at least, is the story the New Wave told of the SF scene they were reacting against. Is it true? Are these many gems you continue to dig up merely outliers or constitute a counter narrative of sorts that was at home among the optimists and reactionaries rather than simply being outliers?
        I need to get my hands on some of those IUP monographs.

          • Well, sure. GALAXY and F&SF were significantly if not exclusively devoted to counter-narratives of one sort or another, and they were widely distributed through most of the other SF magazines of the ’50s. For explicit comment on this point by one writer, look at Damon Knight’s collection of novellas RULE GOLDEN and his comments on “The Earth Quarter.” Also, even in ASTOUNDING in the 1940s, not everything was a “narrative of progress and conquest.” See, e.g., Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory” (1941), Moore’s “Vintage Season” (1946), Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” (1947); for the 1950s, see Asimov’s “The Dead Past” (1956), and I could probably come up with more ’50s examples if I thought about it longer. See also Barry Malzberg’s essay “Wrong Rabbit” in his collection BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS, previously in THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT if memory serves.

            • Yeah, I’m more talking about general conceptions the others have — not so much me! I definitely agree with your position. And perhaps, in the earlier days of my site, I have been a bit guilty overstating views of the 50s but I hope what I’ve been writing about in the last few years demonstrates a more complex view of the era.

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