Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #23: Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, important sf authors in their own rights (Pohl more for his novels, Kornbluth more for his short stories), are another pair whose collaborations shone. Their books from the fifties haven't stood up that well -- satire and social commentary tend not to -- but a Pohl/Kornbluth novel at half strength can still have a good deal of horsepower. Two of their novels had a particular impact:

"Gladiator At Law" (***+) presents a corporation-dominated future. Those who work for big corporations live very well, as long as they are good corporate citizens. Those who don't are relegated to concrete jungles, bread and circuses. Charles Mundin, a lawyer who can't even meet the payments on his secretary, is retained by a pair of clients who turn out to be pure poison: Nobody wants to deal with them and nobody wants to deal with anyone who deals with them -- even though they nominally own a large share of one of the world's largest corporations. When Mundin manages to put together an alliance that can help them and face down the powers that make the world what it is, he finds himself face to face with the powers behind those powers.

It's instructive to compare this book to a contemporary cyberpunk novel. The two have elements in common, but the differences are striking. The corporate powers of *this* world are heartless, but not Machievellian. Nor do they wield armed forces or high tech assassins. The slums are also relatively tame -- places where danger means children with broken bottles, not heavily armed cyborgs. (In general, technology doesn't play a very important role in this book -- another difference.) It's a more innocent world, which also makes it capable of supporting a more optimistic book.

    Fourteen billion dollars.
    Fourteen billion dollars is massive, fourteen billion dollars has inertia; you don't shake it easily. Ram a Juggernaut into fourteen billion dollars. The Juggernaut crumples and spills its Hindic gods into the street; the fourteen billion dollars stands unmoved.
    But fourteen billion dollars, or anything else that God ever made, has a natural rate of swing. Slap it with a feather, and wait; slap it again; slap it again. The oscillation builds. The giant construct vibrates and wobbles and sways...

"The Space Merchants" (***) is a more heavy-handed satire, focused upon a future in which advertising and consumerism have been taken to extremes. Employment is barely distinguishable from contract slavery, making food products addictive is good marketing, and conservationism is treason. (One of the strengths of the Pohl/Kornbluth team is that they are able to construct such a world without making it an obvious caricature.) Mitchell Courtenay, a rising advertising executive, is put in charge of the biggest sales job ofhis career: Venus. He does an effective job, too, until he is shanghaied to another company, and finds out the hard way how the other half lives. (There's a recently published sequel, "The Merchants' War" (*), but I wouldn't recommend it unless you've read this book and *really* want to know what happens 'next'.)

Pohl and Kornbluth coauthored numerous short stories, as well as seven novels, of which "Gladiator at Law" and "The Space Merchants" were the best. "Search the Sky" (**) is noteworthy as an extrapolation of what the authors may have seen as a social trend. This novel is placed considerably farther in the future, and presents a galaxy in which human colonization is failing. Ross, the protagonist, is sent on a mission which takes him to a number of these colonies, and each is decaying in a different way -- because of genetic drift. The foundation for this novel is Kornbluth's slightly earlier story, "The Marching Morons" (***), about a future which results from centuries of the least fit having the most children. Note that this, in turn, is based on a concept of eugenics which was far more accepted (and socially acceptable) early in the century than it is today.

I don't wish to damn these books with faint praise, as perhaps I seem tobe doing. They made a tremendous splash, but satire and social commentary -- as I said at the start -- rarely age well. A mirror held up to the readers of forty years ago is going to show a reflection with which today's readers will not as readily identify. Personally (as if anything I write here *isn't* personal opinion), I'd rate "Gladiator at Law" as still worth reading on its own merits, and "The Space Merchants" as worth reading if you enjoyed "Gladiator at Law".

%A Pohl, Frederick
%A Kornbluth, C.M.
%T Gladiator at Law
%T The Space Merchants
%T Search the Sky


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Dani Zweig