Friday 24 June 2016



Book Review of: 
(Granada paperback – 1978 - ISBN 0-586-05211-9) 

Pohl and Kornbluth are the Simon & Garfunkel of science fiction. Except that they’re not, for unlike Paul and Art, writers Frederik and Cyril were much more an equal-opportunities act. According to the introduction of ‘Wolfbane’ ‘each one wrote sections, starting where the other left off, and through long experience they developed an almost telepathic awareness of each other’s intention.’ If that is so, it’s impossible to find the joins, their collaboration is so seamless.

Wolfsbane is the common name for the genus aconitum, a highly poisonous plant also known as Devil’s helmet or Monkshood. As well as being used for euthanasia in ancient Greece, it has long-attributed supernatural powers related to lycanthropy, right through to its walk-on appearance in Harry Potter. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly the relevance of this to that, plant to fiction.

‘Wolfbane’ itself is a strange novel. It first appeared as a two-part serial in ‘Galaxy Science Fiction’ magazine, with a Wallace ‘Wally’ Wood illustration of the story taking the cover of the October 1957 issue (Vol.14 no.6). It then emerged as a 140-page novel from Ballantine in September 1959, with jacket by Richard Powers. Although considerably revised and rewritten by Pohl for a June 1986 edition from Baen, my own copy is the 1967 Penguin edition, which is the version I’m using.

It consists of eighteen short bite-size chapters that take the reader deep into the year 2203, two-hundred years after a rogue wandering world – a ‘runaway planet’, has ripped the Earth from its orbit and dragged it beyond the outer rim of the solar system, out past Pluto into interstellar space. Leaving a ‘decimated, fractionated, reduced to what is in comparison a bare handful of chilled, stunned survivors’ beneath the loom of the ‘terrifying sky’. Earth’s new binary ignites the Moon into a series of Suns on a five-year re-creation cycle to illuminate the worlds. It has also set an impenetrable slaggy midnight-blue tetrahedron squatting on the planed-off peak of Everest, for no obvious purpose. And there are insubstantial ‘eyes’ that condense out of the air, and watch people…

Unlike co-writer Pohl, Cyril M Kornbluth is probably best remembered now for their collaborations, rather than for his own extensive body of work. Which is unfortunate. Born 23 July 1923 in the Inwood neighbourhood of Manhattan he was still in his teens, and a member of the ‘Futurians’ fan-group, when his stories began appearing in the likes of Pohl’s ‘Super Science Stories’ (“King Cole Of Pluto” as by ‘SD Gottesman’, May 1940), and ‘Stirring Science Stories’ (“The Rocket Of 1955” in April 1941). The latter, reprinted from an even earlier fanzine appearance, takes a characteristically clear-eyed unromantic view of the Space Race as an opportunity for Confidence tricksters to milk a gullible public, with sideswipes at Einstein and jingoistic patriotism. ‘Quicksilver bright… he was also a sardonic soul’ recalls Pohl (in his introduction to ‘The Best Of CM Kornbluth’, Ballantine Book, 1976). ‘The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishnesses of mankind.’

Interrupted by war service as an infantryman – commended for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, he returned to the SF field while acting as bureau chief for a Chicago news-wire service, contributing more maturely-crafted description-dodging stories across a spread of magazines, using such aliases as ‘Cecil Corwin’, ‘Kenneth Falconer’ or ‘Cyril Judd’ (for his collaborations with Judith Merril). Among his finest are “The Little Black Bag” (‘Astounding SF’ July 1950) – later adapted by Rod Serling for his TV ‘Night Gallery’, and its converse “The Marching Morons” (‘Galaxy SF’ April 1951). His perfectly-polished tales are seldom of the straightforward starships and BEM’s variety, ‘he seldom gave us an alien being as a character’ muses Pohl. His tales frequently work on a number of levels, suggesting artful satire and social observation, showing what Charles Platt calls ‘a sophisticated awareness of the dark undercurrents in life and society.’ A sensibility that makes his work seem just as relevant now as it was then. Maybe it was he who devised ‘Wolfbane’s calories-to-population equation, as a satiric poke at the then-contemporary consumer-culture in which ‘they manufacture an enormous automobile to carry one housewife half-a-mile for the purchase of one lipstick.’

In “Shark Ship” (aka “Reap The Dark Tide”, ‘Vanguard SF no.1’, June 1958) an ocean-going culture is forced to return to land, finding an America depopulated as a result of a fetishistic mass racial suicide orgy of violence. Yet, although it’s framed as a group-jeopardy adventure, there’s a deliberately exaggerated unreality about it, an arch suggestion that it’s also an ironic playful game. His “Two Dooms” (‘Venture SF’ July 1958) references Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos project and peyote ‘God Food’, while anticipating Philip K Dick as his protagonist Edward Royland inadvertently visits an alternate USA controlled by Nazi and Japanese regimes. Yet he uses the theme to pose a powerful argument in favour of using the atomic bomb to end World War II. As Pohl recalls, ‘just before his death, Cyril finished two major pieces of work. One was the final revision of our last novel in collaboration, ‘Wolfbane’. The other was this. Cyril’s name for the story was “The Doomsman”.

The opening chapter of ‘Wolfbane’ is deliberately stilted and formal, reflecting highly ritualised social codes designed to conserve energy and minimise heat-loss in the frigid conditions of the marooned Earth – ‘the ancient gait of fifteen-hundred calories per day, not one of which could be squandered,’ as they hesitantly await the forty-sixth ‘re-creation of the Sun’. In the tight community of Wheeling in what was once West Virginia, the narrative contrasts Citizen Roget Germyn’s ‘necessary calm’ of prescribed gestures and thought disciplines – the sheep who accept, with Glenn Tropile’s more anarchic behaviour as a ‘Son of the Wolf’, who is ‘reckless of grace’.

By chapter two Tropile takes advantage of Citizen Boyne running ‘Amuck’, to raid the bakers. But is seen, captured, and sentenced to Death by Lumbar Puncture, a highly unpleasant spinal-tap from which his fluids will contribute to the community’s nutritional intake. Whereas Boyne accepts his execution with a citizen’s calm resignation, Tropile uses his devious Wolf-nature to contrive escape from the ‘House Of The Five Regulations’. There’s no violence or contrived Pulp-heroics, no-one gets shot. Although Tropile reaches Princetown, a community of Wolves, and Boyne is ‘harvested’, their destinies remain entwined.

SF has conjured up a wealth of alien species. Few as enigmatic as the pyramids of Earth’s binary. In a perfectly-turned phrase that describes their attitude to their captured and confused human culture, the narrator asks ‘who bothers to take a census of the cells in a hang-nail?’ The Earth is merely a ‘wrist-watch’ components-mine, from which individuals are ‘translated’ through a form of meditative self-hypnosis, to be spliced by neurosurgery into a machine, as part of a huger machine. Tropile’s citizen-part tendency allows his ‘translation’. After which he wakes to finds he has sixteen hands. He’s become part of a circuit, an eightfold mind in an octopule unit, a sort of eight-branched snowflake, each branch a joined human body. A shared consciousness ‘in eight-part counterpoint rather than in human melodic lines,’ operating on Rashevsky’s Number principle. ‘The Pyramids were not interested in him as an entity capable of will and conception. They used only the raw capacity of the human brain and its preceptors.’ Again, in the perfectly-turned analogy, to them, ‘it is not desirable that your bedroom wall switch have a mind of its own; if you turn the lights on, you want them on.’

But Tropile’s Wolf-nature overcomes his passive acceptance and allows him awareness, makes the snowflake – of which he’s become a part, to become the virus in the program, corrupting and multiplying the sequences and functions in marvellously detailed ways. As the poison in the machine. The Wolfbane. ‘They had done the binary planet a century’s worth of damage in a matter of hours; they were being excellent mice.’ As the perambulating snowflake explores the limits of the planet, and its history in the derelict Polar Library, learning that the Pyramids – or ‘Omniverters’, are machine-intelligences or A.I.’s who destroyed their own creators, the Pyramids themselves become aware of the threat in their midst and begin their retaliation in scenes that anticipate the machine-assault on the subterranean city in the later ‘Matrix’ films.

As the Simon & Garfunkel of SF, Pohl and Kornbluth’s relationship was not always harmonious, not always flawless. ‘Cyril and I were good friends, but there was too much ego in both of our cosmoses for the relationship to be always tranquil. We had our differences.’ They ‘often borrowed from each other’s heads, both for collaboration and once in a while for our own individual work,’ but there were fall-outs too. Kornbluth’s own first solo novel ‘Takeoff’ (1952, and later serialised in ‘New Worlds’) was written in one long seventy-two sleepless hour session, but only after joint discussions, comments and replotting ‘late night in my kitchen’. It was followed by ‘The Syndic’ (1953) – in which mobsters have taken over America, and ‘Not This August’ (1955, later revised by Pohl) a ‘Red Dawn’ telling of a 1950s Soviet invasion and the underground American fight-back.

But it was to be his collaborations with Frederik Pohl that were to become his most celebrated books, ‘The Space Merchants’ (1953, aka ‘Gravy Planet’) – the classic satire on multinational corporations, consumerism and advertising, and ‘Gladiator-At-Law’ (1955) – which extends the field into corporate law and legal machinations, plus ‘Search The Sky’ (1954). ‘Working with Cyril… was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life’ Pohl relates in his autobiography ‘The Way The Future Was’ (Gollancz, 1979). ‘I always did all the dealing with editors and publishers… Cyril and I had a working treaty. After the rough draft of the book was done, he was out of it. I always did the final revisions (except on the last novel we did together, ‘Wolfbane’).

Kornbluth’s war service – ‘lugging a .50-calibre machine gun around the Ardennes Forest, had left him with a ‘constant ringing in the ears’ plus what Pohl terms a ‘strained heart’, hypertension which contributes to his premature death on 21 March 1958, aged just 34. He shovelled snow from his driveway, ran to catch a train, had a heart attack on the station platform, and died on the spot. This means that their unique ‘Wolfbane’ was published posthumously. Although there’s occasional satiric humour, it is a novel unlike any other. With a detailed structural density defying most of the usual rules of fiction, it nevertheless becomes an absorbing trip into genuine strangeness. Typically, there’s no neat resolution to the novel either, with the Pyramids deactivated, and the characters settling back into their familiar life-tracks, Tropile – the ‘sick crazy-sounding messiah’, finds no solace in his triumph. Instead, he yearns for more than the worlds can offer him, for the expanded consciousness of the Snowflake, and the glimpses of eternity he’d seen through alien eyes.

Pohl loyally nurtured their legacy, completing a number of unfinished stories, including “The Meeting” which earned a Hugo Award, and of course continued as an innovative writer-activist until his own death in 2 September 2013, aged 93. What Kornbluth could have achieved remains open to conjecture, although Pohl suggests his accelerating genre-dissolving momentum would have taken him out of SF restrictions entirely into mainstream work. He’d already written historical fiction, and a curious exploitational lesbian pulp novel as ‘Jordan Park’ with Pohl (‘Sorority House’ in 1956).

Meanwhile, we have ‘Wolfbane’.

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