Birthday Reviews: Dozois, Kornbluth

This week we have two versatile birthday boys who were born on the same day, both of whom could write and appreciate very different sorts of stories. One is a slow and sad examination of a post-apocalypse and the other is a fast and energetic adventure in a growing culture.

Gardner Dozois (1947-07-23/2018-05-27)

“Morning Child” (Omni, January 1984)

One morning after an apocalyptic war of a surreal nature, a man and a boy go about their routine by the old destroyed homestead. What had seemed strangely normal soon becomes normally strange when we learn something odd about the boy and the war.

This tale feels a bit like the New Wave with its partly off-screen surrealism but, since it is partly off-screen, it feels even more like a belated Labor Day Group story (which it is) with its almost cozy catastrophe conveyed by wonderfully crafted prose. Still, even though it isn’t entirely my kind of thing, I can only admire the artistry and continue to miss the artist.

C. M. Kornbluth (1923-07-23/1958-03-21)

“That Share of Glory” (Astounding, January 1952)

While Kornbluth is better known for such classics as “The Little Black Bag” and “The Marching Morons” which, for all their virtues, can be a bit dyspeptic and leave one with alloyed joy, he could also write something like this.

Alen is a young member of a pseudo-religious pacifist mercantile order bent on uniting and enhancing a fragmented galaxy. For his first mission, he accompanies a trader and puts his massive knowledge of languages and cultures in the service of moving the trader’s goods and keeping him and his safe. Naturally, things initially go well as Alen breaks the social ice and makes decent deals for gems on a planet where metals are forbidden by its vested ceramic commercial interests. And, naturally, things go awry when a crewmember gets in a fight with the police, sending them down the rabbit-hole of the planet’s justice system with an unfavorable judge. Young Alen learns that things aren’t all as they seem and learns that he has within himself capacities he never knew.

This story is just a blast from start to finish, perfectly structured and paced, well-written, clever, funny, and wise. I first read and loved this in Kornbluth’s The Explorers but, speaking of the other birthday boy, I read it this time in Dozois’ The Good Stuff (an omnibus of The Good [Old|New] Stuff) and Dozois has an interesting theory in his introduction about how Kornbluth may have outsmarted himself or unwittingly revealed something:

…Kornbluth rarely wrote straightforward adventure stories, under the Kornbluth byline, anyway, especially Space Adventure stories of [this] swashbuckling, hard-nosed, rapacious, fast-paced sort […], where sharp-eyed cool-headed entrepreneurs haggle and brawl and wheel-and-deal their way across the Universe, out-thinking their adversaries and out-tricking them when backed into a corner. “That Share of Glory,” in fact, is such a perfect Astounding story, so much the Platonic ideal of what a story for John Campbell’s Astounding of that period should be like, that I can’t help but wonder if Kornbluth’s tongue wasn’t in his cheek when he wrote it, or if he wasn’t deliberately (with the cool-eyed calculation of the characters in the story) writing stuff that he knew would “push Campbell’s buttons,” a popular game among writers of the day. Even if one or both of those things are true, though, it hardly matters–Kornbluth may have told his friends or even himself that that’s what he was doing, but there’s too much conviction in his voice here, and he does too good a job, for me to believe that he didn’t like the stuff himself, whatever he may have claimed that he’d rather drink instead. For all of the cynical, jaded facade that he was famous for projecting, nobody but a True Believer at heart, one who somewhere down deep still thrilled to the dream of venturing out among the wonders and terrors of deep space, out to the unknown stars, could possibly have written [this] adventure…

I agree with Dozois that one or both may be true or that it may not and that it doesn’t really matter but I think Dozois’ observation matters, because it sheds light on both Kornbluth, Astounding, and some writers’ relationships with them. [1] Either way, Dozois is right about the conviction and the heart. It’s a great story.

[1] Coincidentally, I was thinking the same thing about button-pushing with the story of Julian May’s I covered a couple of weeks ago where I referenced its connection to Campbell’s “The Thing.” (And, incidentally, I said that “I can’t believe [it] wasn’t turned into a successful 1950s sci-fi-horror movie.” It’s true that it wasn’t, but it turns out it was turned into an episode of a 50s TV show and 1972 movie.)