Tuesday, 15 April 2014

His Share of Glory

C.M. Kornbluth His Share of Glory (1997)

As a fairly general rule I tend to approach an author of unfamiliar stripe by first dipping into the short stories, from which platform I then attempt to assess whether or not I'm likely to enjoy lengthier works. His Share of Glory seemed nevertheless a slightly daunting proposition because although it does indeed collect the short fiction of the highly praised C.M. Kornbluth, it collects all of it, or at least almost all he wrote alone and extracurricular to collaborative efforts with Frederik Pohl, Robert A. W. Lowndes, and others; so it's a 670 page hardback of such constitution that ne'er-do-wells could quite easily use it to smash the windows of jewellery stores. Reading His Share of Glory has therefore, in some respects, been a less casual undertaking than I would like, but being a birthday present from the world's greatest mother-in-law - who presented me with the Ace Double edition of Fritz Leiber's The Big Time on a previous occasion - it would have been churlish to get too sniffy about it, and not least because Kornbluth was clearly a remarkable writer.

As his still glowing reputation attests, Kornbluth was patently amongst the more talented of the Futurians - a moderately political New York based science-fiction fan group with a membership roster including Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Judith Merril, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim and others; and it's probably worth noting that he died relatively young and said reputation is thus founded on less than two decades of paid work. His characters tend to be lively, believable, and informed by strongly literary sensibilities. The stories they inhabit tend to be playful, rich in imagery and memorable phrasing, with the jerky narrative motion of van Vogt played more for comic than traditionally pulpy dramatic effect, so there's occasionally a faint tone of Marx brothers lending an absurdist spin to the proceedings, and the sort of bizarre embellishments which suggest Kornbluth's fiction as ancestral to Michael Moorcock's stranger material, or even that of Terry Pratchett in a certain light. One further element he at least had in common with these two is that of genre never once being allowed to take precedent over the progression of the narrative, or over its author taking infectious pleasure in the process.

Of Kornbluth's short stories, The Marching Morons and The Little Black Bag seem to be the best known, and understandably so, but he had plenty others of equivalent quality where those came from. Shark Ship predates Neal Asher's nautically themed weird fiction by nearly half a century; and Two Dooms divided the United States between Japan and the Third Reich a couple of years before The Man in the High Castle, and to more chilling effect for my money. The final eight stories of the collection were written to specific commissions and as such read a little like Kornbluth channelling E.E. 'Doc' Smith in terms of concessions to fifties space opera, but generally it seems he would have had trouble had he ever been asked to write a dull sentence; for example, The Last Man Left in the Bar:

'Bartender,' in a controlled and formal voice. Shot of Red Top and a beer at 9:09, the hand vibrating with remembrance of a dirty green El Greco sky which might be Brookhaven's heavens a million years either way from now, or one second sideways, or (bow to Method and formally exhaust the possibilities) a hallucination. The Seal snatched from the greenlit rock altar could be a blank washer, a wheel from a toy truck, or the screw top from a jar of shaving cream but for the fact that it wasn't. It was the Seal.

Of course, 670 pages of this would be disorientating, which is probably the only weakness of either this collection, or the fact of my having attempted to digest it in one go over the duration of a couple of weeks. Kornbluth possibly shouldn't be read in such huge chunks, at least not his short stories, being as some of those more eccentrically narrated lose cohesion without due concentration. At least that was how it seemed as I worked my way through, although considering the sheer volume of material here, the guy is entitled to have fired off a few blanks now and then.

In the event of this reading like an ambiguous verdict, the points to remember are that at his best, Kornbluth was fucking tremendous, and there's quite a lot of his best to be found here.

This collection was produced - by the way - by NESFA Press who've been doing some good work keeping certain authors in print, producing similarly exhaustive short story collections by the likes of Judith Merril, Murray Leinster, A.E. van Vogt, Cordwainer Smith and innumerable others; and I've encountered a rumour of their perhaps presently wrangling over the rights to gather together all of Clifford D. Simak's short fiction, volume or volumes I would crawl naked over broken glass to own, as they say, should the rumour turn out to be true. Aside from anything else, this should therefore be considered an enthusiastic recommendation.

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