Monday, 19 May 2014

Wolfbane


Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth Wolfbane (1959, revised 1986)

Whilst there was a hell of a lot of His Share of Glory, the definitive short story collection published by the wonderful NESFA Press, even with a few of the tales included being less satisfactory than others, it was obvious that Kornbluth had been an exceptional talent, and that his name should not be allowed to fizzle away into obscurity. To this end I picked up Wolfbane on the recommendation of Chris Browning, this being a full length novel written in collaboration with Kornbluth's fellow Futurian, Frederik Pohl.

The story takes place on a future Earth which has been dragged away from the sun, off into the depths of space by forces unknown occupying the mysterious rogue planet with which it has formed a gravitational partnership. These aforementioned forces unknown have kept what is left of humanity alive by somehow igniting the moon, turning it into a miniature sun giving out just enough heat to keep the permafrost north of the Mason-Dixon line, and Mount Everest has been levelled off by something or other so as to form a platform on which is now sat a vast, presumably alien pyramid; and once this environment is established, the story really takes a turn for the weird.

Wolfbane reminds me a little of Kornbluth's Two Dooms at least in terms of an absolutely unfamiliar world portrayed with complete conviction, and which becomes entirely believable regardless of whatever craziness comes next. Humanity, for example, is reduced not to the clich├ęd survivalists whom Bruce Willis leads to roaring victory on the surface of that other world, but to adaptation as a strangely formalised society reminiscent of the popular image of dynastic China with the preservation of precious calories becoming a common goal of near-religious significance. I'm not at all familiar with Frederik Pohl's writing, but the distinctive flavour of Kornbluth is immediately recognisable throughout, and this novel reveals his many strengths as he tells a story which, practically speaking, could only really be told as a novel, one for which the sheer bizarre nature of what happens would distract and even diminish the whole were it presented in a visual medium. For example, what becomes of Glenn Tropile as he discovers the true purpose of the pyramid structure is probably as anatomically stomach churning as any horrible centipede film, and yet the poetry of the writing keeps it from becoming mere spectacle.

On another level, this is as eloquent an analogy of western society as I've read, with people fighting for the cause of their own exploitation, reduced to components in a vast carnivorous machine driven entirely by its own continuation. In fact, in some respects it could be read as a precursor to The Matrix, but better, obviously. I'm almost surprised that this one hasn't crossed over to become one of those science-fiction novels that achieves popularity amongst people who don't really read science fiction, and clearly Kornbluth was one of the all-time greats.

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