Un excellent titre !
I first saw his name on the contents page of the July 1949 issue of the now forgotten pulp magazine Startling Stories. I was a high-school sophomore then, reading too much science fiction when I should have been studying my geometry and Latin. His short story, “The Only Thing We Learn,” probably made little impact on my adolescent self, because—as I observed when I read it last week—it’s a subtle, oblique, elliptical, sardonic piece of work. Those adjectives apply to most of what Kornbluth wrote during his short, brilliant career, but I was only mildly interested in subtlety in those days, and in that issue I was probably more impressed by George O. Smith’s slam-bang lead novella, “Fire in the Heavens.”
I encountered the Kornbluth byline again a few months later in a second-hand issue of The Avon Fantasy Reader, the superb bi-monthly anthology/magazine that Donald A. Wollheim was editing, devoted to reprints of weird, horror, and fantasy classics. The Kornbluth story was “The Words of Guru” of 1941, from a pulp magazine that Wollheim had edited before the war. Wollheim explained that in his pre-war career Kornbuth had employed an assortment of pen names—S.D. Gottesman, Cecil Corwin, Kenneth Falconer, etc. What he did not say was that this reprint of “Words of Guru” used Kornbluth’s own byline for the first time in any science fiction magazine, because all his pre-war work had been done under pseudonyms. He also didn’t tell me that Kornbluth had been not quite sixteen, a junior in high school, when he wrote it. I probably would not have been happy to know that, because “The Words of Guru” is a taut, crisp, perfectly executed story with a final sentence that hit me so hard when I first read it that I have never forgotten it. I would be happy to write a story that good today. I had my own teenage writing ambitions back there in 1949, but I could never have come within a mile of what Kornbluth had accomplished in that precocious masterpiece.
That one story taught me to keep my eye out for the work of C.M. Kornbluth. He turned up again in the July 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction with “The Little Black Bag,” which even at the time I recognized as something special. It was destined to be anthologized many times over, and in 1967 the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America chose it for the definitive anthology of great short stories, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Six months after “Little Black Bag” came “The Mindworm,” in the first issue of Damon Knight’s splendid, short-lived magazine, Worlds Beyond. Knight believed that SF could be something more than fast-paced pulp fiction, and that December 1950 issue contained not only stories by regular science-fictionists like Jack Vance, Fredric Brown, and Kornbluth, but reprints of work by Franz Kafka, Graham Greene, and Philip Wylie. Kornbluth’s story, lean and frightening and driving relentlessly on to a surprising but inevitable conclusion and an aphoristic final sentence, fully lived up to the two great ones of his I had read in the previous year.
By then I knew he was a short-story writer endowed with wit, grace, a powerful imagination, and—not so common back then—a distinctive, immediately recognizable style. For the next seven years I pounced on his work wherever I encountered it. As a young would-be writer I met him at a small science fiction convention, and he treated me kindly. We became friends.
And then, in 1958, he died. He was only 34.