C.M. Kornbluth

C.M. Kornbluth

I think Cyril Kornbluth knew he wanted to be a writer at the age when most of us did, that is in his early teens. His first efforts, or at least the first I knew anything about, weren’t stories. They were poems.

He owned a book, written by one of his high-school teachers, I think, which gave the rules for composing every kind of verse I ever heard of. Cyril and I studied the book and resolved to write one of each. We made a good start, actually writing a haiku (we spelled it “hokku”), a villanelle, a sestina, two sonnets (one Petrarchan and one Shakespearean) and I think a couple of others. We bogged down when we came to the chant royal (the chant royal is HARD) and, like most of the other Futurians, we decided to try our luck with science fiction. At that time, I think Cyril was maybe 14, and I three or four years older.

If Cyril had favorites among his stories, he didn’t tell me about them. He did take his work seriously and got really testy when editors messed them up. (Particularly Horace Gold.)

Cyril had excellent work habits. When he sat down to write he wrote. I am not aware that he ever sat unproductive, staring into space, for more than a few minutes at a time before putting words on paper, and he rarely rewrote.

F&SF, Jan. 1959
Although Cyril was doing reasonably well in economic terms, he suffered the usual beginner’s cash flow problems. A writer’s income does not arrive in the form of a check delivered every Friday. It comes in lumps of various sizes at irregular times and (with two kids) Cyril felt the need of a more regular income. Happily, he had been offered an assistant editor job on F&SF, which he took and liked a lot. The job included being first reader for the editor, Bob Mills, and Cyril took pleasure in finding something worth passing on to Mills. (He was, I remember, particularly delighted with Fritz Leiber’sThe Silver Eggheads.”)

Unfortunately Cyril’s health was deteriorating. Partly this was due to the quantities of coffee, cigarettes, hot pastrami sandwiches and alcohol he had been ingesting since his teens, but mostly it was due to the war. Cyril’s draft number had come up early, but he caught a break. He had worked for a time in a machine shop and thus had experience of operating metal-working machinery. This was just what the artillery people wanted, so they recruited him to work in cannon-repair shops, always located far enough from the front lines that the enemy couldn’t sweep down in a lightning raid and steal the precious machines. It was the kind of a safe and cushy job that several million GIs would have traded their right testicle to get, but in 1944 what looked like a better deal came along.

Higher-ups in the Army’s command circles were calculating that the war was likely to last for years yet, and if so there might be a serious shortage of college-educated candidates to serve as commissioned officers. They didn’t want to get caught short of these valuable resources, so they quickly set up what they called the Army Specialized Training Program, under which the GIs lucky enough to be accepted would be relieved of all duties except going to college. This sounded like a dream of heaven to most GIs, not least because the service’s unrelenting drafts of manpower had left most college student bodies heavily weighted with an excess of young single women.

Cyril applied, was accepted and went happily back to school, though in uniform … until some person higher still than the higher-ups noticed that both the Germans and the Japanese were losing most of the recent battles, and the war might end sooner than they had feared. So ASTP was peremptorily abolished and all its personnel transferred willy-nilly to the infantry. For which branch of service the Army had a great and unanticipated immediate need, since Hitler had managed to launch an immense surprise Christmas attack on the unsuspecting Allied troops in the Ardennes Forest.

His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth
So Cyril, who was always a slightly pudgy and definitely unathletic young man, found himself lugging a 50-caliber machine gun around the freezing temperatures and unremitting combat of the Battle of the Bulge. He survived, having acquired for his efforts, 1) a Bronze Star, and 2) a serious case of what the medics called severe essential hypertension.

The hypertension won. Cyril’s editorial career was cut short — a pity, because he would have been an outstanding one. Early in spring of 1958 he had a meeting scheduled with Bob Mills in New York. It had snowed heavily in Levittown, where Cyril lived. He had to shovel out his driveway, which made him just barely able to catch his train, so he ran to the train station and died of a heart attack on the platform.

C.M. Kornbluth works online

C.M. Kornbluth on Amazon

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  1. steve davidson says:

    Fred, thank you very much for sharing this with us. I’ve loved both Cyril and your writings and am very fond of the novels your wrote together. It brought me closer to Cyril to learn some things about him that I didn’t know.

  2. Luke McGuff says:

    Thank you for writing these memories. I, too, count your collaborations among my favorite sf novels from my golden age.

  3. Stefan Jones says:

    The collection shown (His Share of Glory) is full of wonderful stuff, and highly recommended. Kornbluth was writing satirical fantasy decades before guys like Aspirin and Pratchett made it popular.

    Note to time travelers who might read this: Consider hopping back to 1958, renting a jeep, and offering the guy a lift.

  4. Elio M. García, Jr. says:

    I was just starting junior high school (this would place it about 19 years ago now) when I fell in love with science fiction. I devoured the books my school and local libraries had, and of course it slanted towards novels and collections containing the great, classic authors. Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke… and Kornbluth (and, if I may say so, Pohl). Early on I read a biographical clip about Cyril, and it struck me (even at that young age) as a real tragedy that he died so young when he wrote such wonderful stories.

    Thank you for sharing your recollections of him.

  5. Scott Hauger says:

    Just a note to let you know that I really appreciate and enjoy reading your blog, especially the biographical memoirs of sf authors. I am old enough to have read a couple of your collaborations with Cyril Kornbluth when they first came out, (as well as most all the Heinlein \"juveniles\"}.

    My favorites, though are the Gateway novels. How did you come by the underlying concept for them?

  6. Joseph T Major says:

    Kornbluth’s short stories would make a great anthology series by themselves. Consider how well “The Little Black Bag” did on “Night Gallery” and that was an el cheapo presentation. Imagine, say, “The Luckiest Man in Denv” or “Two Dooms” . . .

  7. OtherMichael says:

    Reading what is written — what somebody wrote — puts me into a time-vacuum. I read Kornbluth’s stories in the 1970s and 80s, so _of course_ he must have still been around then, right? It’s not like I was laboring over a curiosity of middle-English, for heaven’s sake.

    It’s been more than 50 years since he passed away? Impossible….

  8. Gary Earl Ross says:

    Hi, Fred.

    We met at a science fiction teaching conference at Eastern Michigan U back in 1978. I was just beginning my career at the University at Buffalo, and you shook my hand because I had read all of Dhalgren. (And I still have my much read, autographed Man Plus on a nearby shelf.) If you check my web site, you’ll see I’ve published a few things and had some success as a playwright, including an Edgar Award. Today I reread “The Little Black Bag” and realized that it’s been more than 50 years since C.M. Kornbluth’s death. I wonder if the “Bag” copyright has been renewed. I’m resident playwright for an African-American theater company in Buffalo and have an idea for an evening of one-acts, but I’d love to adapt “Little Black Bag,” one of my all time favorite stories, for the stage. Thank you for any information you can provide.

  9. Pam Croft says:

    I surfed here and found you are still with us! AMAZING! I had no idea. I am 47 and have had a collection of my own since the age of 12. My twin and I talk about the stories with our Dad (an Engineer who never really wanted to talk to anyone) and as Thanksgiving is coming I thought of Kornbluth. We agree he was the greatest of all time and I sure hope you do not take offense at that! The stories that you men wrote made me think and helped me become a real weirdo (just like dad); and I thank you for that. Happy birthday!

  10. Busta Speeker says:

    “The Syndic” is more relevant now than ever before, and getting “ever-so-much-more-so” with each passing day– just one glance at the current “administration” (a gang of felonious thugs if there ever was one)confirms this. Mr. Kornbluth was a true dark visionary, completely on a par,at LEAST,with Philip K. Dick…