On His Way to Being the Very Best Writer I Have Ever Known
I think Cyril Kornbluth knew he wanted to be a writer at about the same age as most of the rest of us, which was generally early to middle teens. What he didn’t know was what kind of writer he wanted to be. His goal wasn’t, at first, science fiction. Cyril was a fan, like all of us, but what writing he did at first was mostly poetry, some of it plaintively sexual, like the scant few lines I remember of one of his early ones: “How long, my love, shall I behold this wall / Between our gardens, yours the rose, and mine / The shrinking lily.”
He possessed a manual of poetry, a book purporting to describe every poetic form ever invented and written, I think, by one of his high-school teachers. He and I tried writing as many different forms as we could, including a pair of matched sonnets, both Shakespearean and Petrarchan, but we gave up after an over-ambitious attempt at a chant royal. At that time, I think, Cyril was maybe 14, and I three or four years older. Then he began creating tiny storiettes, like “The Rocket of 1955.”
When I, closely followed by Don Wollheim, and Bob Lowndes, became a professional sf editor, most of the Futurian writing neos began concentrating on trying to write at least marginally publishable sf stories for these unexpectedly friendly new markets. Cyril went with the flow. Most of his work for the next few years was science fiction, some of it in collaboration with me. The stories were all pretty mediocre, or worse, but they mostly did see print in one or another of our friendly prozines. None of the actual stories get more than a C-minus, though some of Cyril’s 250-worders survive.
But that situation didn’t last long. The Second World War revised everyone’s plans, especially for Cyril, who had a woefully low draft number. He was nabbed early by the Army, but he caught a break. He had worked briefly in a machine shop, and thus had experience of operating metal-working machinery. This was just what the artillery were combing the inductees for, men who would repair the big guns, in a place far enough from the front lines that the enemy couldn’t swoop down and carry off those precious machines. They snapped Cyril right up. It was the kind of no-risk and cushy job that several million GIs would have given their left testicle for, but in 1944 what looked like a better deal came along..
Higher-ups in the Army command circles were calculating that the war was likely to last for years yet. If so there might be a serious shortage of college-educated candidates to be trained as commissioned officers. They didn’t want to run short on this valuable resource, so they quickly created what they called ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program. Under it, 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 system’s unrelenting drafts of young males had left most colleges’ student bodies heavily weighted with an excess of young single women. Cyril applied, was quickly accepted and went happily back to school, this time in uniform — until some person higher still in command circles noticed that both the Germans and the Japanese were losing most of their recent battles, and the war might end sooner than they had calculated. So ASTP was peremptorily abolished and all its students, including Cyril, transferred into the Infantry.
For this branch of service the Army had great and unanticipated need, since Hitler had just managed to launch a totally unexpected full-fledged attack on the troops in the Ardennes forest. And that’s where Cyril landed.
See Part 3, “Cyril Begins to Blossom,” real soon now.