Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, May 18, 2018

FORGOTTEN BOOK: NOT THIS AUGUST

Not This August by C. M. Kornbluth (1955, 1981)


Once upon a time there was a group of alienated young people who formed a loose group of science fiction fans that called themselves the Futurians.  Almost all of them turned professional and helped to shape the SF field as we know it.  Both core and periphery members were Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim, R. A. W. Lowndes, Isaac Asimov, damon knight (back when he eschewed capitalizing his initials), Richard Wilson, Dirk Wylie, John Michel, Judith Merril, Walter Kublius, Arther Saha, David Kyle, Hannes Bok, Larry Shaw, and -- perhaps the most talented of them all -- Cyril Kornbluth.  (Kornbluth did not have a middle name; he later added the initial M in honor of his wife Mary.)

Most talented? you scoff.  Admittedly that characterization can never be proved, but Kornbluth stood out among this group of proto-writers, editors, publishers, critics, and artists for his sardonic quick wit and his grasp of the fundamentals of writing.  Much of his work was hackneyed and hurried. (Reportedly, he once locked himself in a hotel room and wrote a full novel in a weekend.)  Behind all of his writing, though, there was a germ of stellar talent.

When Not This August was first published, The New York Sunday News, one ofthe largest circulation newspapers in the world at that time, published a lead editorial  about the book, praising it as having "[A] far more powerful effect on the American Reader than George Orwell's 1984."  True, the News has not the most high-brow of newspapers, but this was the only time that journal used its editorial pages to plug a novel.

The story itself rises from the Communist scare of the Fifties.  Russia and China, having conquered most of the world, are at war with the United States.  They win and (like Philip k. Dick's later The Man in the Iron Castle) split the country into two zones:  the eastern side goes to the Russians, the western to the Chinese.  At first, all seems hunky-dory.  The conquerors are respectful enough and, with a few exceptions such as the quotas everyone is expected to meet, life goes on as before.  Then things turn very dark.  There's profiteering, mass murder, and executions for the slightest infractions.  On the Soviet side, America's wealth is being stripped and shipped to Russia.  Communication is stifled and there are rumors of plague outbreaks in the cities.

In a small new York village, Billy Justin, a commercial artist turned reluctant dairy farmer with eight cows, is trying to get by the best he can but things keep interfering, mostly his agreeable good nature.  Soon he finds himself the holder of a great secret (and a great weapon) -- a rocket armed with three dozen powerful nuclear bombs.

Very few people come off well here.  Governments, their militaries, and their bureaucracies are short-sighted and fundamentally fl;awed.  Rebels are disorganized, inefficient, and working against each other.  The conquered and the collaborators seem delusional.  And the pretty new mail carrier...

Can Billy Justin save America?  Should he?

Science fiction tropes and coincidences abound in Not This August as Kornbluth lets his satirical hand run free.  Originally published in 1953, the novel was "revised" by Kornbluth's long-time friend Frederik Pohl.  I suspect the revision was very slight because Kornbluth's ironic vision shine through.  (Pohl himself developed into a major writer but, in the Fifties, Kornbluth could write rings around him.)

How far Kornbluth could go if he had not passed away so young is a question that cannot be answered.  While shoveling snow in his driveway on March 23, 1958, Kornbluth collapsed and died.  He was 34 and was being considered to become editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

A good book.  Perhaps an essential book.  recommended.

4 comments:

  1. Arthur Saha wasn't a member of the 1930s Futurians, which pretty much continued until the effects of WW2 and their endless internal sniping broke them up...instead, he was one of the founders of the Second Futurian Society of New York, which included Larry Shaw as apparently the only member in common with the original group. But the rest of your list is solid...with Hannes Bok a Very fringy inclusion as a Futurian (certainly not as a talent or influence on the field), and such people as Virginia Kidd, James Blish, Doris/Doe "Leslie Perri" Baumgardt, and Chet Cohen are missing from your round-up...though the latter two didn't get as much into relevant print as many of the folks you did cite. Damon Knight might just get my nod as ultimately the most talented, while Pohl might've been the most influential by a hair, but Kornbluth was indeed the wonder boy of the crowd, and never stopped challenging himself till he decided to challenge his heart one hurried morning...as I recall, he got as far as the train station before it gave out on him.

    I still need to read NOT THIS AUGUST...

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