Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Friendship, Kingsley Amis, and Gravy Planet

George Zebrowski kindly pointed out to me comments in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois and published in 2011, that seemed somewhat unfair to him. Early this month when looking for something else, I happened upon the fact that I could read Dozois's paragraph by means of Google's literary-property-transgression service, and found these words:

"Kornbluth is a complex, fascinating, and immensely talented figure now in danger of being forgotten, certainly a worthwhile figure for a biological study and critical reassessment if there ever was one. Unfortunately, clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release, mostly for the intensely unflattering portrait it paints of Kornbluth's friend and lifelong collaborator Frederik Pohl, which have caused Pohl to vehemently deny the veracity of many of Rich's 'facts'——all of which has cast something of a shadow over what by rights should have been one of the preeminent genre nonfiction books of the year."

Is "biological" a Google artifact? I hope so.

What I wrote about in my book, of course, I based on archived physical correspondence: facts——not, as Dozois puts it, "facts."

Dozois thinks it unfortunate that "clouds of controversy have swirled around the book from its release." May I say that too few clouds swirled? I had expected something other than utter silence about the nature of Pohl's acts, some of which I found despicable, and some, horrifying.

Why, for instance, did no stir erupt among science fiction readers who respect Hugo Award history and integrity, that among Kornbluth's multiple finished stories at his death was one entitled "The Meeting"?

Apparently some off-radar consternation did arise, in private channels, concerning Pohl's appropriation of Phil Klass's memorial volume: for Pohl did write briefly, if inadequately, about this issue on his blog. In public, however, to my knowledge, no such stir arose.

It does disturb me that Dozois joins miscellaneous dismissive commentators who assume they know more than does the biographer. His words here, "friend and lifelong collaborator," are akin to Patrick Casey's SFRA review comment on my book——that "the one-dimensional depiction of Pohl ignores the fact that Kornbluth remained friends and even partners with Pohl for the majority of his life." This seems to be all people "know" about Kornbluth, and all they want to know, since they persist in parading it as if displaying a great acquisition of knowledge. I wish these people would find a way to document this: for what I found in the correspondence was a frayed, contentious, occasionally ugly and several times completely broken relationship. Pohl in particular engaged in behavior that struck me, and strikes me, as unfriendly in the extreme——even at a moment when Kornbluth was in need of help; and his behavior after Cyril's death I find, as I noted, despicable.

Is friendship like a road of trust, with two lanes moving thoughts and goods in opposite but equivalent ways? Does it include some balance of giving and taking, offering and accepting?

If so, I find it difficult finding, at any point during the relationship between Kornbluth and Pohl, from the late 1930s into the 1950s, real evidence of a two-way friendship.

Kornbluth did evince feelings of friendship toward Pohl, at times, in various degrees: for he did give amply into the relationship. As Merril said of him, Cyril felt loyalty. The sense of old Futurian ties did persist in his heart.

We know this because Cyril wrote Gravy Planet to keep Fred out jail.

This knowledge we have from MacLean. We have it, too, from Klass.

How grand a gift this was! What utter, selfless generosity!

Yet before and after that supreme gift Pohl regarded self before others. He regarded Pohl above Kornbluth. He certainly regarded his own financial wants above those whose finances he held in his keeping.

We know his attitude went unchanged, moreover——for he never responded to Cyril's generosity with a return gift.

When Kingsley Amis made his famous, mistaken assessment, Pohl might have seized the moment to give something in return to Kornbluth. How small a gesture it would have been, to demur——simply to admit that Kornbluth was the one most responsible for the writing Amis admired.

How small a gesture——yet how grandly and warmly it would have reflected back upon him!

In 1952, with money from Gravy Planet, Pohl repaid some debts to society——and to some degree healed wounds he had inflicted upon a circle of writers. He found himself in the position to do so, however, only through having incurred an immense new debt to a fellow-worker.

He seemed not to understand that the new debt had no less reality than the old ones. Having avoided jail ended the matter in his mind, to all appearances.

Then in 1960 Amis calmly dismissed Kornbluth as "prolific and competent" and, on the other hand, spoke of seeing "pure Pohl" in The Space Merchants.

Amis also described Kornbluth's The Syndic as "a chronicle of minor wars following upon a major one." So did Pohl read that absurdly off-base summary and think that no one, surely, would take seriously the comment about "pure Pohl"? I rather doubt it——especially since, a few pages before, Amis had written those words that have appeared on so many book covers: "Frederik Pohl, the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced."

I find it quite interesting to discover, in glancing back through pages in New Maps of Hell, that Kingsley Amis engaged in a mistaken attribution. Take these observations from his discussion of the The Space Merchants, about the protagonist "escaping finally to a Venus uncontaminated by Fowler Schocken and his friends from an Earth that is still largely under the sway of the old régime. The closing scenes, on which I suspect the hand of Kornbluth lies heavy, offer little but adequate excitement and are not altogether a conclusion to the issues raised in the opening chapters."

Why does this catch my eye now? As readers of my essay in Cascadia Subduction Zone will be aware, after publication of C.M. Kornbluth I learned that older readers within the science fiction field had fallen into the habit of talking about and praising The Space Merchants even though they had never read the book. They had read only the magazine serial named Gravy Planet.

Amis seems to have been one such. He read the version that came out of Kornbluth's typewriter——not the gutted and sexually sophomorized book, which came out of Pohl's, and which lacks those "closing scenes" of "little but adequate excitement."

This discovery does give me a feeling of relief. How in the world, I have sometimes wondered, could Amis have liked The Space Merchants so well?

I doubt he would have. Instead, he enjoyed Gravy Planet, wrote about it with some penetration, and attributed it to Pohl——thus adding to the debt the latter felt needed no repayment.

Cheers ...

(Amis, by the way, took particular interest in "The Midas Plague." Pohl once wrote to Kornbluth acknowledging that the latter contributed many bits of "business" to that story, even though publicly the former never held the story out as collaborative. Strangely, I just looked in C.M. Kornbluth and found only one reference to that story in the index——which means I failed to include that information, misplaced the relevant document copy or notes during writing, or simply missed indexing it. Any one is possible.)

No comments:

Post a Comment