Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

The Syndic by C.M. Kornbluth, 1953

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C.M. Kornbluth’s strength was the short story. He wrote several classics of the form, many of which are remembered today (“The Marching Morons”, “The Little Black Bag”, etc.).My personal favorite has long been “The Advent on Channel 12”, less than 1000 words of delightfully vicious satire at Walt Disney’s expense — plus a multiply-punny title! But he only published a handful of novels. This one suggests a major reason why.

The set-up and background are intriguing and fun. Sometime in the past, the governments of the world all, more or less simultaneously, taxed-and-spent and bread-and-circused themselves into oblivion, and every continent reverted to primitive tribal savagery (Kornbluth’s conception of Primitive British Man is hilarious).

Except for North America, where an alternative social apparatus filled the void — organized crime. Competing “protection” agencies eventually merged into two competing territories — the Las Vegas-centered Mafia, and the East Coast Syndic.

Kornbluth explored anarcho-capitalism before the term existed. And his remains the only portrayal I’ve ever found even halfway convincing.

The most fun to be had in this book is the feast of throw-away details about life under this system:

  • There’s competitive polo, a popular sport played — not with horses and mallets, but — with jeeps and machine guns.
  • The police run purely on protection money.
  • There is absolutely no stigma or shame associated with prostitution (this is handled via implication, and well, even if it’s not believable).
  • The US federal government still exists, in exile on the island once known as Ireland , in two armed encampments. They keep trying to sabotage the new system, but completely fail to understand it — the sabotage attempts register, barely, as the annoying-but-expected rambunctious escapades of teenagers, which have already been budgeted for by the affected businesses.

But halfway through, Kornbluth sends his protagonist to infiltrate the feds in Ireland. Most of the rest of the book takes place in this vastly less-interesting locale, and it gets even further off-track by involving a native, psychic, collective- souled witch-priestess, who has nothing to do with the rest of the story except to serve as a deus ex machina rescue for the protagonist and to have her own mini-drama, which never connects with the main plot at all.

At the very end, the hero returns home with the news that, for once, the feds might pose a real threat to the current (dis)order of things, and he runs smack into a brilliant, unexpected, perfectly logical twist on and subversion of the expected thriller climax.

If this book is any indication, Kornbluth simply hadn’t figured out what to do with the novel form. He had a fun set-up and background, and a serviceable thriller plot, but used the latter to digress further and further away from the former to no real purpose, then tried to pull it all together with a hail-mary pass of a brilliant ending.

That ending works, but it doesn’t save the book, alas.

And since Kornbluth was felled just a couple of years later by a heart attack — he wasn’t yet forty — we’ll never know what he might have done once he did figure out what to do with a novel.

Which is a shame, because he probably would have kicked serious butt with it.

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Written by [IMH]

31 March 2006 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Literature

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