Wolfbane by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth
(Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Editions, £9.99, 189 pages, paperback; first published 1959, this edition 28 September 2000.)
Pity the writer of the 1950s, who, when he sold his novel to Ballantyne Books, sold even the copyright. Wolfbane was first published in 1959; perhaps copyright issues persuaded Gollancz to republish the 1986 version, revised by Pohl, copyrighted to the authors, and carrying the dread adjectival phrase 'substantially different'.
Don't believe a word of it. Writers know their texts so much better than their most sensitive readers--know them indeed, in an extra dimension, as processes over time. The best reader barely scratches at the surface of the text. Anyone but a scholar will rattle past Pohl's 'thorough changes' happily none the wiser.
The Earth has been stolen, kept half-alive as it orbits around an artificial sun, its people harvested by an unknown process. Which is the authors' none-too-elegant but undeniably stirring excuse to re-imagine the whole of human culture and history in the light of its calorie intake.
Pohl and Kornbluth's Earth is such a prison, rendered in exquisite detail and with much humour. We do not stay there. The second half of the action is played out among the industrial caverns of Earth's captor planet, as a handful of humans attempt to wrest control of Earth from the enigmatic Pyramids. (The transition and the change of pace--from blackest social comedy to actions, distances and durations of epic proportions--is crude only in precis.)
At the centre of the second act sits our hero Glenn Tropile's induction as one eighth of a biomechanical group mind. This raises a moral conundrum central to both authors' work: the price paid in human qualities for superhuman strength. It also echoes the debate in act one--between the exquisiteness of culture on the breadline, and the crassness of a culture crying out for liposuction.
Why are books like Wolfbane not written any more? Since Christopher Priest's infamous flouncing-off, there's been general acceptance that SF is somehow finite, as though formulae like C/P=A were on the top layer of the dressing-up box and all we're left with today are the leavings of those early great: the scraps and the threads.
The second act of Wolfbane suggests otherwise. This is a narrative rich in industrial lore, knee-deep in milling machine chips, blind drunk on methanol, tangled up in the old convection plates of an alien machinery. This is the science fiction of a predominantly lower-middle class urban culture. This culture was industrially literate in a way that we can never be, for the simple reason that, fifty years on, we now pass this lore, indigested and uncomprehended, on to machines--machines that do for us the jobs sf readers once did. One has the distinct sense that Pohl and Kornbluth could change a fan-belt between them. Can we say as much?
The history of science fiction is much less riven by dispute than its drama-queen critics pretend. Writers simply write into the science of their day. Inner space in the Sixties. Cyberspace in the Eighties. Science fiction falls from grace whenever science falls from off the edge of the public imagination. Political fiction--virtually unheard of in these apathetic times--suffers the same contingent relationship with the real world.
Perhaps there's a crafty little formula buried in there somewhere, if anyone cares to dig it out...
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© Simon Ings 4 November 2000