Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
The Schmooze

Cyril Kornbluth’s Postwar Dystopias

Readers of the intelligently edited anthologies “Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy & Science Fiction” and “More Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Outstanding Stories of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction,” both from Jewish Lights Publishing, are aware that the postwar development of the sci-fi genre was to a large extent a Yiddishe invention.

Alongside still-famous writers like Isaac Asimov (born Isaac Yudovich Ozimov); Harlan Ellison; and Robert Silverberg are still under-appreciated talents like Cyril Kornbluth (1923 –1958); subject of a welcome new biography from McFarland Publishers.

Of Polish Jewish origin, Kornbluth, a native New Yorker, was the nephew of the eminent London Yiddish theater manager Nathan Isaacovitch. Kornbluth was a teen prodigy sci-fi writer before joining the infantry during World War II. As Asimov wrote in 1941, “The world is sufficiently horrible today for escape to be found in screwiness [i.e. fantasy fiction] rather than horror.” After the war, Kornbluth, having witnessed firsthand the sufferings of newly liberated concentration camp prisoners, began to publish a series of pulp novels under pseudonyms as well as sci-fi written alone and in collaboration.

Such unsparing tales as “The Marching Morons” (1951) recount how so-called intelligence bows to fascism, and Nazi crematoria meld with atomic bombs in an apocalyptic view of the future. Other futuristic stories like “The Mindworm,” deal with mutants, while “The Little Black Bag” features alcoholism and murder.

The literary agent Virginia Kidd called Kornbluth a “strict Jewish moralist,” and his novel “Not This August” posits an America defeated by the combined forces of Russia and China, with visions of camp prisoners like those whom he encountered in wartime Europe. Doubtless Kornbluth would have further explored such themes, but he died tragically young, at age 34, of a heart attack brought on by overexertion. His literary legacy fits in with a gritty school of postwar Jewish sci-fi writers who refuse to envision a sunny Utopian future for mankind, given the grim lessons of recent history.

Watch Cyril Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag,” as adapted for TV in 1952 on the series “Tales of Tomorrow”:

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.