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Morons, Marching or Otherwise

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Sometime last week, in response to my post about Fallen Angels, a friend suggested to me that I would like, or get a kick out of or something–I can’t remember how he put it–a short story called “The Marching Morons” by C. M. Kornbluth.

So I sat down and read it, and I have been circling around and around the approach to writing about it on this blog ever since.

I’ve decided that all I can do is say what I think the way I thought it, and let whatever happens, happen.

This was not a “b ad” short story.  On the technical level that really matters to me, it’s a very good one.

It’s good fairly good music of the prose going on, and it’s well constructed (except for one quibble–the change in pt of view after the initial scenes, which IS sort of awkward).

And if this were another kind of post, I might quibble–two people told me how surprised I’d be by the ending, just as two people told me how surprised I’d be by the ending in Fallen Angels. I was surprised by neither, and had anticipated where the story was going by no more than a third to halfway through each one.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t care if I’m surprised by the ending or not.  I read through other people’s posts with lots of spoilers of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I don’t care. 

“Surprised by the ending” is not on the list of requirements for me to think that a work of fiction is good. 

And in this case, it’s so beside the point I wouldn’t know where to go with it if I wanted to.

Because what matters here (for me) is this:  this story is very good, but it is also something that I have found in only one other piece of fictional work.

It’s repellant.

It reminds me, in fact, of the only other story that ever made me feel like this.

That one is “The Kreutzer Sonato,” by Tolstoy.

So don’t you dare start telling me I only feel this way because the Kornbluth story is science fiction. 

I was repulsed by the Tolstoy story long before I knew what science fiction was.

But let me get to the particulars, and the warning–from here on out, spoilers are going to rage across the landscape, and I don’t care. 

There’s no way to explain this without giving away the plot.

The plot, in a nutshell is this:  in a future earth, the smart people have become the slaves of the stupid people, because the stupid people had more children, LOTS more children, and that means they could vote themselves into power.

The smart people are thoroughly and terminally sick of this situation, which they call The Problem, and are desperate to find some means of fixing it.

One day, a man working in an isolated area finds the body of another man sort of flash-preserved.  The flash preserved man is from out time, and in the years since he was accidentally petrified, we have learned ways to fix the condition he’s in and bring him back to life.

The smart people–who do all the work–do indeed bring him back to life, and after they do they explain The Problem to him and ask if he has any ideas about what they could do about it.

Resurrected Man then demands that he be made absolute dictator of all the earth, with statues erected to him everywhere, and if he gets that, he’ll tell them how to fix The Problem.

FWIW, this was when I knew how this story was going to end.  But, like I said, that’s hardly the point.

Resurrected Man gets–or thinks he gets–everything he wants, after which he puts in place a plan to convince the stupid people that theyw ant to relocate on Venus.  This is very successful, and the stupid people rush to sign up for relocation, whereupon they’re delivered into the jaws of death with their disappearances being masked by fake letters and postcards sent to their families talking about how wonderful Venus is.

When enough of the stupid people are dead to make The Problem no long a problem, the smart people push Resurrected Man into a space ship and send him to Venus, too.

Or, you know, fake Venus.

What’s more, they’re delighted with Resurrected Man, because Resurrected Man being a high end stupid person, has just enough cunning to think of things the smart people are not able to think of themselves–like checking with Hitler and the policies of Nazi Germany to figure what to do about the surplus population.

And no, the Tolstoy isn’t about surplus populations.  It’s about a man who has just been let out of prison after a long sentence for killing his wife, who explains why women are so foul and wretched they all ought to be killed.

But my point about “The Marching Morons” is this:  there isn’t a single decent person in the entire thing. 

Not a single one.

There isn’t a single decent suggested point of view on the state of the world or the country. 

The smart people may not have been able to think of Hitler and Company on their own, but they knew who they were, and they had NO compunction about using Nazi tactics to kill off all the stupid people.

The stupid people are the kind of stupid that makes you wonder how they manage to chew gum and walk forward at the same time, and their basic attitude to life is that intelligence and science are dirty conspiracies against them and out to be beaten up if not wiped out.

If the only two choices we have are between these two groups, I’d say nuke the planet and get it over with.

I have read nothing else by this writer.

With Tolstoy, I’d read quite a lot, and Tolstoy’s view of women were spot on with the murderer’s in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” so I knew what I was looking at.

With Kornbluth, there might be something out there somewhere that would mitigate what seems to be the message here–if I could decide on a message, and I can’t quite.

In the meantime….


Written by janeh

March 22nd, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Morons, Marching or Otherwise'

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  1. For the curious, a link to the Wikipedia article on Kornbluth:


    I’m not sure I’ve read anything actually “repellant” since I stopped letting my English teachers pick my reading–SILAS MARNIER and GREAT EXPECTATIONS would certainly qualify–but I’d agree that on my small sample Kornbluth is not big on likeable characters with strong moral codes. Kornbluth’s biggies, other than “Morons” were “Two Dooms” in which a scientist at Los Alamos gets to visit a future in which the United States does not build and drop the atomic bombs, and “The Only Thing We Learn” in which a historical cycle repeats itself while a college lecturer dissects a saga about an earlier iteration. “Morons” especially must have been startling in 1951, when SF tended to be a lot more optimistic about the future. And I loved the Freud.

    Kornbluth was probably entitled to his gloom. He carried a heavy machine gun in the ETO, and he’d be dead of a heart attack at 34. There are stories that he’d turned down drugs which might have helped because they blunted his edge as a writer.

    As for his view of a future of gullible masses, and a ruthless real estate agent and con man capable of leading them to their doom without seeing that his own must follow–well, C. M. Kornbluth was an advertsing man.


    23 Mar 14 at 6:53 am

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