Monday, September 23, 2013

Gladiator-at-Law by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl

It was with some sadness that I learned of the recent passing of Frederik Pohl; a friend of mine pointed it out to me, and it was in the news once I looked.  I will admit that my first reaction was actually to be a little surprised that he was even still alive – he was 93 years old, after all. 

Nonetheless he’d actually published something as recently as 2011, so he was still in the game, and although I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Pohl fan, I think anyone who’s a fan of the genre has to recognize that his death (and Jack Vance’s, in May of this year) definitively closes the book on the Golden Age of SF.  Admittedly the Golden Age brought forth a lot of crap, but there were some diamonds in there too, and that’s just the nature of every age.

It was just a coincidence that I happened to pick this up on the discount shelf of the used book store two days before his death, and it was more for Kornbluth’s byline than Pohl’s that I got it in the first place.  But these two did write some good stuff together, and in memory of the man I moved it to the top of my queue.  Otherwise I’d have to go reread Gateway or something, and I’d just as soon not; too much Freudianism in there for my tastes.

One of my other reviews tackled Wolfbane, which was another collaboration by these same authors which had its moments but wasn’t really very good on the whole.  I’d have to say the reverse about Gladiator at-Law – it’s got some low points but on the whole was actually quite impressive.  I don’t think it’s been in print since 1986, so good luck finding a copy, but maybe they’ll do a Pohl legacy retrospective edition or something.

The protagonist, Charles Mundin, is a recently graduated attorney who’s defending small time crooks in an effort to keep his doors open.  He’s got potential, but unlike many 50s – 60s era SF protagonists he’s no superman and he’s not omnicompetent.  We’re introduced to him as he first tries to get his sad sack client to plead guilty and then absolutely fails to provide him an effective defense.  We then learn that he’s only got clients in the first place due to some small-time political connections he has, and that failure to pay his student loans may very well leave him out on the street.  He’s then at a party where he talks to a friend of his who inherited his father’s fat-cat corporate law firm; although Mundin helped his friend get through law school (it took eight years!) it’s the friend who’s getting a $125,000 fee for appearing at one hearing for a corporate merger and acquisition.  The merger’s been going on for decades and the hearing was to grant a four year extension - the friend expresses hopes that he’ll be able to pass it down to his son when the time comes.

As an attorney myself I found this bleakly hilarious, and it’s also a great example of showing.  Wolfbane was full of narrative telling you how the characters felt about stuff, but this one is much better about just putting Mundin in a situation with some pretentious asshole and letting you draw your own conclusions.  Before you know it, Mundin’s gotten mixed up with a pair of siblings who just might have a major minority stake in the corporation that makes the “bubble houses” that everyone aspires to, and which may or may not actually run the world.  Before you know it Mundin has to enter into the wretched hive of scum known as the stock exchange and try to buy one share.

To keep everyone’s minds off the fact that there’s really no social mobility and the financial system is just a giant casino, there are organized gladiator games, some of which are in fact as deadly as you’d imagine, others of which are more like American Gladiators.  However, I’m sure if anyone actually did that tightrope-walking over piranha tank stunt that it would get a million hits on YouTube.  I was sort of thinking that Mundin would be forced into a life of combat based on the title, but that’s really not how it goes – this book is maybe 150 pages, there isn’t any time for that sort of thing, as it turns out.

There are a lot of observations in this book that ring true, and some of the elements that you can tell that Kornbluth and Pohl were trying to take up to 11 have really come to pass.  Mundin isn't any better of an attorney when he's got a fancy office but the surroundings make him be taken seriously.  So, I liked it.  For such a short book it kind of dragged in places, though, and some of that 50s stereotypical prose can be a little flat or a little condescending.  Still, very interesting, Pohl was a master for a reason.

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