The Adventurer

July 24, 2011

What could you do, if the solar system were ruled by two dynasties of murderous autocratic dictators? That is, in part, the question posed by C. M. Kornbluth’s The Adventurer.”  The answer is neither what you might expect, nor does it work out quite as planned.

This is a well written story.  My father admires Kornbluth for his humor, and the author’s writing certainly can be funny.  However, it usually tends toward a wry, ironic humor.  In “The Adventurer,” Kornbluth’s wit almost completely ceases to be humorous; the levity is replaced by dark ironies, which recur throughout the story.

The plot skips back and forth between goings-on in Washington (still the capital of an American-derived interplanetary dictatorship) and vignettes from the life of Thomas Grayson.  The cabinet secretaries want to bring down the system, but the violent police state seems to be too entrenched to be defeated by any kind of intrigue.  But when war comes, Grayson is suddenly proven to be the perfect soldier, and he conquers the American empire with ease.    When he arrives on Earth to take command, the cabinet reveals that they had, a generation earlier, set out to manufacture a great leader of men, a conqueror, the “adventurer” of the title.  But they find that, like Alexander, Grayson has a different explanation for what has occurred; he is convinced that he is a god.

As the narrative in this story skips back and forth, there are frequent clues that something is going on, but on a first reading, it’s not at all clear what.  The cabinet certainly has a plan to get rid of the president, and there’s something a bit odd about Grayson’s family.  However, the nature of the conspirators’ machinations took me completely by surprise.  And as soon as that nature has been explained, before there’s really time for the information to sink in, there comes the revelation of Grayson’s megalomania.

Reading through the story again, there are many little events that take on a greater significance.  There are subtle hints that the young Grayson’s family is actually putting on a show for the boy’s benefit.  Other characters who antagonize him and so drive his aggressive tendencies—are they part of the conspiracy as well?  The story doesn’t answer; it just leaves me wondering.

There’s also one more area in which I find Kornbluth’s writing to be particularly effective.  The casual violence of the story can also be quite shocking.  I’m not generally a big fan of military science fiction, although I welcome a certain amount of action.  In “The Adventurer,” the real blood-letting begins about a third of the way through the story.  When the newly ascended president personally machine guns a general who led an attempted coup, it really make the vile villainy of his terroristic regime quite clear.  Grayson, on the other hand, seems like quite a sympathetic character; clearly he has flaws—most particularly a wild temper—but as his military genius takes over, the reader cannot help but cheer for him.  This makes his own callous murderousness at the close of the narrative all the more shocking.

This story also worries me whenever I read it.  I’d like to believe that humans have moved past the point at which a singular individual can upset the stability of our entire civilization.  I’d like to believe that, but Kornbluth’s story suggests otherwise.

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9 Responses to “The Adventurer”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    The story’s non-stop action and overall brevity lead me to enjoy it considerably. I enjoyed CMK’s forward approach and easily sectioned plot (maybe because I was reading the story in between watching monkeys) as much as the rampant irony. The violence easily reminded of something one might see in a modern high-brow graphic novel, and I do mean that as a compliment.

    Additionally, the space setting was flimsy; CMK pretty clearly was uninterested in any hard sci-fi approach to stellar empires in this story. The setting did him considerable service in allowing for the necessary logistics, particularly when the insurrection went down. Nevertheless, I was annoyed by his laziness when it came to fleshing out Io as being anything more than East Germany.

    The climax, the epiphany on Grayson’s origin, is excellent, but the conclusion was too obvious, so obvious in fact, that one had to wonder how the cabinet did not consider that eventuality. Maybe this final lapse in logic kept me from buying too much into the story’s disturbing implications.

    • Buzz Says:

      The real-world political situation that Io reminded me of was actually not that of Berlin (which was divided, with virtually no opportunity to cross from one city to the other; and with East Berliners virtually prisoners) but the division of Beirut in the 1980s, at the height of the Lebanese civil war. There was a line, but no wall; and the people on either side were ardent in support of their factions. Sporadic violence when people ventured on the wrong side of the Green Line was common.

      • Diapadion Says:

        Ah yes, Beirut would be a better comparison. I knew Berlin wasn’t a perfect fit, but I could not think of anything closer at the time.
        And its not like I was going to look it up on the internet or anything.


  2. Was a single individual *ever* able to upset the stability of an entire civilization?

    • Buzz Says:

      That depends on what you mean by “upset the stability” and “civilization,” I suppose. By most reasonable definitions, Mohamed would qualify as having done it, and I can think of a fair number of other plausible examples: Genghis Khan, for example. Certainly, these people weren’t able to do what they did without assistance, but their followers would never have done what they did without this kind of remarkable leadership.


      • Ghengis Kahn was a great leader of men, but he did nothing on his own. The military innovations, tactics, and organization of the Mongols–including an innovative decimal system, and a willingness to fold defeated enemies into their ranks– were necessary to do what he did. He only conquered half of China, but the society kept on conquering after he died–it was many, not one, that made the mongols.

        The case for Mohammed is stronger, but his success required a relative power vacuum in the Mideast, the previous persecution of religious minorities (pagans and the monophysites ) by the Byzantines, and the economic and military ekhaustion of the two great powers bookending the region (the Byzantines, again, and the Sassanids, who ruled Persia; the two fought the last in a disastrous series of wars between 602 and 628 CE–the timing was perfect). Again, it was not one man alone that did the work.

        Another good example might be Napoleon. I don’t have to explain how particular political and social circumstances were necessary for his rise.

        • Buzz Says:

          Certainly, every pivotal figure in history was only pivotal because they happened to appear at the right place and time. But that is no more than the contingent nature of history. There are many, many individuals who might, under the right circumstances, shake the world. Most of them do not. Only a tiny fraction of the tiny fraction of people who might have such a phenomenal impact are in the right place and time to actually change the course of history.

          (The reverse view is the one that, I have realized, was championed by Frank Herbert, especially in the Dune novels. He believed that great men are fundamentally great, and would be wherever and whenever they happened to find themselves. A similar view is espoused by Gordon R. Dickson in Dorsai! These SF novels suggest that the tools necessary for a great hero to conquer will naturally just fall into the hands of such a hero. Merely because he is a hero, the world will reorient itself to fit him.)

          There were certainly factors that made Arabia in the early Byzantine period a likely place for a new power to arise. But there didn’t need to be any important developments there. On the contrary, history is littered with examples of settings in which something revolutionary could easily have happened, except it never did. Particular individuals can make a crucial difference in whether the potentialities of particular geopolitical situation are realized. Mohammed, for example, had a particularly lasting influence, because rather than being a conventional empire builder, he founded a universalist religion that has persisted far longer than his caliphate.

          Genghis Khan was likewise important, because he combined all the military innovations of the Mongol tribes, including some that may have been uniquely his own. Most important was, as you mention, the integration of conquered forces into his own. This was not unheard of before Temujin’s time, but it was never attempted on anything like the scale he achieved.

          Napoleon, I tend to agree, was not very important in himself. It was social, economic, and political changes that suddenly made France so militarily dominant on the European continent. Bonaparte’s skill as a commander certainly added to the French conquests, but his grand empire was fundamentally unsustainable. His lasting impact is often taken to be social, but that is mostly a product of giving him credit for the positive developments of the French Revolution.

  3. retrochef Says:

    I prefer early sci-fi over fantasy; there’s a plot, and there’s commentary on society (more relevant to 50’s politics than modern, admittedly), and there’s a twist. It’s a story instead of a mood piece.

    Kornbluth did a fairly heavy-handed job of extending his social metaphor into the distant future (the Soviets are still the Soviets, and as Diapadion pointed out, we even have Berlin on Io), though, which is something he could have improved. However, I overall liked this very much!

    • Buzz Says:

      It’s funny how Kornbluth does often come across as quite heavy handed. Yet some of his work was, in the 1950s, considered remarkably subtle and groundbreaking. I suppose that goes to show how much the genre has evolved.


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