Not This August (Christmas Eve) (1955) by C. M. Kornbluth

NotThisAugust1Russians don’t scare me any more,” he announced. “You know what I mean. I thought it was the end of the world when they came, but I learned. They’re G.I.s, and so what? (150)

Even the most right-wing of jaded veterans will tell you the U.S. military is one of the most Communist* establishments in existence today. Voluntary enrollment aside, the culture of state paternalism, restricted freedoms, communal living, and shared provisions differs greatly from the capitalist values espoused by the U.S. government. While not a perfect parallel, it’s a sharp observation, and a good reminder that no system is ever “pure,” nor even true to textbook definitions, but it’s an even better reminder that the boundary between the war machine and totalitarianism is a very fine line.

M. Kornbluth’s 1955 Cold War satire Not This August, also titled Christmas Eve, illustrates this idea by depicting a cold-war-turned-hot on the US-Mexico border, where a combined Russian-Chinese army ambushes the overwhelmed American military. The U.S. surrenders, but not before we catch a glimpse of pre-surrender American life, where occupations are assigned, production quotas are enforced, produce is redistributed, and all of American existence is devoted entirely to national priorities.

So, basically, the U.S. has gone all commie in order to fight the commies.

Former commercial artist Billy Justin works on his assigned dairy farm and chats up the cute mail girl while the U.S. political structure crumbles around him. As Russian soldiers occupy his town and his neighbors come out as fifth column insiders, Justin notices that, despite the change in government, things are pretty much the same. His loyalties waver until he witnesses cruel behavior from Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and then, with the help of the mail girl, a paraplegic neighbor, and a recovering amnesiac hospital patient (who might be faking), he plots to regain control of a lost U.S. satellite capable of dropping hydrogen bombs.

NotThisAugust2If not for the title—a quote from an isolationist-flavored interwar editorial by Ernest Hemingway— the label of satire might feel misplaced to some readers. In some places, the story feels like pro-war, anti-Soviet propaganda, but the real purpose in these sometimes mixed-messages is to add nuance to both arguments, and to highlight hypocrisy on both sides: “The 449th Soviet Military Government Unit winked at such rampant capitalism when it was practiced by handy, steady, centrally located Mr. Croley” (126). It shouldn’t take much active reading to recognize patriotic Justin’s discomfort with U.S. policies, particularly regarding the unreported Cholera outbreaks in big cities (22) and the U.S. Farm-or-Fight Law (22, 35), however, a glance at most of the seven, count ‘em: seven, reviews on Amazon indicates that maybe the parallels between Soviet communism and U.S. wartime sacrifices went unnoticed. Even Damon Knight’s review in Science Fiction Quarterly compares Not this August to “the gleet of ‘Yellow Peril’ stories—about an America conquered by the Chinese or Japanese—that ended just before WWII” (Feb. 1956, p. 51). Knight also doesn’t notice that the starvation and oppression begins BEFORE the U.S. surrender.

That modern readers and his contemporaries don’t completely get it is a sign of Kornbluth’s very un-Space Merchant-like subtlety. Kornbluth is no Soviet apologist, so even the couple of shocking scenes portraying the cruelty of the Red invaders might feel like anti-Soviet sentiment to readers unobservant of Kornbluth’s distinctions between the regular-guy ground units and the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs. Yet Kornbluth, a young Futurian prodigy returning to writing after his own war-time deployment, who experienced the winding down of McCarthyism and the ramping up of tensions between the East and the West, witnessed duplicitous rhetoric on both sides of the conflict during those decades. The irony of mid-20th warfare is the cooperation inherent between antagonizing parties, and the contact that inevitably occurs between warring troops. The humanity of “the other” is hard to deny when you’re roughing it beside enemy troops at the behest of impersonal governments. Kornbluth saw all of this and brought that experience home, hence the need for his version to include war on his home soil.

NotThisAugustvariantPublished just six years after Orwell’s seminal 1984 (1949), comparisons are inevitable. It’s been a long time since I’ve read from the literary dystopian canon (and I’ve yet to read Zamyatin’s 1924 We), but Kornbluth is doing something different here. Far from the oppressive, nightmarish overtones of Orwellian and Huxleyian dystopias, Not This August takes a less dramatic approach to the theme: humanizing the enemy while dehumanizing the war machine, poking at irrational fears while unveiling oppression in the quotidian. He likens the Soviet occupation to watching a play from behind a post (50) and applies the average Joe office mantra to nationalism: Different people, same bullshit. When Justin’s sense of nationalism returns after witnessing real brutality from the MIA, he becomes a key player in the insurrection, and discovers too late that the resurrection of Cold War tension will only end in mutually-assured destruction.

NotThisAugust3Besides all that, it’s a standard ‘50s tale that’s more readable and relevant than most. For modern readers, Justin’s attitude swerves away from modern sentiment with his rude treatment of the unfortunately-ditzy mail girl, and his opinions about wartime refugees are alarming, but these slights feel appropriate for this brash, patriotic protagonist at odds with his internalized belief system. Most disappointing is the potentially haunting ending that collapses after an abrupt and confusing action sequence. A glance at reviews suggest the confusion is Pohl’s doing in the Tor-issued 1981 revision.** (Tor!) (And Pohl is no stranger to peculiar endings.)

Ultimately, though, it’s a worthwhile look at the subtle cynicism of an SF satirist/WWII veteran. Though he died only three years after its publication, Kornbluth’s contribution to the Cold War dystopia subgenre feels significant amidst today’s demonstrations of American fear and extremism. If anything, Kornbluth reminds us that, while democratic liberalism, patriotic will, and even American individualism is vulnerable to change, life will go on. And nothing’s more unyielding than rigid bureaucratic systems, e.g. the U.S. postal service.

For another great look at this novel, go check out this review at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

 

*Though definitions tend to morph, this is the capitalized form, most recognizable in mid-20th century governments of combined totalitarianism and socialism, and not the lower-case form most often associated with the late 19th century Paris Communes and later bohemian revivals, nor is it referring to the economic system of socialism, which can be combined with any kind of political system.

**I chose the 1981 copy specifically for Pohl’s introduction, unaware that he had tinkered with the narrative.

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30 thoughts on “Not This August (Christmas Eve) (1955) by C. M. Kornbluth

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    His short fiction contains the same wit and intelligence — and he died at only 34! I want this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’ll keep an eye out for his short fict. It’s such a loss about his death. His incisive thinking was needed during the following decades.

      Like

  2. antyphayes says:

    Just when I was about to take issue with your definition of “Communism” I finally reached your note. Phew!
    Excellent review. I will have to track down a copy one of these days.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      yes, well, since starting this blog, I’ve learned to anticipate issue-taking and either define something at the most pedantic level, or default to less complex terms, which is not something I normally have to do in real life, where people kindly assume I know what I’m talking about and therefore modify their personal definitions to accommodate my argument. And I kindly do the same in turn.

      Like

      • antyphayes says:

        Unfortunately the internet often doesn’t lend itself to communication despite its stated purpose. In fact in this case I believe you handled the question deftly and subtly. I realise this may sound patronising but I certainly intend no offense. I am a longtime scholar of “communism” and have found the usual shorthand is communism=that-shit-that-went-down-in-russia. That you briefly attended to the intricacies of the question is a good sign (of a more general change in opinions perhaps?).
        Did I mention that I like your blog!?

        Like

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I also studied political systems through undergrad and grad school, so I’m not a good sample of mainstream thought. I am hesitantly optimistic to see the word “socialism” becoming more neutrally common in mainstream media, and it seems less likely to spark outright disgust, so yay?

          My few years in the blogosphere have evolved from a paragraph or two of “what I liked” and “what I didn’t like” bullets to “omygod, people take this so seriously I actually have to call on my academic training to do this bullshit?” to “Oh! Judith Merrill did a review in F&SF Mag! Must investigate!” So, while I’m a lot less resentful about these here fannish book review standards than I used to be, I still kinda bristle at the kind of defense I have to put up for a dinky hobby, just because it’s not like an office where I can hang my degrees and share my resume . (I also suspect the girly avatar causes some of the mis-assumptions, but that’s me, too, so whatevs.)

          Your blogs are interesting, too, though they’re slightly harder to get to because your avatar links to a broken site. Found you on the twitter, though 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

          • antyphayes says:

            I don’t get twitter. I don’t mean in a stick shaking grumpy old man way (though there is that too) but because I don’t have a newfangled smart phone. Maybe it’s time to join the rest of the human race…

            For my sins I am still in grad school though I was over 40 when I entered it after doing other stuff. But soon my thesis will be done so I will be able to rededicate myself to my first religion: science fiction.

            Over the last year or two I have begun reading Joachim Boaz, admiral ironbombs and now you. My forays into online sf blogs is fairly recent, and my commenting even more so.

            I love your review of Stand on Zanzibar. I read a lot of John Brunner in my 20s and 30s and SoZ and the Sheep Look Up are two of my favourite novels. Yours are amusing and insightful comments. I look forward to reading more of your work.

            Thanks for the words. And the links are fixed!

            a.

            Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I love and hate twitter. The compulsion to lurk and interact is time-consuming, so it’s off my phone, and I only check in online once or twice a day. Briefly. Which means I never feel fully apprised of things enough to tweet much. But god love Trans Twitter and Black Twitter– they always remind me why social media is a good, important thing, despite all the junk.

            Funny you mention Brunner: I am putting the finishing touches on my next Brunner review- Squares of the City. Should be up later this week… if time cooperates. Preview: needs to address issues of neocolonial capitalism. You’ll appreciate that 🙂

            Sheep Look Up should be my next Brunner, but I’m saving it for later…

            Joachim and Ironbombs have been awesome role models in this silly quest of mine. Glad you enjoy the blog and I’m glad to hear that thesis is nearly over so you can get back to the important things 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Joachim Boaz says:

            Omg, I’m a role model! Thanks Megan 🙂 Wish I had time to write more… I know… the constant refrain. Did just send my first scholarly article off for publication a mere hour ago! So, that’s my excuse.

            Liked by 2 people

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            How exciting! And a very worthy excuse 🙂

            Like

          • As someone who studied a lot of undergrad polisci, yeah, I hear you on the definition of “Communism” — I didn’t see the footnote until I did a double-take, and you almost had me going there for a minute. (My OCD is really specific and pedantic.)

            Your blogs are interesting, too, though they’re slightly harder to get to because your avatar links to a broken site.
            To be fair, when you reply to comments your profile links to “fromcouchtomoondotcom.wordpress.com.” (Which, to beat a dead link, is a dead link.) But yes, antyphayes has fascinating blogs full of great posts!

            I still kinda bristle at the kind of defense I have to put up for a dinky hobby … I also suspect the girly avatar causes some of the mis-assumptions
            Geek hobbies tend to be plain terrible at gender equality and making outsiders feel welcome, from Gamergate to “fake geek girls” and other assorted bullshit… This is probably why your average nerd stereotype is a pasty, acne-scarred, single white guy prone to nerdsplaining and dying alone. There are notable outliers, but there’s a sizable section of SF fandom trapped in the dudebro Trufan mentality that freaks out if someone different wants to play with their toys.

            Joachim and Ironbombs have been awesome role models in this silly quest of mine
            I’m a role model? Oh jeez, no pressure!

            Liked by 1 person

          • antyphayes says:

            Bugger. I meant to reply *here* but instead I replied all the way down *there*…

            Liked by 2 people

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I am so confused. I know my ‘name’ is “fromcouchtomoon” but as far as I can tell, my replies link to that gravatar site, which links to my blog, and not the dead link of my *ahem* practice blog that I screwed up by deleting because I really liked that original address.

            Yeah, communism, yourmommunism. lol. Tomato, tomato… that doesn’t really work in text. But in conversation, no one can hear your capital ‘C,’ so it just comes down to defining things within context. I spent a ridiculous amount of time debating whether I should keep that sentence for fear that I would end up being lectured at in my comments about the nuances of the word communism. Me! Then I’m annoyed with myself for bothering with that footnote. When I say something is ‘cheesy,’ nobody comes around saying, “well, actually, some cheeses are very good, so to which cheese are you actually referring?”

            Anyway, back to more important matters: I completely forgot to link to your Not This August post, which I totally meant to do. What do you think? Do you think people are misinterpreting the novel, or am I giving Kornbluth too much credit? I think your review mentioned it felt a little old-fashioned, and I think you were referring to some of the flag-waving that goes on (and probably the ‘girl’ talk, which seems to be Kornbluth’s favorite word for ‘women.’)

            And yes, role model, even though I can be less formal and more snarky, yours and Joachim’s approaches have definitely shaped my reviews over here 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • I think it’s what WordPress is linking to, not Gravatar—it’s on my notifications toolbar.

            For sure people are misinterpreting the novel! To me, it’s pointing out the irony of the Cold War by having two ideologies do the same things—for Billy, it’s just “same shit, different day.” The flag-waving and the Fifties Casual Misogyny were indeed the old fashioned parts what bugged me. While I don’t doubt Kornbluth’s patriotism, the flag-waving felt more like satirical or to amp up the satire.

            I’ve been meaning to re-read the finale, but I’ve been wondering all year if Pohl’s version ended differently. In the original, there’s the big battle scene and when people ask “It’s over!?”, the general’s all “nah, the Reds will start on their own orbital bombardment satellite in a week, this’ll keep going on and on and there’s always work for people like me.” This is another point where I don’t think most readers “got” the novel, because of Billy’s reaction—I think he’s known for a while that Christmas Eve wasn’t going to end the war, but only accepts that realization now, as he breaks down and prays. Endless war and keeping-up-with-the-Reds seems like a clear anti-Cold War metaphor, and only Billy, Sparhawk, and Betsy seem to realize the madness of this vicious cycle.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Okay, I think I’ve fixed the problem.

            The ending you describe is exactly what happened in my edition. Pohl stated in the intro that he only revised anachronisms, but you never know. The praying was very abrupt, but, like you, I think the experience of travelling with the preacher and being held by the Reds awakened him to how this was going to end.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds so so interesting. Especially in times like these, as you said, “amidst today’s demonstrations of American fear and extremism.” And not just American. I usually love well-down capitalist and Comminist critiques, so thanks for pointing me at this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Oh yeah, Kornbluth is an interesting satirist. This story lacks the dimension and flow of better stories, but it’s just interesting to see how he constructs his argument.

      “And not just American.”

      Here I am, forgetting the rest of the world! I’m so horrified by Donald Trump’s popularity and his idiotic rhetoric, I have completely blocked out global current events.

      Like

  4. Warstub says:

    Fantastic review!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Peter S says:

    It’s interesting to read the contemporary critical reaction of a Sc-Fi book with a political viewpoint from this era. I have the 1956 Bantam paperback edition and on the back cover is a blurb from the Boston Herald:
    “A thrilling and provocative science fiction novel of America crushed in defeat by avowed enemies, and how one man, hardly a hero, turned the tide of survival by fanning a dying spark of defiance.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry, Peter, I missed your comment on this post! I agree it’s really weird that a lot of early readers missed Kornbluth’s subtlety. I agree that contemporary perspectives can color things, but knowing Kornbluth’s penchant for satire and social criticism, this is in no way a straightforward rally around the flag. There are too many subtle incongruities in the novel that don’t fit with that mode.

      Like

      • Peter S says:

        I think perceptions are also affected by how the book is marketed too. A few years later and this may have been shelved in the general fiction section instead of sci-fi. I think Stanislaw Lem didn’t like being considered as a Sci-fi author because of how his books would then be perceived by the reader.

        No problem on the delay, I do it all the time myself.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. marzaat says:

    Nice review. I’ve certainly heard of the title (I may even own it).

    As a slight zeitgeist data point, I have dim memories of some military historian, maybe John Keegan, remarking that the Soviet and American militaries of the Second World War had the most repressive leave and retention policies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry marzaat, I must have missed this comment before. Yes, I think Kornbluth, having just returned from his deployment, noticed those kinds of hypocritical similarities, which probably inspired his thinking for this novel.

      Like

  7. antyphayes says:

    Looking forward to your revue of Brunner. Despite having read a lot of Brunner (he says) I have not read The Squares of the City. Maybe when I get another Brunner hankering (low level at the moment).

    Have fun with Sheep (yep, I actually said that). It’s a cracker. Seems like we are living through it these days.

    admiral, if I may, thanks for your review of the Kornbluth book also. i read it a while back but forgot all about it until just then.

    and thanks you both for the kind words.

    and a confession: i find you all, joachim too, pretty awesome. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I am very much looking forward to Sheep, but I am about to take on a two week streak of 2015 binge reading, followed by a year of Nebula and Hugo 6’s 😉

      Like

  8. unsubscriber says:

    Great piece, I love the Digit cover and its red baiting tagline. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] duty surviving without a hiccup during the Soviet occupation of the U.S. in his Cold War satire Not This August (1955). David Brin also exercises this confidence in the power of postal bureaucracy, imaginary […]

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  10. […] *And by the way! Lifted from Wikipedia: “In 1962, the noted critic Damon Knight stated that “(h)er work is distinctively feminine in tone, but lacks the clichés, overemphasis and other kittenish tricks which often make female fiction unreadable by males”.[34]” There is nothing distinctively feminine about Darkover. And kittenish tricks! My book review index of too many male writers indicates that male writers have cornered the market on cliché and overemphasis. (Has Damon Knight ever written a review that wasn’t completely idiotic? Here’s another example where he misses the mark.) […]

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  11. […] Not This August by C. M. Kornbluth – A story about a Russian takeover of US soil is certainly not something people worry about today (ahem), but this Cold War-era satire isn’t so much knee-jerk alarmist as it is complex and ambiguous. At times flag-wavey, at other times a demonstration of nationalist and militarist hypocrisy, the odd, abrupt ending is worthy of contemplation. […]

    Like

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