1984 – Unexpurgated
1984! Unexpurgated, C. M. Kornbluth, Varinoma Press, Oxnard California, 2001
This novel, generally agreed to be Kornbluth’s finest novel, has a checkered history. It was originally published in 1948 as a four part serial in the science fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction (ASF). The magazine version was sharply edited to remove the “racy” scenes. According to the noted historian of the science fiction, Harry Ackerman Jr., the novel was the subject of substantial infighting by Kornbluth, John W. Campbell Jr., the editor of ASF, and Campbell’s editorial assistant, Kay Tarrant. Campbell was uncertain as to whether he wanted to publish the novel. He recognized the literary merits of the novel – generally considered to several cuts above the quality of the typical science fiction novel – but he had real reservations about its acceptability to the magazine’s readership and even whether it could legitimately be considered science fiction. In turn Kay Tarrant, who acted as the guardian of the magazine’s morality, objected to many of the passages. Kornbluth felt that the cuts that Tarrant wanted seriously impacted the integrity of the novel. Eventually most but not all of the cuts that Tarrant wanted were made.
The conflict over the novel’s “immorality” may seem incomprehensible by today’s standards. It should be remembered that in 1948 publishing standards in general were fairly puritanical. The situation was worse in genre science fiction where the target audience consisted principally of adolescent boys who were precocious but socially backward and sexually repressed. The sex in science fiction of the day was little better than wistful adolescent romantic fantasies.
When it was published it was met with a firestorm both of praise and condemnation. Some readers attacked it as smut. Others attacked it as red-baiting. Many attacked it as not really being science fiction. The third installment of the serial was accompanied by two pages of condemnation and praise by prominent science fiction authors of the day.
Although it was cause celebre within the science fiction world it went unnoticed in the larger literary world. At that time science fiction was simply invisible to the arbiters of literary culture. This is a pity. If the novel had been written by a mainstream author it might well have been a best seller and certainly would have received the attention that it deserved. It would have been recognized as a companion piece to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Indeed, given its English setting, it might well have been written by Orwell himself and, if it had been, surely would have received the recognition that it deserved.
As it is, the novel became one of the many “SF classics”, novels read by a handful of science fiction fans and a source of “fanspeak”, the argot of the science fiction community. The magazine version was published by a specialty house, Gnome Press, in a limited edition. Kornbluth went on to write several science fiction novels including some in collaboration with Fred Pohl. None of these later works matched the brilliance of 1984. Kornbluth’s career was cut short by an early and untimely death.
Approximately fifty years later, a specialty science fiction house, NESFA press, negotiated with the Kornbluth estate to a collection of Kornbluth’s short fiction. During the course of the negotiations the original unexpurgated manuscript was discovered. The estate felt that the novel would sell better if it were published by a respectable literary publisher and eventually placed it with Varinoma Press. This may have been a mistake. It has received critical attention but sales have been modest. The difficulty is that its time has past. Kornbluth created a political dystopia of socialist totalitarianism. It was a warning apropriate in 1948 but merely passe after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has, however, become somewhat of a underground cult favorite and Varinoma Press has commissioned a graphic novel series entitled Ingsoc! starring the adventures of Big Brother battling the evil Emmanuel Goldstein.
This page was last updated September 16, 2001.