I’ve Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway

Not This August — C. M. Kornbluth

not-this-august-modern

C. M. Kornbluth’s 1955 Not This August is a standalone novel of what was then the near future.

April 17, 1965: the bitter war between the United States and its allies—essentially just Canada by this stage of the war—and the combined forces of People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union ends with a glorious victory! But not for the US. America has been invaded, its armies crushed, its government given no choice but to surrender.

In the aftermath of unconditional surrender, the United States of America is swept away, replaced by the North American People’s Democratic Republic. What this means for former Americans is not clear.


For Billy Justin and the rest of Chiunga County, occupation begins benevolently enough. True, a handful of people are rounded up and shot—the Reds make a point of exterminating their own sleeper agents, lest they put their skills to use against the liberators—and many young men are sent north to the uranium mines, but for the most part, life in peacetime NAPDR isn’t any worse than life in wartime America. At least, not in the beginning.

The Reds have a lot of experience with pacifying newly conquered nations. They put that experience to good use in America. The early stages of the occupation are intended to lull the defeated population into a false sense of security. The long-term plan for America is de-industrialization, depopulation with famine and disease, and finally colonization by the teeming hordes of Eurasia. In a century, it may be as hard to tell there was ever a USA as it is for the people of 1965 to tell that there was once a Cahokia.

Despite the Reds’ best efforts, the American resistance survives: patriots had enough warning to vanish into hiding, taking with them sufficient fissionables to make eighty small bombs. Although he is well aware that he is almost certainly signing his own death warrant, Billy is drawn into the resistance. The underground has set its hopes on a nation-wide uprising. Defeat may be virtually certain, but at least Americans will go down fighting.

Then fate hands Billy a secret that could alter the course of the uprising: the weaponized satellite Yankee Doodle was not destroyed by an invading Chinese horde as the news had claimed. Only a decoy was blown up. The real Yankee Doodle, fully armed, almost ready to launch, is hidden in a secret underground facility not twenty miles from Billy’s farm.

Surrounded by the corpses of the men who knew how to complete and fly it …

 ~oOo~

WOLVERINES! Sorry, wrong story.

I have the 1981 edition of this book, published just a few months too late to qualify for my Tears reviews. For reasons that escape me, Fred Pohl took it upon himself to update a period piece. Unfortunately, Pohl was not sufficiently diligent in his efforts to remove all cues tying this novel to a specific period; the Tor edition has a number of odd little anachronisms.

It’s best not to wonder how the Red Menace got their troops to North America [1]. This is one of two gimmees needed to make the novel work; the other is the existence of missile defence systems that prevented either side from simply nuking the other side into submission [2] or each other into extinction. Without those two assumptions, Kornbluth’s novel cannot work.

Although I doubt Kornbluth intended this, the reader may well think that a major factor in America’s defeat was the decision to pin so many hopes and invest so many resources in the glorious wonder weapon that is Yankee Doodle:

“Well, 1950’s when it began. Nineteen-fifty’s when I went to Clardy and offered my services. Nineteen-fifty’s when all those ads appeared everywhere for engineers, scientists, technicians, toolmakers, mechanics. Remember the deluge?”

He did. Suddenly the United States seemed to have been gripped by a terrible hunger for trained men. It was as if—as if they were being drained off the normal labor supply. He said as much.

“That’s right. And we’re the ones who drained them off. (…)”

American paranoia definitely played a role in America’s defeat: it was the US’s own security measures that managed to kill off almost the entire staff of the underground facility before Yankee Doodle could be launched.

In many ways, this novel is reminiscent of the 1958 story “Two Dooms,” which divides conquered America between the two Axis powers, Japan and Nazi Germany. Not This August is the more pessimistic of the two. The time-travelling protagonist of “Two Dooms” is able to prevent the future he sees; Not This August delivers a victory that can only be followed by either genocide on a massive scale (if Yankee Doodle uses its two continent-killing cobalt bombs on Eurasia) or temporary peace that will be followed by the development and deployment (by both sides) of more advanced versions of Yankee Doodle.

Kornbluth’s cynicism extends to the fate of true believers. Eager Communists like the Bradens earn a sad reward for their efforts for the Cause:

The Marshal said to the General: “The first thing we’ve got to do is get rid of the damn Red troublemakers.” And so it trickled down to “Pliss to expedite delivery of these, Mr. Postmahster,” and so the Bradens got their summons and, unsuspecting, were taken down-cellar and shot because, as Braden knew, those Reds were very smart cookies indeed. They knew, from long experience, that you don’t want trained revolutionaries kicking around in a country you’ve just whipped, revolutionaries who know how to hide and subvert and betray, because all of a sudden you are stability and order, and trained revolutionaries are a menace.

It’s shop owner Floyd C. Croley, motivated purely by self-interest and greed, who prospers in wartime, occupation, and after the uprising.

“Two Dooms” ends on a hopeful note. Billy, on the other hand, sees much to regret in the fragile peace on which Not This August  ends.

Not This August is very much out of print. Americans will want to consult their local used bookstore. Be wary of alert commissars! Canadians [3] can look to Gutenberg Canada.

Feel free to comment here.

1: At least this is too early for Kornbluth to have blamed Quebec for hosting Red troops.

2: The Reds did manage to nuke Chicago and Pittsburgh. Given that the resistance has several dozen pocket nukes and the only enemies they can reach are the ones on US soil, more Americans will end up atomized by other Americans than were zapped by the Reds.

3: Speaking of Canada, this novel was originally serialized in MacLeans, which is the dull-witted Tory version of Time or Newsweek. I had no idea they ever had a fiction section. If I had known this was serialized by a Canadian publication, my guess would have been Star Weekly.


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